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CagePotato Databomb #15: For UFC Bonuses, It Pays to Fight Last

(Click on the chart for the full-size version. For previous Databombs, click here.)

By Reed Kuhn, @Fightnomics

A hot topic in the news lately has been UFC Fight Night Bonuses. This includes the end of event bonuses awarded to the Fight of the Night (FOTN), Knockout of the Night (KOTN), and Submission of the Night (SOTN). Officially, UFC president Dana White says those bonuses are here to stay, which is great news for perpetually exciting fighters like Joe Lauzon, Donald Cerrone, and Frankie Edgar. Bonuses incentivize performance, spread the wealth, and give guys who give their all an official metric for justifying their place on the Zuffa roster.

I’ve already covered the timeline of awarded bonuses, so the natural next question concerns who actually receives them. Now that the standardized Fight Night bonus is fixed at $50,000, regardless of what channel a UFC event is broadcast on, let’s examine a different layer of detail.

What I’ve graphed above is the percentage likelihood of winning a Fight Night bonus based solely on card placement. This particular DataBomb will surely make the heads of some prelim fighters feel like they want to explode.

Indeed, it pays to fight last. It turns out that the fighters competing in the highest profile spots on the fight card are also the most likely to win Fight Night Bonuses. Is that fair? That (presumably) the highest-paid fighters also get more than their share of bonus money? If you’re fighting in a Main Event you have more than a one-in-three chance of winning a bonus of some kind, with most of those bonuses not requiring a finish, or even a win. Whereas towards the bottom of the preliminary cards, fighters average only a one-in-ten chance of taking home a bonus, and more likely require a win inside the distance to do so.

But not so fast. As has been speculated before, the bump of bonuses on the main card may be a reflection of the higher skill level of the fighters who compete there. Basically, knocking a guy out who is highly ranked is inherently more impressive than finishing an undercard fighter. Bonuses, therefore, reflect the level of difficulty that increases as the event approaches its conclusion, and factor in the overall level of difficulty in performing at a high level against better competition.

This may be a factor. Certainly, a Fight of the Night bonus requires not one, but both fighters to be in great shape and able to fight through a back and forth war. In theory, main events feature the most talented fighters of any given card, and correspondingly result in a whopping 36% of those fighters taking home some form of Fight Night bonus on top of other compensation. A fighter in any given spot on the main card will average a 14.7% FOTN bonus rate, while being on the prelim card results in a measly 3.2% FOTN average. That’s a huge drop, and far more than Knockout and Submission averages across the card.

But the main card bump in finishing bonuses may also be reflecting other factors. First, larger fighters are more likely to command main card presence. This may be due to their higher finish rates, or just the general fan’s appetite for bigger weight classes. Bigger fighters sell tickets, and generally deliver for the fans by scoring more knockouts. This may be an additional factor in the KOTN average being 6.4% for main card fighters, but only 2.4% for fighters on the prelims.

The same trends of division size and card placement may also work in reverse for submissions, which are the most stable bonus type across the card. Main card fighters take home 4.6% of these bonuses per spot, while prelim fighters average 3.5%. Not a huge drop. Overall, submissions are more rare than (T)KO’s so sometimes the selection of a SOTN winner is easier. And perhaps the idea of a skillful submission is also better able to stand alone in our minds, regardless of card placement, allowing undercard fighters a fairer shot at the bonus.

But look more closely at the #5 and #6 spots on the card. Despite nearly identical rates for finish bonuses, rates for the more subjective Fight of the Night bonuses drop from over 13% on the bottom of the main card to just 6% at the top of the preliminaries. Is there really that much of a difference in quality and skill of fighters between those two positions on the card? Probably not. Watch out folks: science!

At the end of the night, what stands out in our minds? Was it a devastating 10-second KO on the Facebook prelims, or was it as highly ranked fighter getting unexpectedly TKO’d by a new contender? Our tendency to remember more recent events is most commonly described as the “Availability Heuristic.” Basically, what comes to mind when we try to recall things is the information and memories that are most readily available. And that means most fresh in our minds. More specifically, some call it “Recency Bias,” and that bias is a powerful underlying psychological influence on the end of night decision to award bonuses. It’s why entertainment programs always try to “end with a bang,” or in the UFC’s case, the main event. It’s why cruise ships save their best dinner for last, and why Disney World has fireworks every single night. When searching for superlative memories (the best or worst of something) it’s always easier to remember the fights that are most fresh in our minds, and in the case of MMA fights that means the last few fights of the night. We’d like to think that everyone has a fair shot at Fight Night bonuses. But that’s unrealistic, if only because the people who decide who wins that are human after all.

So now that we know that Fight Night Bonuses are here to stay, we have to ask ourselves whether or not they are serving the proper purpose, or simply falling prey to more fundamental trends. Do they truly reward the most exemplary performances? Or are they simply padding the wallets of the highest earning fighters in the UFC? Would fans and fighters alike prefer to see the $200,000 in bonus money per event be allocated to the dozen or so fighters on the bottom of the card? An even salary allocation would give an additional $14,286 to each undercard fighter for the typical 12-fight card. In many cases, that would more than double the base pay that these fighters receive to show.

As with many managerial decisions, it’s always good to run the numbers first while exploring options. Let the matter of Who Wins Fight Night Bonuses now be settled. The next question might be if this system is the right one.

For more science and statistics of MMA, follow Fightnomics on Twitter or Facebook, or check out the Fightnomics blog.

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danomite- July 17, 2013 at 11:21 am
Also, the curtain jerker that gets a fight night bonus usually gets bumped up a couple spots in his next fight. So the 11 and 12 spot is always going to be pretty similar across different events while the fx and main card fights will be continually adding previous bonus winners and getting rid of 'boring' fighters or fighters on a losing streak, increasing the chances of a submission or highlight KO happening there. Is that making any sense to anyone but me? I can't really explain it well because I don't really know what I'm talking about.
Alan K- July 17, 2013 at 9:42 am
It's not just recency bias. A strong fight or finish in the opening main card fight will weigh more in people's minds at the end of the night than the top of the prelims simply because people place more importance on the main card since it's supposed to contain the biggest fights and biggest names of that event. To get a bonus on the prelims, your fight or finish has to be clearly better than anything else that comes after you. If there is any doubt then the odds will definitely not be forever in your favor.
Barnaby Jones- July 17, 2013 at 8:56 am
Fighting last puts on pressure to perform. More people are watching and there is more on the line.

Also, if you're fighting last you have proven yourself already and are probably better at what you do than most other people on the card. This is not news.