What does it really cost to be an MMA fighter? (Part 1)

lytlemoneyI think even the top level fighters in the UFC would tell you that being a fighter is a labor of love. In addition to working their bodies as hard as possible nearly everyday, the toll that being a fighter takes moves beyond the physical and mental into the financial. While I’m sure many of you have often asked yourself this question, I wanted to provide a bit of insight into the topic that I’ve gained from my own experience as a former fighter manager (mostly local and regional level fighters), and chatting with friends and colleagues in the industry. This two-part series article is meant simply to give you a bit more insight into the life of fighters, and not just fighters in the top promotions but on the regional level as well.

Let’s start with some obvious stuff. Training camps cost money. Whether it be in the form of a percentage taken from the fighter’s purse that is paid to his/her coach or trainer or in the form of a flat fee for gym dues, camps cost money. Outside of that, think about a top level fighter preparing for a big UFC fight or a championship bout – many times, they will bring in training partners from other camps or specific disciplines to help them prepare for a specific opponent. This, too, costs money. Despite the large berth of talent that many gyms have to draw from, not every gym may have an All-American wrestler; not every gym may have one or more black belts in BJJ; not every gym may have a boxing coach that’s worked with fighters on the national and international levels – you get my point.

Now think about that from the perspective of a regional fighter. While not every fighter on the regional level is going to face someone with a specific skillset they need to train for, many of these local fighters want to fight at the higher levels and are constantly working to improve their game. When they can’t get something at their own gym, they’ll often cross-train at another local gym or set of gyms – in addition to fees paid for those training opportunities, the fighters will often have to pay for gas or transportation to and from these locations. Even one trip a week for each of the eight weeks of a typical fight camp can add up.

Those costs are for the training camps themselves – there is of course an added cost for the equipment needed to properly train – boxing gloves, MMA gloves, headgear, groin protection, various pads, handwraps, tape – you name it, and it’s another cost. While some fighters do enjoy sponsorships from companies that produce training gear, many (especially on the regional level) do not, and so the fighters must endure these expenses themselves. It’s not uncommon to see regional fighters, when talking about sponsorship needs on Facebook or Twitter, to state that the money will go to training camp, gear, and costs of medical exams (we’ll talk about medical exams in Part 2).

How do the fighters sustain the energy to make it through these multiple daily training sessions? Food and nutritional supplements. Recently, at the higher levels of the sport, you may have seen a fighter or two that has an actual food sponsor that will prepare and send them meals, and supplement sponsors are no stranger to the MMA industry – MusclePharm is one of the main sponsors of the UFC, Gaspari Nutrition used to be one of Ronda Rousey’s main sponsors, and Onnit has made waves in the recent years as the go-to supplements of choice for a number of fighters and even UFC commentator Joe Rogan. Of course, that’s just three companies – there are hundreds. At the higher levels of the sport, these sponsorships certainly come easier – take a look at your favorite fighter’s Instagram or Twitter page and before and during each of their fight camps, you’ll likely see pictures of the supplements they receive, how they work them into their daily diet and so on.

On the regional levels, there are a number of fighters that are able to obtain supplement sponsorships simply due to the large number of companies out there wanting to get into the sport. Some of these companies certainly have more staying power than others – I once obtained a supplement sponsorship for one of my fighters who had a televised fight for a good-sized regional promotion. The company sent the fighter enough supplements to last for the entire eight week training camp, the fighter was happy, the company was happy with the exposure they got in the form of social media posts by the fighter and banner and fight gear exposure on the televised event despite the fact the fighter lost the fight. The company contacted me after the fight and asked to sponsor the fighter for his next fight, to which we quickly agreed. But two months later when the fighter’s next televised fight was booked, both myself and the fighter were shocked to learn that the supplement company had suddenly gone out of business. I found my guy a new supplement sponsor but this was one that gave the fighter far less supplements, so the fighter had to spend money to buy more to complete his training camp.

Keep in mind, even cases like that are few and far between. Most regional and local fighters would be hard pressed to find anything in the area of a supplement sponsor if they are not fighting on a televised event or in an area where the particular sponsor may not have a retail location that would make the sponsorship worth it. And those are just supplements! Something like a food sponsor on the local level is unheard of, and even for national level fighters, is a rarity, so most fighters have to pay for their food out of pocket. With as much as they must eat to keep their energy up, these costs add up quickly, and for most local and regional fighters, just the amount they spend on food will dwarf what they’re being paid for the fight.

As MMA has grown in popularity, so has the knowledge base available to fighters. Certainly more now than five years ago, fighters have access to knowledge about nutrition that wasn’t widely available before. Even at local promotions where the weigh-in may be taking place in a smoke-filled bar, after the weigh-ins are over, you don’t see as many fighters chowing down on pizza or whatever fast food they can get their hands on – they’re rehydrating in a smarter manner and eating food consistent with a smarter diet. But as most nutritionists or even people who have simply gone on a diet will tell you – eating healthy isn’t cheap. They also have more access to anabolic steroids information so they can make a more informed decision.

Even the food preparation itself costs – not so much in money but in time. If the fighter must prepare the food for him or herself, that can take a significant amount of time. Most fighters wouldn’t even blink telling you that to prepare food for a week will take an entire day.

Add to these costs, the cost of any additional measures taken after weighing in. Some fighters will get IVs to help with the rehydration process and some fighters will even do things like acupuncture to make sure they are feeling their best by the time they step in the cage. If the fighter doesn’t have someone on staff who is qualified to administer an IV, paying someone to do that adds an extra expense as well.

That’s all for Part 1 – keep an eye out in the coming days for part two where I talk medical tests, event travel and fight gear!

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