Part 1 of this piece on the incentive pay structure of the UFC can be read here.
Theoretically, what makes the UFC stand out from boxing and kickboxing, besides the use of a cage, is the chance for a submission. Yet in 2018, only 18% of UFC fights ended by submission. Compare this to 56% of fights ending by submissions in 1994. There is debate in the grappling community regarding which submissions are “best” for MMA. Currently, leg locks are the new darlings. However, in 2019, the UFC had a total of 517 fights, out of which only one ended by leg lock. That’s 0.2%.
One type of submission, however, has stood the test of time, and that is the choke. In 2018, chokes constituted 85% of the submission finishes in the UFC. This is not by accident but by design, because choking an opponent, the same as a knockout, eliminates their ability to continue. Most fighters, if they can continue, will choose to do so because the only way for most of them to get the other half of their paycheck is to win. It’s similar logic to why corners don’t stop more fight or why more fighters don’t retire in between rounds. It’s not just a matter of pride, it’s also financial. Furthermore, if winning also means making a comeback, that increases the possibility of a performance bonus. It’s a high-stakes lottery with dire physical consequences.
What is being missed by those that train, and even some coaches, is that we are seeing fewer submissions overall as compared to the past because less of the fight is being contested on the ground. Part of why this blind spot exists is because, in sports, there is usually some amount of purity. But the UFC is not a sport. In their own words, they are a “fight business,” just as the WWE calls itself a “business.” Incentives eliminate purity. Even if a fighter could resist the carrots, they can’t escape the punishments for resisting.
The best piece of wisdom I ever received about combat sports didn’t come from any of my coaches; it came from a gambler who used to come by and watch the training at my MMA academy. One of our best fighters had just had their first submission victory in the UFC. He was a submission wizard, one of the best grapplers in North America at the time. His name was Karo Parisyan, and everyone at the academy was expecting a pile of broken limbs in the UFC.
Karo had just tapped all of us out in a grappling ironman as he prepared for his second UFC fight. That’s when the gambler told me, “You all tap in the gym because there’s no money on the line. When you have a fighter who’s really desperate for money, he ain’t gonna tap.” He was being hyperbolic, but he wasn’t lying either. Karo’s first submission victory in the UFC was also his last. Money doesn’t just change training/ sparring, imagine how differently every martial arts or self-defense demonstration would go if the person who was being thrown around were told that they’d get ten thousand dollars for stopping all the instructor’s moves?
Along with added resistance, there is less time being spent on the ground because of fewer takedowns. There are fewer takedowns because there are fewer attempts. In 2019, out of 19 title fights, only seven of them featured a fighter attempting five or more takedowns, or 37%. Some matches only had one fighter attempting takedowns. Some matches had zero takedown attempts by either fighter. In submission ace Demian Maia’s last fight against Ben Askren, Maia attempted zero takedowns as well. In 2013, the UFC also had 19 title fights. 11 of these fights had at least one fighter attempting more than five takedowns (58%). There were also five submission finishes, that’s 26% compared to 5% in 2019.
Then what matters more, how you fight or winning? Dana White has said through his words and actions that what matters is how you fight. The UFC has cut winning fighters after a single loss because they didn’t like how they fought—Liz Carmouche and Elias Theodorou are just two examples.
For Carmouche, that not only meant being released after a world title fight but also while doing unpaid promotional work on behalf of the UFC. She also lost income from her day job. Even after challenging for two UFC titles, Carmouche is still unable to support herself with fighting alone. Expenses not being covered for a fighter the UFC doesn’t like is not uncommon, as Leslie Smith had similar issues.
Smith, along with Kajan Johnson were outspoken in trying to get UFC fighters more rights and freedoms. They were not only punished and released by the UFC, but essentially blackballed. It took Smith several years before she was able to sign with another promotion, and Johnson has yet to fight again. Even marquee fighters like Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino are unable to avoid the UFC’s punishment when speaking out against unfairness and poor treatment. The UFC mistreats you and then, to add insult to injury, punishes you for feeling bad.
Former UFC champion Tyron Woodley has often wondered out loud why UFC fighters can’t get the same treatment as athletes in other sports, but like most other fighters, he can’t point out the glaringly obvious: NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS, all have unions. During the height of the 1980s professional wrestling craze, former NFL player Gene Upshaw told Jesse Ventura during a chance meeting, “You boys need to unionize”—professional wrestlers had no power otherwise. The WWE squashed Ventura’s union hopes before they even started. The UFC is playing out of a playbook pioneered by the WWE and Vince McMahon.
Professional wrestlers have figured out a workaround for the lack of a wrestler’s union. Ever wonder why so many pro wrestlers appear in B-movies? Wrestlers become actors to join the Screen Actor’s Guild. MMA fighters have already begun to follow this secondary playbook. Ironically, some are even finding that they can get better pay and treatment in the WWE.
The UFC’s punishment can even follow fighters outside of the promotion. In the case of ‘Cyborg,’ the UFC purposely hurt her ability to negotiate by stating publicly they were not interested in her, she was not in negotiations with the UFC, and that they would not match any offers. Furthermore, other promotions do not want to be on bad terms with the UFC. The UFC’s punishment can be like a scarlet letter, haunting fighters their whole career.
Then there are “exciting” fighters like Takanori Gomi, who was allowed five UFC losses in the row, all via first-round finish (4-14 overall in UFC). There’s BJ Penn who’s always in a “scrap,” yet hasn’t won a UFC fight in his last eight appearances. The promotion only released him due to Penn’s personal legal issues. Phil Baroni, Chris Leben, and Andrei Arlovski have also had similar treatment.
BJJ black belt José Aldo, who comes from one of the winningest BJJ teams, Nova União, and trains under BJJ legend André Pederneiras, rarely fights on the ground. This is such a common sight in the UFC that when a commentator explains the origin story of a feared striker, they only need to say, “They got introduced to BJJ as a teenager, and the rest is history.” BJJ is a ground fighting art, so how does that explain why they only strike? It doesn’t. But the fans are so used to seeing this incongruity, it no longer stands out. Aldo fights the way he does because it’s the style the UFC likes. Aldo has lost his last two fights and five of his last eight, yet he is currently in talks for a bantamweight title match.
What if you fight like Ryan Hall, who is aptly nicknamed ‘The Wizard,’ for his slick submission skills and insistence on fighting on the ground? You end up fighting less than once a year. Hall is also one of the only TUF (The Ultimate Fighter) tournament winners to have never competed in a main event, and the only TUF winner to never main event while being undefeated in the promotion. In his last match against Darren Elkins, Hall attempted only one takedown. The rest of the fight, Hall, the grappling ‘Wizard,’ fought as a kickboxer, knocking Elkins down twice. If given enough time, the UFC’s operant conditioning always works.
Getting an opponent to the ground and attacking submissions in a prizefight is lots of work, but submissions only count when successful. Near submissions curry little favor with the judges or the UFC, whereas almost knocking an opponent out can automatically win the fighter the round, and possibly gain the attention of Dana White. Under unregulated MMA capitalism, the work to reward ratio for submissions is often not worth the effort.
The UFC itself drafted an 80-page analysis for fighters that explains why it makes more sense to keep the fight standing. Mixed martial arts is becoming incentivized boxing with small gloves, with a little bit of other martial arts mixed in. And that’s what the UFC wants. Their system of control works; otherwise, they wouldn’t use it.
If the UFC truly were about who’s the best or discovering what the most effective tactics and strategies for winning were, it would stay neutral, trying to interfere as little as possible—allowing the sport to evolve naturally. That was once the point of the UFC, to discover what really works best in a fight. But that is no longer what the UFC is and no longer what the UFC wants.
Financial incentives even influence a fighter’s stance. A fighter’s fighting stance is akin to a painter’s palette—the art begins from there. So how do incentives corrupt something so sacred? Consider for a moment that, in spite of striking becoming the dominant style in the UFC, the majority of UFC fighters come from wrestling or some other form of grappling. This only makes sense because UFC is more lucrative than a wrestling (or grappling) career, but it would make little sense to transition from a high paying sport like football, basketball, baseball, or even high-level boxing to MMA. (When athletes do come over, it’s only as a second choice). Currently, more and more MMA fighters are requesting to go to boxing for the bigger paychecks.
In wrestling, along with other grappling arts, if you are right-handed, you stand with your right leg forward. In boxing and kickboxing, this makes you a southpaw. However, standing with your dominant side in the lead makes sense if you are trying to grab your opponent (for a righty, your right hand is now closest to your opponent). Though striking has become dominant, you can still grab and wrestle in the UFC. On one hand, standing southpaw means right-handed wrestlers are putting their most powerful limbs in the lead and power striking from their “weak” side. On the other hand, wrestlers are more used to wrestling and defending from this position.
Moreover, southpaws do disproportionately well in all sports. Only 10% of the general population is left-handed, but in MMA, it’s closer to 20%. As far as winning is concerned, being a southpaw is an advantage. Then why do wrestlers who are used to standing southpaw, switch to orthodox? When it’s a stance that they’re not only unfamiliar with but one that also undermines their wrestling? Because they want the ability to power strike with their power hand in the rear. In economics, this is called performance chasing, where one risks success for performance. In the UFC, what’s more important: winning or knockouts?
For this reason, spamming right hands is a hallmark of UFC striking (which influences the rest of MMA).
But, besides just their success, there might be a stylistic reason for the over-representation of left-handers. When there is a southpaw fighting an orthodox fighter, you have what is known as an open stance match-up. Picture an open book and the spine represents where the two leads meet.
Two fighters of the same stance would be a closed stance match-up since both fighters are standing parallel to one another. The open stance creates an opportunity for “collisions” where both fighter’s faces are open to running into their opponent’s power strike—increasing the likelihood of a power-hand slugfest. This is what the UFC likes. And if the UFC likes you, you’ll stick around.
You have the legendary fights of Anderson Silva, Nick and Nate Diaz, Robbie Lawler, Johny Hendricks, Conor McGregor, Lyoto Machida, Cro Cop, Rich Franklin, and as previously mentioned, Chris Leben, to name just a few southpaws. Leben lost five out of his last six fights. He didn’t leave the UFC because he got cut, but rather he retired from MMA, only to later come back. Leben was always involved in slugfests, racking up six post-fight bonuses. The personal cost of fighting the UFC way? An addiction to painkillers and a failing heart.
Compared to the Royce Gracie, Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, and Tito Ortiz eras, modern UFC looks a lot like boxing with more face-punching. As corrupt as boxing is, it doesn’t have the same incentives and punishments as the UFC, and also has more regulating bodies, as well as the aforementioned Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. (Don King, for instance, takes far less of a cut than what the UFC takes from its fighters.) This is part of why you’ll see more body shots, more defense, and less spamming of right hands. Some will argue this is all about skill disparity between boxing and MMA striking. To that, I say, bring the same incentive/ punishment structure into boxing that the UFC employs, and we’ll see a lot of the technical aspects vanish.
UFC fighters train in all the technical aspects of combat, hiring specific coaches for each combative art. But one does not fight as they practice; one fights as their incentives demand.
Rather than killing boxing, as the UFC once claimed, the UFC now wants to become boxing. There are many parallels with Dana White and Vince McMahon. Dana White really wanted to be involved with boxing. He turned the UFC into something as close to boxing as he could. Now he wants to go all the way with Zuffa Boxing. Vince McMahon didn’t dream of being a wrestling promoter; he wanted to be in football. Much like McMahon and the XFL are trying with football (again), White wants to get into boxing the same way, as a monopoly that turns the sport into Hunger Games.
Perhaps only then will enough people notice it’s not the fighters or the trainers, but the incentives that drive behavior. What further analysis would a veteran boxing commentator need then, “They’re fighting like this because of the stupid way they’re being paid.”
“Excitement” was never about what the fans wanted; it was always about what Dana White wanted. If fans wanted boxing, they would have stayed with boxing. People turned to mixed martial arts to see the mixing of martial arts—to see variety, not something monolithic.
Maybe Dana White was right, and he will kill boxing. But rather than through competition, he’ll kill the host body from the inside—replacing a fighter’s will with maximized profits.
For further reading on the topics discussed in this article, click here.