John Cholish Explains the Costs of Being a UFC Fighter

May 23, 2013
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Courtesy of Damon Martin and official content partner Bleacher Report.

John CholishThe subject of fighter pay in the sport of mixed martial arts has been an ongoing debate for several years with no one coming to a consensus on whether the salaries are good, bad or otherwise.

Most recently, former UFC lightweight John Cholish, who retired following his last fight at UFC on FX 8, came out against what he perceived to be poor fighter pay structures, and it eventually led to his exit from the sport.

Cholish, who still works a full-time job as a commodities broker on Wall Street, says that he didn’t even break even for his most recent fight where he traveled to Brazil to face Gleison Tibau on the undercard at UFC on FX 8.

He’s spoken out quite a bit lately about the fighter pay issues since his fight on Saturday, but he doesn’t expect many others to follow suit because of their need for the UFC paycheck.

“Zuffa is a private company so they don’t have to disclose a lot of their information, and again this is my personal opinion, I’m not saying it’s for anyone else but I’ve spoken to a vast array of fighters from top level guys to mid-tier guys to lower level guys and I feel at least the guys I’ve spoken with kind of have that same feeling of maybe they’re not being fully compensated the way that they should be. But guys are scared,” Cholish stated when speaking to MMA‘s Great Debate Radio.

“If you don’t have a secondary source of income, if this is your primary source of income and your full-time job and Dana (White) has been very clear this past year they are going to be cutting a lot of guys from the roster. Top name guys like Jon Fitch that was a huge debate at the time when it happened when he got cut and moved to a different organization.

“I think people are scared and fear the repercussions. I’m in a position where I can kind of speak out and I don’t need the fighter income.”

Instead of just making a blanket statement about what he believes is poor pay for the fighters, Cholish broke down exactly what it costs (in his case at least) to train, travel and prepare for a fight in the UFC.

The money involved in Cholish’s case are probably similar to other fighters, but he makes it clear that he can only speak towards what his contract and financial situation with the UFC was for his fighting career.

“Just to be clear I’ve not seen any other fighter’s contracts, maybe I’m this one guy that has this terrible contract,” Cholis said.  “Although I doubt it because it’s probably a carbon copy, but this is just kind of my experience and what I’ve dealt with.”

(It also must be noted these figures do not account for sponsorships that Cholish may have received, only the base pay he reported from the UFC.)


Training Camp Costs: $8,000 to $12,000

Before a fighter even steps foot in the Octagon, there is a long process of getting ready for the bout.  Typically a fighter will receive six to eight weeks to prepare for a bout (although that timeline can be shorter or longer depending on the notice given for a fight), and that’s how he structures a camp to get ready.

Cholish trains primarily out of the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City under coaches like famed jiu-jitsu instructor John Danaher, and with other trainers like Phil Nurse, who works with several high-profile UFC fighters including welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.

“This is just gym fees, travel expenses, making sure you’re eating the right stuff, and not talking day-to-day stuff like breakfast, lunch and dinner. More like supplements, training gear, all that top to bottom. I’d say roughly between $4,000 to $6,000 a month when you look at it,” Cholish revealed.  “Again, I live in New York City so I understand costs may be a little bit higher than they are other places, but it’s expensive to train at top places and with individuals.”

Those numbers seem in line with what other fighters have stated in the past regarding a top-notch training camp.

UFC featherweight Chad Mendes, who was supposed to fight at UFC 157 before several opponents dropped out due to injury, had to postpone his training camp to prepare instead for a fight in late April at UFC on Fox 7. Speaking with at the time, Mendes’ numbers were very similar to those given by Cholish for what a professional training camp should cost.

Pre-Fight Medicals

Before a fighter steps into the cage to compete in the UFC, he must first undergo a series of medical exams to gain clearance for a fight. Those tests can range from a typical physical to blood tests to a CAT scan or eye exam if necessary.

Cholish says after suffering an injury before his last scheduled fight in December 2012, he had all of his pre-fight medicals done, but some of the tests required by the commission expired before his next bout so he had to redo many of them again.

While he can’t speak to the exact costs of medicals required because his own personal insurance (paid by his brokerage house employer) picked up the tab, he did happen to get a bill by accident for some of the bloodwork that was required before he traveled to Brazil.

“I actually had my medicals for the Yves Edwards fight, which expired by a very brief period of time and I had to get my medicals done again,” Cholish explained. “Fortunately, I have insurance that is kind of able to cover it, but the bloodwork alone I got a bill that they misprocessed and didn’t go to my insurance was almost $800. Just for the bloodwork.”

Cholish says that while he did not incur the costs of the medicals because of his own insurance, his understanding is that fighters are responsible for the cost of those tests out of pocket.

“It’s not cheap and it’s not free. From my understanding (medicals) yes it is (the fighter’s responsibility),” Cholish said.

Travel Expenses: Estimated for Brazil Near $4,000

As part of his contract for a fight, Cholish explains that the UFC will pay for his flight and hotel for a fight (in this case his trip to Brazil) along with one coach or corner person. In addition to those costs, the UFC will cover the expenses to pay for a visa to travel to Brazil for both the fighter and his coach (price is $500 a piece).

Cholish explains however that while the UFC does pay for him and a coach to make the trip, almost no fighter will go into a bout at that level without at least two other coaches or corner people to work the fight.

“For me how it was set up for Brazil, I have two flights covered so for me and for one coach and then you get one hotel room. The hotel we’re actually staying at only had two single beds in it so there weren’t any queen-sized beds, not that I would have four grown men sleep together in a bed.

“So, for example, when I had my fight in Toronto, you have to pay for two additional flights for two coaches. You have to pay for another hotel room, which they make you get there on Monday or Tuesday. So it’s usually for four or five nights so that adds up,” Cholish explained.

“I choose to take care of my coaches’ meals while they are there.  Again, I don’t think they should have to pay out of pocket to be there.  For Brazil as well there was a $500 visa fee, that was included for coaches.

“You also have to pay for your corner licensing, you have to pay for your medicals before the fight, so it might not seem like a lot but when you start adding it together.  Especially a flight to Brazil costs $1,500 or $1,600 a piece and you’re only making $8,000, it chips away pretty quickly.

International Taxes: $2,160

When the UFC travels internationally, the fighters that compete there must also pay additional taxes to the country where the card takes place. When a fight takes place in Canada, the competitors traveling there from the United States have to pay Canadian taxes before getting their money for the fights.

Fighting in Brazil, Cholish explains that the tax is 27 percent of the take home pay. In his case his contracted rate to fight was $8,000 (he would have won an additional $8000 with a win). Before he receives any pay from the UFC, Brazil taxes take $2,160 from his $8,000 paycheck.

“Brazil takes 27 percent before you even get the money. That comes right out,” Cholish said. “Same thing as Canada, they take their money before you leave.”

On top of the taxes taken by each individual country, the fighters are still responsible for paying taxes in their home country of origin as well. So after paying the $2,160 to Brazil, Cholish still owes taxes to the United States government as well for income earned.

Final Analysis

While there are no hard numbers on what each individual fighter spends on a training camp, in Cholish’s case based on the dollar amounts he gave, his bout at UFC on FX 8 would end up costing him more than $6,000 out of pocket ($8,000 show money – $2,160 for taxes = gross pay of $5,840.  $8,000 for training camp + $4,000 for travel with coaches).

Those figures also don’t reflect any additional money Cholish would have paid for his coaches to eat in Brazil or other expenditures, such as medical costs that in this case he did not have to pay for before the fight.

Cholish isn’t sure there is a perfect answer to this problem either outside of the UFC paying their fighters a higher sum of money or possibly setting up to pay some sort of fees for training camps, travel costs, etc.

Many experts point to a fighter union that would run in similar fashion to those in other major sports like the NFL or Major League Baseball, but Cholish admits that at the heart of it all MMA is an individual sport, not a team sport, and that’s going to make it harder to convince the fighters making the most to give up something for those making the least.

“I am in no means asking them to step down, you can’t blame them,” Cholish said about the UFC’s top earners. “They worked really hard to get where they’re at and they’re finally getting paid. Why should they stick their neck out especially when if one ore two of them does it, is it really going to be enough? So unfortunately I don’t think a union is a base way to go.”

Cholish believes that the fans are the real voice that will force the UFC to change the way they pay fighters. He’s started a campaign on Twitter called #PayTheFighters hoping to bring this subject up more often to the higher ups at the UFC.

“I think the biggest impact will be fans and social media,” Cholish stated. “UFC is a private company, they work for money, where do they get their money from? The fans.”

Check out more UFC coverage from official content partner Bleacher Report and Damon Martin.

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  • BobLemons

    8 to 12k for gym and supplements? I can’t see it…

    • yttjkhjk

      …and this is from your extensive experience training at top tier camps for high level bouts
      …of course it is

      • BobLemons

        I simply said “I can’t see it”. It’s hardly an in-depth analysis of training costs. I don’t know s***, I realise that. But what I do know is that over here an average MMA gym costs less than £100 per month. Of course a lot of one on one time is going to be required if you’re a pro and that will push prices up. Hell, I can see some extortionate fees if you wanted a lot of personal training with Greg Jackson for example. I never claimed to know any facts on the matter, I just stated I don’t see it. Show me some bills and my opinion is subject to change. As for supplements, there’s only so much one human can consume.

        The simple fact is he either needs to accept that he will make a loss until he attains a high enough profile to make the suffering worthwhile, or he needs to have a less “professional” camp in order to make a profit at this stage of his career.

        He also states that he still works a full-time job, so much time can he really find to burn through 8-12k in 6-8 weeks?

        I’m not claiming to know facts, I’m stating that I don’t understand the costs. Maybe you could enlighten me with some relevant information rather than resorting to sarcasm?

    • Milosc

      Try actually reading the article. It’s all there, chief

  • Milosc

    This so needed to be said. Thanks, Cholish

  • JB13

    I understand the costs first hand. But as a UFC fighter I assume he is getting sponsorship money as well. I don’t see that pay in his equation.

    • Milosc

      You shouldn’t

      The UFC is not giving out sponsors to people. The fighters go out and get them

      • JB13

        I agree. But the popularity of the UFC and the promise of such a large audience on television and at the event is what entices the sponsors to pay the fighters. So. yes the fighters go out and get them, but they pay in part because of the success of the UFC. Thus, for him to claim a monetary loss for this fight is at least somewhat misleading. I do agree though, the UFC should pay them more.

  • bajafox

    The UFC is like a regular corporate model. There are those that help build the product, your assembly techs and shipping/receiving guys and their supervisors who make just enough to get by. Then there are their managers, the engineers, quality control, the people who make the real money.

    Unfortunately for him, he’s just an assembly tech.

    • Joe

      This is very much a correct statement, even though it may be unpopular. No matter what industry you work in you start out making horrible pay(compared to the top earners) and as you pay your dues in your industry you make more and more.
      Main card fighters are not making $8000 to fight. If you are not happy with that purse you always have the option to change it by winning, and if you win they pay you more on your next fight.

      • Timothy Malone

        Not to mention if you go out there your very first fight on a prelim and pull off an impressive submission or knockout or fight, they will hand you $50,000 right then and there, more than many people make in a year. Cholish unfortunately has never gotten a bonus.

  • Rence

    The thing is this: its one of those few jobs where you personally control your income to some degree, like commissioned sales. Want more money? WIN FIGHTS! want even MORE money? WIN BONUS’! What else happens when you win, even a few times? Bigger and better sponsors!
    Think GSP started his UFC career with a PPV bonus? Nope, he started where this guy is only without the nice cushy wall street paycheck to supplement.

    “oh but not every fighter can do that” Yup, thats correct. and those are the guys that learn real fast if they are good enough to be a pro MMA fighter.

    Its a Darwinian system in one of the purest forms imaginable. Predator or Prey, choose well.

    • Lucas Freire

      That’s just the way it is.

  • robr

    Really Bob? Easy to say for an armchair warrior. For every top winner like GSP, there are half a dozen fighters below that are filler for the cards, TUF etc. In In each weight class there are half a dozen or so top guys both in skill and money (varies by weight class). It would get mighty boring watching those same top guys fight each other over and over again. Hence B level fighters that can either improve their skills and move up or be sold as credible opponents for top fighters (Elvis Sinosic…). The point being the UFC cannot survive with 7 or 8 guys in each weight class. They need the lower echelon fighters in order to fill the multitude of cards. Also these entry or lower level guys also reflect newer fighters who are developing into better, more skilled athletes. How can these guys do that on such low pay? Sure there are fight of the night bonuses, ko bonuses etc but those typically go to main card fighters (rarely on prelim guys) and there is typically only 2 or 3 of those for a card with typically 22 fighters. Unless endorsements for low recognition fighters represent enough money to cover their costs (and where is the fighters actual profit? He needs to do more than break even), as costs for travel, training etc increase, the fighter pool will decrease or the fighters will cut corners on their training, diet etc or will have to work full time like Cholish in addition to trying to train. Name me one athlete in the big 4 sports that have to have a second job to support the sport they play in????

  • Jeremy

    One thing that does bother me about this is that Cholish does not mention sponsorships. He covers EVERY expense, but what about endorsements? The general purpose of sponsors is help offset the costs of being a fighter. Cholish is a lower level fighter, but I know of some prelim guys that have done 6-10k, per fight, from sponsors.

    And the whole tax thing is very misleading: A large portion of the costs of being a fighter are deducted as business expenses.

    I am not saying that John does not raise some good points, just that he is choosing to only include that which backs up his point.

  • justin_e

    They really just need to have a fair “league minimum”. They can do that without having a union, and without hardly affecting their bottom line at all. The UFC is the highest level of MMA competition in the world. Paying at least 20 or 30 thousand to the lower tier guys wouldn’t kill them. I know people say they don’t have to because they don’t draw, but in a way I disagree (plus it’s not about “having to”). Part of the appeal of a UFC card is it’s depth. You wouldn’t have that depth without the lower and mid level fighters. So even if you don’t buy the PPV specifically for them, in a way they are helping, at least a little, to sell the PPV. Paying 20 to 30 wouldn’t hurt them at all. They are just doing what most businesses do. The bare minimum to retain employees. So, they are no worse than any other non union employer I guess but it would be nice if they did things differently.

  • Franchise

    Obviously this a topic that has come up many times in the past and I think everyone would like to see guys make more money, but the fact is that no one went there to see John fight. He cost the UFC money by being on the card. Much like a fry cook at McDonald’s he served a purpose, but it is a job that almost anyone could do. It sucks, but it is the truth. The UFC could have just thrown any random Brazilian fighter on the under card as the fight was mostly just a space filler.

    John also omits a lot of information from his rants. He totally leaves out any sponsorship money that he is receiving by being in the UFC. He also is leaving out the fact that all of his expenses can easily be deducted on his taxes.

    He also ignores the fact that had he performed well he could have received a win bonus, FOTN bonus, KOTN bonus, SOTN bonus, or a random backroom bonus for performing well. Essentially he is a guy that has no name recognition that did not cause anyone to buy a ticket or tune in that put on a bad show, got beat up and beat and he wants to be rewarded for some reason.

    I appreciate what guys go through to do this, but to me, when you perform poorly at your job you can not really complain about pay. That is like a fry cook saying I need to make more money than the manager because I have to drive further to work than him and I do a tougher job standing at the fry station all day. It sucks and he gets to sit in his office all day. I need more money.

  • Innovator

    Now correct me if I am wrong. UFC fighters sign contracts that are negotiated before hand. If you agree to be paid a certain amount for however many fights on your contract what you get paid is on you. I don’t care what anyone says, you agreed to it. You don’t like what the UFC is offering? Tear it up with another organization so fans start demanding the UFC sign you and improve your contract offer.

    I also disagree with the UFC is a top tier league and therefor they should be paid more. The UFC pays up and coming fighters. You think a single A player in baseball makes a lot? Their is no real minor league of the UFC. The prelims are the minor leagues. If you perform well and get on the main card, you finish your contract and negotiate a better one.

  • LOL

    It may have a lot to do with the fact that this guy is pretty unknown lol. He also came to the UFC, won a fight, then lost 2 straight. What does he expect? 100K a fight? He CHOSE this career, didn’t perform all that well, and he is griping about the pay? Come on now. That’s like dedicating your life to football and never making it to the NFL then complaining about it. He had the same chance (if not more) that every other fighter gets and blew it when he got to the grandest stage of them all. Good for him that he has a good job though. Shame he finished at 8-3 and 1-2 in the UFC. Such a short career.


    ufc has a low base pay… should be like 15 to show 15 to win come on ufc you are billion dollar giant and these fighters are making peanuts…

  • cramer

    If the pay is that low to begin with and they take that much taxes out of your check, then you do have to option to not take fights that are not in country. Also, you could cut costs by only taking one person with your for your cornerman. Preferably someone that is well rounded in the mma spectrum and not just specializes in one thing.