In large and small ways, unregulated capitalism controls every aspect of an MMA fighter’s life. Mixed martial arts presents itself as the free market of martial movements and strategies, but due to the structure of incentives and punishments (much like all free markets), even choices such as how a fighter fights—whether they kick, punch, or grapple—are influenced by the UFC. When an athlete is looking for knockouts, and thus risking being knocked out, the UFC rewards them with post-fight bonuses (on and off the record), and favorable marketing. If an athlete fights “too strategically,” in the opinion of the UFC, they can be cut, put on the shelf, forced to fight for less pay, forced to fight while injured, lose coverage for training-related injuries, given mismatches and last-minute fights (to lose), and placed in early prelim fights so that if they do win, no one notices.

One of the early criticisms of the UFC, made famous by former Senator John McCain, was that it was nothing more than “human cockfighting.” When Dana White and Zuffa, LLC bought the UFC in 2001 from SEG, they implemented rules to make MMA appear more like boxing and less like a violent spectacle. Since regulators were already familiar with professional pugilism, this gave the UFC an air of legitimacy. MMA was now ostensibly a sport.

UFC President Dana White, whose own net worth was last measured at $500 million. photo: Andrius Petrucenia

The explicit rules were changed to give the impression of reducing the violence, yet in truth, this gave cover for the UFC to introduce perverse incentives that added the violence right back. It was only then that the UFC was able to take control of the fights away from the fighters, and place it into their own hands. As far as control of fighter autonomy, it is more akin to human cockfighting now than it has ever been.

There is no independent regulating body the UFC answers to—state commissions only enforce state regulations, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) works for the UFC. If there were an independent regulating body, they would never allow such a disruptive incentive structure because it would create unnatural and artificial behaviors. The game would be rigged, no longer sports but sports entertainment. Imagine watching a video game where players one and two were both played by the same person?

The UFC is a monopoly in the most real sense—no one can tell it what to do, it maintains complete control, including owning the majority of the MMA market and influencing all other fight promotions. Just like all other free markets, there is no market solution preventing monopolies, cronyism, exploitation, or behavior control. If you think of the UFC (or any private entity) as a government, then it’s an absolute authoritarian dictatorship where participants have no vote, representation, or say in how their government is run. Monopolies are private dictatorships.

To better understand the UFC’s control mechanisms, imagine basketball if the NBA itself paid out a bonus for players who had the most slam dunks in a game. Would that impact how the game was played? Would it turn into a spectacle of style over winning? Of course.

When framed through the lens of other sports, this is obvious. Yet, seemingly, for everyone involved in MMA, this is a massive blind spot—everyone other than the UFC, that is. For the UFC, controlling behavior isn’t an accident, it’s the point. Some NBA teams do have performance bonuses written into individual contracts of their star players, but it’s for things such as the number of games played, whether they’re playing in the post-season, a predetermined number of rebounds and assists, and other behaviors to help the team win more games. However, this is different from the NBA itself creating a blanket incentive that favors certain players and styles over others. One of the purposes of a regulating body is to eliminate favoritism (or at least attempt to regulate against it); whereas, in the UFC, favoritism is the rule.

Moreover, the number of slam dunks is quantifiable. It does not require human subjectivity. What constitutes an exciting performance? Dana White, the president/ dictator of the UFC, has stated on numerous occasions that it is better to be exciting and lose than to be “boring” and win. Yet whose job is it in the UFC to decide what’s exciting? It’s unclear, though most of the time it appears to be Dana White himself.

Fighter Allen Crowder was bloodied during a 2015 bout as part of Leatherneck IV, an annual MMA event that takes place at Camp Lejeune. Chances are UFC honcho Dana White would have called this one “exciting.” photo: U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Aaron Kane Fiala

The UFC doesn’t care if fighter A wins or loses, because the UFC represents both fighter A and B. As Don King once said after arriving with one fighter and leaving with another, “I came into the ring with the champion, and I left with the champion.” The UFC has similarly left nothing to chance. The victor is inconsequential. All the UFC cares about is how the fight is fought.

To go back to the NBA analogy, if the league were to create performance incentives, they wouldn’t be based around “winning,” since that’s the goal of each NBA team. The league would only care about making the games more exciting. This is why incentives created by teams would be different from ones created by the governing body—they have conflicting interests. Such measures would never get passed because both the owners and players would oppose it as they would only benefit the league but not its members. In the NBA, like most major sports, the team owners and athletes all have a say. While the UFC also has MMA team owners, as well as athletes, they have little voice in matters of league business.

Prior to his death, Senator John McCain was a vocal advocate for expanding the Muhammad Ali Act to the MMA. photo: Gage Skidmore

In the UFC, the governing body creates the only incentives. Incentivizing performance is not the same as incentivizing winning. What’s supposed to make sports pure and fair is one simple premise: all that matters is victory. The UFC has conflicting interests from the MMA teams and their fighters. It is not unusual in MMA to have managers siding with promoters over their clients—an old problem in boxing that was finally addressed in 2000 with the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. The UFC continues to prevent this act from expanding into MMA. Court documents reveal the UFC has spent well over half a million dollars lobbying against it. Perhaps it’s poignant that before his death, former Senator John McCain advocated for the expansion of the Ali Act into the “human cockfighting” of MMA, and it is the UFC that is preventing that wish from being fulfilled.

For UFC fighters, there is a panic-inducing tension between being crowd-pleasing and winning. Some UFC fighters have spoken up about the damage this has caused their psyche, and it’s not unusual for fighters to admit to considering suicide. In, “A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health,” Mikkel Krause Frantzen writes:

“Capitalism, in other words, inflicts a double injury on depressed people. First, it causes, or contributes to, the state of depression. Second, it erases any form of causality and individualizes the illness, so that it appears as if the depression in question is a personal problem. In some cases, it appears to be your own fault. If you had just lived a better and more active life, made other choices, had a more positive mindset, et cetera, then you would not be depressed. This is the song sung by psychologists, coaches, and therapists around the world: happiness is your choice, your responsibility. The same goes for unhappiness and depression. Capitalism makes us feel bad and then, to add insult to injury, makes us feel bad about feeling bad.”

We hear about fighters suffering, but we don’t assign blame to the UFC because we have been taught to see mental health problems as an individual character flaw, rather than as a symptom of a flawed system. What the UFC likes to hear from its fighters is, “Somebody is going to get knocked out in this fight,” which could potentially include the person making that statement. Imagine if an American football player said they were willing to hurt themselves to make the NFL happy. Not playing hard to win, not sacrificing for the team, but to do something at the sacrifice of their body for the sake of the league. This is neither a competitive nor healthy mind. Perhaps this is what the UFC means when they say they don’t want competitors or athletes, but “fighters”—or as Joe Rogan puts it, “A wild man.” Like any cult, they don’t want healthy people but those who are the most vulnerable.

To reinforce the UFC post-fight bonuses, base pay is kept low. Only 10-20% of the UFC’s revenue goes to fighter pay, which includes the bonuses. In most other sports, it’s closer to 50%, and for boxing, it could be well above that. If an NBA player were to start making a fraction of their current pay, would that slam dunk bonus matter more? Would anyone be confused as to why there were fewer three-pointers?

While there is certainly big dollar payoffs for top-tier fighters such as Conor McGregor, roughly 20% of UFC fighters, including #4 ranked Jennifer Maia (pictured) made less than $20,000 in 2018. photo: Larissa Joly

In every UFC event, several fighters will ask (sometimes plead) for a bonus. They’ll often be transparent about how bad they need the money. If fighters are desperate, they’ll do more of what the UFC wants. Low base pay creates the right amount of desperation. Imagine the NFL implementing a longest pass bonus. What would happen to the running game? Would Hail Mary passes become the norm, as Hail Mary haymakers (overhand punches) are in the UFC? The overhand right is usually the last punch a professional boxer will learn. As far as punches go, it is possibly the most destructive yet also the clumsiest, and thus why it’s used sparingly in boxing. In the UFC, this is its signature punch.

If UFC-style incentives were applied to other sports, would it be harder for coaches to get their players to follow gameplans? Would these incentives directly contradict the coach’s job? Would it change long-term coaching strategy? Even in the short-term, would coaches be more willing to risk permanent injury to players to win one game? Even for inconsequential games?

If the coach of the team got a split of all the player bonuses, would they modify their strategy? Would coaches tailor their approach around bonuses? Is this why so many BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu) coaches have fighters that only strike? Is this why wrestlers abandon their wrestling strategy for striking? Are perverse incentives why corner stoppages in MMA are so rare? In this unnatural incentivize vs. punitive environment, would the best strategies for winning rise to the top? The problem with financial incentives isn’t that they don’t work, but that they work too well.

Limited rules create an illusion of an open and free environment, but there are hidden constraints. It’s the invisible hand of capitalism; rather than create opportunities, it closes off possibilities until you are left with only a few options. No one told Amazon employees to pee in bottles; they were always free to pee in their pants. Reporters don’t wonder why Amazon employees do this, it’s either this or lose their only source of income. Freedom under duress is not freedom.

Yet MMA commentators and analysts spend a lot of time and energy analyzing fighter behavior when this, too, can mostly be explained by incentives. It all adds to the illusion. Much like the meme from The Eric Andre Show, “Why would (fill in the blank) choose to do this?” The punchline is that the person never had a choice.

Another carrot on the UFC fighter stick is main event placement—though the trade-off for extra money means fighting a possible ten additional, physically-damaging minutes. Getting on the main card or the main card of a pay-per-view event could not only mean more money, but also more exposure.

Stand up comedian and MMA commentator Joe Rogan has an inordinate amount of power in deciding the future of a fighter.

An informal bonus, as far as exposure, is to get on UFC commentator Joe Rogan’s podcast, which sometimes fighters opt to do in lieu of asking for a bonus. As a fighter, that means getting in an event and being placed high enough on the card that Rogan might interview you, since he does not interview every winner and does not commentate on every UFC card. Having a media personality as powerful as Joe Rogan represent the UFC is a conflict in itself. Does the UFC have zero influence over which UFC fighters get to appear on The Joe Rogan Experience? There’s no way to know.

Then there’s headlining a pay-per-view, which means getting a percentage of the PPV buys. For most, if not all fighters, this is the only way to make over a million dollars in a UFC fight (or ever). In advertising, there is something known as a “Q score.” It’s a way to quantify how valuable a celebrity is to a brand. The UFC has an unspoken system that works just like the Q score, yet it is not based on any market research. The UFC relies more on feel and stereotypes—it likes characters and “crazy” matches. The UFC’s informal Q system often gets compared to the WWE’s, but to be fair to the WWE, the UFC’s system is much less sophisticated and still at the Hulk Hogan vs. racist heel stage.

Going back to Joe Rogan, how does a fighter get on Rogan’s radar? The same way they get on Dana White’s radar, by increasing their UFC Q score. Record and rankings are secondary to a fighter’s UFC Q score. Rankings themselves are also subjective. If the powers that be don’t like you, it might be a while before a fighter gets a UFC title shot. Khabib Nurmagomedov is valued by the UFC now, but it took him 25 straight wins (nine in the UFC) to get to a title shot. Though Nurmagomedov was dominant and the consensus best lightweight in MMA, he had a wrestling-heavy style, and his English was limited. Part of his rise in popularity was his newfound willingness to engage with Conor McGregor, and scuffle with him and his team outside of the octagon. McGregor, on the other hand, got his first title shot in five fights. (Racking up four UFC Q score-friendly bonuses along the way.) After winning the featherweight title, McGregor was 1-1 against Nate Diaz, yet still challenged for the lightweight title in his first fight at that weight division. The UFC is an arbitrary system that prioritizes profit and spectacle over fairness, purity, or fighter autonomy and safety.

Part 2 of this piece can be read here.

For further reading on the topics discussed in this article, click here.