It's a growing multi-billion dollar segment of the global sports industry, but is the Middle East's mixed martial arts scene at risk of losing its biggest fighters to low pay?
For every minute he spent knocking down his opponent at the UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi, Khabib Nurmagomedov became $500,000 richer.
“We aren’t fighting for peanuts,” his father told reporters. “We know our value.”
With the $6m pay check he took home, the Middle East’s favourite fighter could have bought a lifetime’s worth of peanuts.
And his win was no surprise. Thirty year old Nurmagomedov, a native of Russia’s Dagestan, has maintained a perfect record of 28 wins and no losses.
UFC President Dana White called him “pretty special” while executive vice president Lawrence Epstein said the win will give a “huge” boost for the Middle East’s fighting community.
But for the vast majority of MMA fighters who are based in the Middle East, payouts like Nurmagomedov’s are little more than a pipe dream.
Dubai-based Russian-Lebanese fighter Roman Wehbe knows all about fighting for peanuts, or $1,500 to be exact.
“Most of the guys that are active fighters here are trainers in gyms or freelancing to pay for their lifestyle. The fighter is very poorly paid,” he says.
Wehbe, who stands at 5”10 and weighs in at an imposing 120kg, is one of the Middle East’s top heavyweights, having started in combat sports in the underground world of bare-knuckle fights in the United Kingdom. He took part in his first MMA fight in 2006 and has since stepped into the octagon 15 times.
He says the highest pay check for most fighters working with local promoters in the GCC is approximately $3,000 per fight.
“If [a win] doesn’t happen, they’ll walk away with $1,500. That’s not a lot”.
Whereas local fighters are eligible for a $500 submission or performance bonus, the UFC’s performance bonuses alone amount to $50,000 – four of which were handed out following the Abu Dhabi event.
For each of the sport’s millionaires like Nurmagomedov or Irish arch-rival Conor McGregor, dozens, if not hundreds, of fighters barely scrape by, forced to prepare for fights while juggling the demands of a second job, devoid of the lucrative contracts, hefty bonuses and training opportunities that MMA’s minority of stars depend on.
The UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship, is the sport’s most prominent promotion company. What began in 1993 as an obscure and bloody spectacle to find out which fighting styles would win over others – and in which the only rules were that fighters couldn’t bite or gouge each other’s eyes out – has morphed into a global behemoth, with over 40 events a year and a following of millions around the world.
In 2001, the still-fledging UFC was sold to Station Casino executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta for $2m, before Endeavor Group Holdings bagged it for $4bn in 2015. Three years later, UFC’s White claimed the company was worth a whopping $7bn.
Yet even at the pinnacle of the sport, the majority of the fighters on the UFC’s fight cards are making far less than stars like Nurmagomedov.
Websites such as The Sports Daily estimate that several undercard fighters at UFC 242 earned as little as $13,500.
While the UFC is just one of many promotion companies in the sport, it is conspicuously lacking in Middle East-based fighters. Of the ones at UFC 242, only one – German-Moroccan Ottman Azaitar – is based in the MENA region in far-off Rabat.
The absence of regional fighters from the UFC means it is more difficult for those like Wehbe to pursue opportunities. Ahead of a fight, or sometimes almost the same day as the event, Dubai-based Wehbe has to work up to eight hours a day and train for at least three or four hours. It’s not the training that’s the problem, he says, it’s the recovery process.
“You’re not getting that since you’re putting time into work, so you aren’t really benefitting from the training itself. If you’re not recovering, you can’t train as hard the next day, and the day after that,” he says.
Dubai-based Rafat Shawi, a former member of Iraq’s national Karate team, shares Wehbe’s concerns and says companies will sponsor fighters with products rather than pay like “a food company that gives you their food...
“The risks you take in MMA are very high; much higher than in boxing or any other sport, but the money is not really there.
“If you’re lucky, you’ll find a way to get paid in cash, but most of the sponsors will sponsor you to promote their product… You don’t really find those sponsors who give you cash,” he says.
According to both Wehbe and Shawi, promoters overestimate the potential profit from fights, run out of funds and ultimately disappear.
“[Promoters] invest and invest, and if the return doesn’t quite happen, they tend to go bust. They run out of financial bankrolling. They tend to put money into these things thinking they can make it grow, but sometimes maybe there is no return. That’s where they fail,” he says.
Amman-based MMA promotion Desert Force abruptly halted operations in 2017 with no prior notice just weeks ahead of a scheduled event, leaving fighters with no contracts, while Beirut-based Phoenix Fighting Championship has also been liquidated.
Representatives of both organisations were contacted by Arabian Business for a comment, but did not respond at the time of printing.
In 2015, Bahraini army officer and royal Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Khalifa offered an unexpected boost to the industry with the launch of KHK MMA alongside veteran fighter Mohammed ‘The Hawk’ Shahid as its CEO.
Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad, who is the son of Bahraini Ruler King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, is a graduate of the UK’s prestigious Sandhurst military academy and has a particular penchant for MMA.
In 2016, together with Shahid, he launched Manama-based MMA promotions company Brave Combat Federation (BRAVE CF), which now claims to be the Middle East’s largest of its kind with operations in Dublin, Sao Paulo and Mumbai, holding events around the world in Abu Dhabi, London, Colombia and more.
“It started with a question,” Shahid says. “Why [don’t] MMA athletes live the lives of normal athletes, whether from football, tennis or cricket? Why don’t we try to give resources to MMA athletes - [which] any other athlete would get - [in order for them] to perform at the best of their abilities?”
Shahid says the answer lies in marketing, whereby the better fighters are at marketing themselves, the more support and pay they receive.
“It’s a tough sport, and it’s an English-speaking sport. If you can’t market yourself, and aren’t a person that can go trash talk or doesn’t know the English language, you’re going to be in a little bit of trouble, no matter how much talent you have,” he says.
KHK MMA, which also operates beyond the Middle East, was Nurmagomedov’s temporary team following his ligament injury, with the champion having publicly credited the organisation for helping rehabilitate him.
Shahid believes providing that same support, including full-time training and international promotions, to Middle East fighters would not only boost their performance but also increase the popularity of MMA in the Arab world.
“Somebody has to take the responsibility for any other factor than the talent that it takes an athlete to be where he wants to be. That’s the unfair side of MMA we see today. If you really make MMA an actual sport, you’ll get 10 times better performances and athletes can reach wherever they want…” he says.
Shahid suggests MMA could grow to become as popular as football in the Middle East.
“We could have a Messi in MMA from this region. This will make them more valuable. We think it would be able to create more international stars from regional stars just by [them] fighting,” he says.
Luckily for those fighters whose ultimate goal is to become international fighters with promotion companies like the UFC,there is progress.
In April this year, the UFC signed a five-year partnership with the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT Abu Dhabi) to host events in the capital, with executive vice president Esptein revealing that he has high hopes for regional fighters, particularly following Nurmagomedov’s win in the UAE capital.
“We’ve done events here in the past, bringing in global UFC stars, and that’s been very successful. But having an athlete that’s both a star and has a local following is even better. He’s a Muslim athlete and has spent a lot of time in the region. That makes him really attractive here. Our goal is to expose as many people to the sport of MMA and the UFC brand. Having an athlete cut through and that gets people interested in a particular region is going to help us accelerate that growth,” he says.
The UFC’s White also expects a Middle East champion in the next six-seven years. “It happens everywhere we go, it kick-starts the market, gyms pop up, and people are training. Talent is coming out of the area,” he says.
It helps that the UFC promotes local events through digital platform FightPass on its mobile app, and increasingly invites global fighters to visit and train at its $14m, 2,787 sq m UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas or sister facility in Shanghai.
“You’re going to see more and more investment from the UFC in terms of helping athletes develop their skills, get better at strength and conditioning, and provide nutritional assistance and the like to make sure these athletes have the best resources and best training to ultimately reach their potential,” Epstein says.
But the UFC alone is not capable of hosting the number of events needed to sustain a profitable MMA industry in the Middle East, according to Epstein.
“The biggest challenge we have with the UFC is that frankly we can only do a certain number of events per year. We’re going to do 42 events in 2019, which is a lot when there are only 52 weeks. The challenge of being capacity constrained is something we have to deal with.”
The solution? Local promoters “filling the gaps and giving talent the opportunity to hone their skills,” Epstein says.
For now, fighters like Rafat Shawi say they are willing to take the beating for the love of the sport. “Maybe I was seeking adrenaline more than anything else. It’s about testing myself. The feeling when you go into the octagon is amazing, especially if you win. We’re not doing it for the money.”
It seems that the low pay and absence of sufficient local promoters is not enough to steer Middle East fighters away from MMA just yet.
“I love it and I’ll never regret doing it,” says Shawi.
According to official UFC pay structures which took effect in 2018 – which manages the money generated by a multi-year sponsorship deal with Reebok – fighters who have previously fought one – three bouts receive $3,500 in fight week incentives per appearance, compared to $4,000 for those with four – five bouts, $5,000 for six – 10 bouts, $10,000 for 11-15 bouts, $15,000 for 1-20 bouts, and $20,000 for 21 bouts or more. Additionally, champions earn $40,000 while title challengers earn $30,000. The payouts also note that UFC fighters will receive in perpetuity royalty payments totalling 20 to 30 percent of UFC merchandise that bears their likeness. The figures do not include other pay that fighters may have received, such as pay-per-view broadcasts and other sources.
The payout tiers only count fights that have taken place in the UFC, as well as in fights previously held in World Extreme Cagefighting in 2007 and Strikeforce, a now-defunct MMA organisation, after 2011. As Reebok is the UFC’s exclusive apparel partner, fighters cannot be sponsored by other entities during fights, fight week, and weigh-ins.
In 2017, then 24-year old fighter Mohammad Yahya became the first Emirati to sign for an international promotion – California-based Bellator – with a four-fight contract. After winning his first Bellator fight in 2017 and being sidelined by injury, Yahya returned in May 2019, when he suffered a loss at an event in Birmingham, UK.
In a TV interview with American sports reporter Graham Bensinger in 2016, UFC President Dana White defended the UFC’s payouts to fighters, saying it is “on par” with other professional sports leagues.
“If you’re the champion or a big star, usually your deal is to be cut into the pay-per-view. You’re a partner with us,” he said. “Every time we put on a pay-per-view, we’re rolling the dice. We don’t know what’s going to happen. When we hit a home run, they hit a home run too. Trust me, these guys are making a lot of money.
“The opportunities today are like playing in the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball.”