Former fighters at the Ultimate Fighting Championship are fuming over multimillion-dollar payments recently handed out to the league’s rich and famous investors.
A main target of their ire is UFC’s president, Dana White, a hulking, 50-year-old former boxer whose generous tipping habits have reportedly “changed people’s lives.”
As The Post reported earlier this month, roughly $300 million — the lion’s share of UFC’s $350 million cash reserve — is going to one-time dividend payments to the company’s star-studded list of investors, which includes actor and producer Mark Wahlberg, actress Charlize Theron and model Gisele Bündchen.
White, who has been running UFC since 2001, is on track to receive more than $3 million from the windfall, sources told The Post.
That’s sticking in the craw of former UFC fighters suing the company, who note White’s reputation for lavish spending. According to a 2012 report by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, White tipped dealers more than $100,000 during a two-month hot streak at Vegas’ Palms Casino Resort.
“I heard about Dana tipping a waitress $10,000 and that was my wage as a fighter,” said former UFC fighter Kyle Kingsbury. “I lived in my mom’s garage and I had two jobs when I was fighting in the UFC. I was a personal trainer and a bouncer [and] bartender in a strip club.”
Kingsbury is one of three former fighters currently seeking class-action status for a lawsuit that accuses the cage-fighting empire of engaging in anticompetitive practices to drive down their pay, including forcing fighters into long-term, exclusive contracts.
Ruling on the way
The question of whether fighters’ pay is being unfairly capped currently rests with Las Vegas federal judge Richard Boulware, who is expected to soon decide whether to grant them class certification. If the judge rules in their favor, some 1,200 current and former UFC fighters could join the suit, lawyers said. If the judge rules against the fighters, it will likely kill the suit.
UFC has argued in court papers that the ex-fighters’ anti-competitive claims are bogus — and that even if they were valid it would be an issue for the Federal Trade Commission, not a jury. UFC has also argued that there are five competing mixed martial arts leagues.
“UFC pays its fighters more than any other MMA promoter,” a UFC spokesperson told The Post. “We are proud of the company we’ve built and we are confident in our legal position.”
Fighters complain that UFC restricts their ability to make money in other ways, including by keeping the lion’s share of the pay-per-view revenues — unlike boxing, which often promises the vast majority of pay-TV revenues to the purse, or prize money given to the fighters.
By contrast, the fighters call the UFC’s payments “flat money,” because there’s no upside for them, even if their fights help make UFC rich.
After losing a bout to Conor “Irishman” McGregor in less than a minute in January, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone revealed that he didn’t get a dime more than the $200,000 he was promised in his contract.
“Hahahahah 7-10 million,” Cerrone responded to a follower on Instagram. “I didn’t get PPV money. What the world thinks and what really happens is so different. I made flat money.”
The UFC spokesperson denied that Cerrone received only $200,000 to fight McGregor, who made at least $3 million from the fight, but declined to provide specifics.
The UFC also put The Post in touch with Cerrone’s manager, Josh Jones, vice president of sports marketing and entertainment firm KHI Management, who said Cerrone “got compensated tremendously. Multiple times more than $200,000, a lot more than $200,000.”
The manager said the 6-foot fighter was “paid in many different ways,” including through UFC’s sponsor Reebok, but offered no details.
But fighters say compensation from corporate sponsorships has been severely crimped since UFC cut a six-year sponsorship deal beginning in 2015 with Reebok for $70 million. The deal meant fighters could no longer advertise their own sponsors in the octagon — a practice that had previously been helping to pay the bills.
In exchange for wearing Reebok gear, fighters under the new deal are paid on a tiered system starting at $2,500, according to ESPN. Champions receive $40,000, the report said.
Fighters also claim they have been told to play along with the UFC’s rules or be blacklisted. Ex-UFC fighter Cung Le says he was paid $5,000 for every episode in which he was the coach in the TV show “The Ultimate Fighter: China.”
And when he asked for more, White told him he had to accept it or would “be sitting on the bench,” Le said.
At one point between shows, Le’s wife needed surgery and he asked to “spend a few days with her” before being shipped off to China for the next round of taping, he said.
The UFC denied his request, saying they had to start taping immediately, Le said.
“I had to leave right after her surgery though she spent a week in the hospital and there was no one to watch the kids,” Le said.
“I went to China as asked and the show didn’t even get shot for a week,” he added.
Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell — the CEO and executive chairman, respectively, of Endeavor, the Hollywood entertainment conglomerate that owns half of UFC — are also getting more than $3 million each from the $300 million dividend.
Endeavor, which sources say is in need of cash following a flopped 2019 initial public offering, will be getting a UFC-fueled cash infusion of roughly $150 million. Endeavor officials have denied that the UFC dividend has anything to do with the failed IPO.
Meanwhile, the money that fighters receive to step into the ring is often eaten away by expenses, as ex-fighter Nate Quarry explained, using as an example his 2005 fight for the UFC middleweight championship at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
“I’m the main event,” Quarry said. “I’m doing all sorts of promotion.
“My show money was $10,000 with a $14,000 bonus for winning,” he said of the event, which had total gate revenue of $2 million, according to the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Rich Franklin knocked him out in one round. After expenses, including a trainer, he was left with $5,000.
“I would have made more money had I stayed in construction,” Quarry said.
After the championship bout, Quarry was diagnosed with a degenerative disc disease from fighting. White urged him to get the surgery done in Vegas, where the doctors are top-notch. Quarry told White he had no money, and White said the UFC would pay.
“That was a life-changer. I will eternally be grateful to Dana White for that,” Quarry said. “But if I was paid more as a fighter, I wouldn’t have to ask for help.”
In addition to blasting White, Kingsbury said he’s also disappointed that none of UFC’s celebrity investors has spoken out for the fighters given that they, as actors, benefit from unionization.
“That’s the hypocrisy of the whole thing. They play blind, deaf and dumb,” he said, referring to the actors. “Their silence is deafening.”
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