(“…and don’t even get me started about these goddamned Diaz brothers.” / Photo via CombatLifestyle)
With a few notable exceptions like Dong Hyun Kim and Yushin Okami, Asian MMA fighters have struggled to live up to expectations while fighting in the UFC. While there are plenty of explanations for this, it appears the UFC doesn’t do these fighters any favors. In a recent interview, Dong Hyun Kim enumerated some of the issues faced by Asian fighters that are compounded by the UFC’s policies. Kim’s comments were translated by Sherdog user Hufusopem, and touch on a number of concerns, including sponsorship issues and traveling fees.
According to Kim, “no matter how ‘fair’ the UFC is, the Asian fighters especially Korean fighters are automatically at a disadvantage. Even right before my fight with Demian [Maia] my airplane ticket cost after getting discounts, was 1,100 dollars (Not to add in me paying for my teammates and coaches to accompany me). And on top of that, it is ludicrously expensive to get ready to train and get a training camp in the US before your fights.”
$1,100, before adding in teammates and coaches?? That’s a lot to ask of a fighter. Particularly if that fighter, unlike Kim, isn’t an established star. He continues, “It’s ultimately very hard to be a UFC fighter. If you go to America, there are a lot of fighters who are barely eeking by financially. I see some fighters who have fights a few days away doing personal training. A lot of that has to do with the UFC being too stingy about sponsorships. Also because of UFC’s policies it is really hard to get sponsors for a lot of fighters… If you pay off the training camp and your coaches you honestly don’t have much left. Ultimately, you only have one maybe two opportunities to make it big. In MMA anyone can lose and when you do lose you go instantly to the back of the line.”
Kim raises an important point regarding fighter pay — a lot of their profits come from sponsorships, which often exceed the amount they earn from actually fighting. Fighters are in a bad position regarding sponsorships already, due to the poor economy. But when you add in the fact that the UFC charges some companies $100,000 annually for sponsorships — and reportedly charged Full Tilt Poker over $1 million for sponsoring multiple fighters — it makes companies exceedingly hesitant to invest in fighters, especially lower-profile fighters who compete on undercards. And, of course, the UFC can prohibit certain companies from sponsoring fighters with or without a reason.
All of which is to say that the UFC’s sponsorship policies are actively harmful to fighters’ financial well-being. For Asian fighters, this issue is compounded by the fact that they incur certain expenses that other fighters don’t. However, to be fair, some of these costs are the byproduct of atypical procedures that Asian fighters must undertake. Kim’s manager Brian Rhee — user name binjin — proceeded to clarify some of Kim’s remarks:
“The UFC DOES pay for airfare and hotel for the fighter + 1. However, for fighters from Korea, we have to come in at least 10 days early (2 weeks is better) in order to get used to the time difference. The UFC tickets flights (and books the hotel) for 4 or 5 days before the fight. So, the fighters from Korea (and other foreign countries) have to pay the difference in fares and the extra days for room and board.
If you assume that a fighter is going to bring, at least, their coach and a sparring partner (for KTT, they bring me as well), that means the fighter is paying for 2 extra plane tickets (usually between $1200-2000 RT from Seoul). Add in 5 or 6 days of room and board for 4-5 guys and it starts to add up! Then take out US federal and state taxes, then the guys get taxed again in Korea. Subtract paying the fees to the coach and sparring partner… and what’s the fighter left with? Unless they get a bonus (or two), or are making a really good base pay, not much.
If you think about the fact that [Korean Zombie] (before the Poirier fight) was making $6,000 as base pay, then you’ll realize that for a lot of our fights in the US, we end up losing money. But, the fighters do it hoping to build up to bigger paydays and more sponsor money.
I think the $1,100 that Stun Gun mentioned was probably the difference in fares. The UFC pays for the basic fare, but if you decide to change your travel dates, the fighter is responsible for paying the difference.
A lot of people say it’s the same for all foreign fighters, not just Asians, but the main difference is that for South American fighters there is little/no time difference. For European fighters, the time adjustment is easier because there isn’t as much of a time difference to begin with AND it’s harder to adjust to travelling east, as opposed to west. I don’t know why that is, but it’s definitely different. We have a hard time when going from Asia to the US, but coming from the US to Asia is not as hard (same for Europe to the US).
I would honestly say that I doubt KZ would have been able to win any of his fights if he came to the US on the pre-determined date (i.e. If we didn’t come in at least 10 days early). I’ve seen the fighters on the 4-5 day in the US and there’s no way that they could compete at top form at that point. But, who knows, maybe our guys just suffer from jetlag worse than everyone else. (?)”
So basically, Asian fighters can choose to either suffer a fiscal disadvantage or a competitive disadvantage. As fighters, obviously they choose the fiscal disadvantage. As a company, the UFC should be obligated to ensure that fighters don’t have to make that choice. Sure, if Asian fighters choose to spend more days in a hotel room, perhaps they should pay for the difference. But charging them for taking a plane on a different date? Seriously? That’s bush league from an organization that should be beyond that at this point.
Fighters face enough obstacles as it is to be successful professionally and financially. They don’t need their well-being compounded by oppressive sponsorship policies and additional fees, especially when they are in the infancy of their careers. The UFC is morphing into a major sports corporation, and while many of their policies reflect this, there are still some that need adjustments. There is no excuse for the draconian sponsorship regulations and fees. And the UFC is obligated to acknowledge the inherent disadvantages faced by Asian fighters and do something to address them.
Kim has taken a serious risk in speaking out against these issues, and could suffer serious repercussions from the UFC. (Speaking of which, maybe it’s about time the UFC instituted a code of conduct so fighters actually know what they can be penalized for. Right, Miguel Torres?) Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this risk will yield any rewards. If fighters want to see real change on any of these fronts, particularly fighters who don’t possess name recognition, then they are going to have to unionize. But as long as things remain as they are, when sponsors face enormous obstacles to supporting fighters and the UFC can cut anyone for any reason, it’s not just Asian fighters who will be at an economic disadvantage — it’s all fighters.