John S. Nash at Bloody Elbow did a great write-up titled “Why do boxers make more than MMA fighters?” The very thorough article interviews multiple managers, fighters, and business figures in the combat sport landscape.
Fights like Mayweather-Pacquiao, where both fighters made a few hundred million dollars, can skew the data. MMA fighters have a much higher floor pricing, with many UFC prelim fighters making $10,000 compared to boxers who sometimes only make $1,500. The median payout for boxing and MMA fighters still favored boxers:
While it is readily apparent that most athletes from both sports make very little, with the mode being only $1,000, it appears as if MMA fighters on average are worse off than their boxing counterparts. Of the 1,320 boxing purses we looked at, 299 (or 23%) of them were for $1,000 or less, while of the 826 MMA fighter purses 400 (48%) were for $1,000 or less. Even though MMA fighters payouts made up only 38% of the total collected they were 57% of all prizefighters that were paid $1,000 or less on a bout.
The reverse was mostly true as well, with a much higher number of boxers occupying the very top of the pay ladder. Of the top 100 purses, those making $116,000 or more, 68 were paid to boxers. Of the 19 biggest purses, all were paid to boxers. The highest reported MMA purse was Anderson Silva and his $800,000 from UFC 183, which was tied with three boxers for 20th place on our list of highest paid purse.
One of the leading theories as to why boxers make more than MMA fighters is that transparency leads to higher fighter pay. As a principle, boxers tend to keep 70% of the revenue from their fights. It is unknown exactly what percentage MMA fighters make from their fights, largely because the MMA promotions aren’t subject to the Muhammad Ali Act.
The UFC focusing so much on their brand has been a huge factor in their success. Their popularity in terms of Google searches has surged past a general search for “MMA.” Their popularity has created a stronger form of leverage over UFC fighters in that UFC fighters need the UFC more than the UFC needs them. Thus, the UFC is able to decrease fighter pay. As Gary Shaw said in the article, “If you are the only gas station in town you can charge whatever you want.”
Boxing promotions do not dominate the rights to the best fighters in the way that the UFC does and the revenue disclosures that the promoters have to make to the boxers gives the boxers more information to better bargain on pay. If the Muhammad Ali Act was extended to cover MMA we would most likely see fighter pay increase as a result of more transparency.