Last week, Michael Chandler defended the UFC and UFC President Dana White on the issue of fighter pay, saying arguments that fighters were making more money were misguided because the UFC has worked hard to grow its business and fighters are being served better, harder working to monetize outside of the UFC. But bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling disagrees.
“I like Michael Chandler,” Sterling said on his YouTube channel. “He’s a cool guy, every time I see him he’s super welcoming, no problems with him at all. But I think it’s a bit different and ill-advised for someone to say the things they say that kind of discredit all the other fighters out there.
“Michael Chandler fought for Bellator, he made a hell of a lot of money for Bellator, he was a world champion in Bellator, [and] I think he was also a national champion at the Division I level, so he has all these things that speak for him. The average fighter comes, he’s not a wrestler, he’s not a national champion, he didn’t become a Bellator champion, he doesn’t have all those credentials and awards, he doesn’t come for money — I’m not saying Michael Chandler comes for money , I don’t know about his backstory but he doesn’t understand the situation of the other fighters. Obviously he doesn’t understand that because he wouldn’t have said what he would have said if he did – the backstory of the other fighters not making the kind of money that Michael Chandler makes and that’s the difference.”
Chandler wasn’t a national champion in college, but he was a four-time NCAA Division I qualifier, and he earned All-American honors in his senior season wrestling for Missouri. After a distinguished career at Bellator, where he was a three-time lightweight champion, he joined the UFC as one of the biggest free agent signings in recent history.
That difference, Sterling says, is critical. Because for him and for numerous other fighters, their start in the UFC was very different.
“Once he starts looking at it from a different perspective, I think he would change what he said,” Sterling argued. “But he says Dana White had 10,000 sleepless nights, Michael Chandler, you’ve been through quite a bit since you were out of the womb. What about all your sleepless nights of working out and losing weight? What about all the other fighters who train, lose weight? You can’t say that we just go to the gym, work out, sleep and repeat. Some of us have side jobs. I had a second job throughout my career until I beat ‘Tanquino’. [Augusto Mendes], after two split decision losses that made me think I might lose my job. I have a college degree. I might have made more money early in my career if I just stuck with it, and I might have made more money than I made if I just stuck with fighting.
“I came to the UFC at eight and eight, $8,000 to win, $8,000 to show. So if I step on the scale, I show up, and I step on the octagon, I make $8,000. Before taxes, before expenses just to get to the fight, travel expenses, all that, food, gear, we don’t talk about all that. Then I’ll make another $8,000 if I win. Now minus salary for trainers… five percent more [coach] beam [Longo]five percent to [coach] Frosted [Serra], 10 percent to management, then I pay taxes on what’s left, what I keep. … My second fight is 10 and 10, my third fight is 12 and 12, the last fight on my contract is 14 and 14.
“Now do the math. In Long Island I would have made $56,000 [New York], as a physical education teacher, plus benefits, plus retirement. So when you weigh Michael Chandler saying that fighters just wake up, train, go to sleep, it’s like, don’t you appreciate what you bring to the table for your bosses?
“Don’t let Dana disregard that. I’m not trying to get into a fighter pay thing, but brother, you can’t say there’s no problem with fighter pay because you’re at the forefront of the crop. I’m fine right now. i am the top I’m getting paid damn well at this point. It’s still underpaid from what it could be based on numbers showing how revenue is split between fighters and bosses.”
For reference, and one of the prevailing points of those who argue for better fighter pay, fighters earn about 20 percent of the revenue the UFC generates annually, a far cry from other major professional sports leagues, which typically have numbers in the 50 percent range . Sterling apparently believes the gap needs to close somewhat, especially when it comes to UFC fighters who need second jobs to make ends meet.
“You can’t build a model — at least that’s what they tell us — by overpaying everyone,” Sterling said. “Well, you’re not paying too much, you’re paying the level of the UFC. Of course, once you reach a certain threshold, there should be a minimum that everyone should be getting that should be enough to support themselves from not having or needing another job.
“Michael Chandler’s point is that Dana invested all the time, which he did. Thank you Dana White, you are a gift from God, you are the man, you helped improve this sport like no other. 100 percent, there is no dispute about that. But now we’re in a different time, a different light, the sport is state-recognized. Dana is always throwing out numbers on how well and how high we rank as the fastest growing sport, so that should be reflected in how fighters are paid. So I understand where Chandler is coming from, but at the same time you discredit how much time and effort you put into the brand yourself. You can’t say the fighters have to do all this YouTube stuff – why do we have to do this when the NBA athletes don’t have to do this, the NFL boys don’t do this, the NHL boys don’t do this? Because everything is copyrighted and owned by these organizations and they also have associations where they get some kind of health care or whatever. A type of benefit where there is a like-minded interest in their athletes. We do not have that. So when we say we should grind and do that, I understand because that’s something you should be doing anyway if you want to brand yourself outside of your sport, but that shouldn’t be a requirement for you to get paid better than what the guys who just come in get paid.”
Sterling is better off than most fighters, but even the UFC bantamweight champion doesn’t take home what many would expect. To make his point clear, Sterling revealed his purse for his title defense against Petr Yan at UFC 273.
“Full disclosure, my last fight, I made $400,000,” Sterling said. “That’s before taxes, that’s before I paid my coaches, that’s before expenses, and I owed taxes last year. Because of COVID and everything I had to do for my personal side, I had to take care of the family and take care of the family and pay for stuff, remodel this, remodel that, so I owed money. I probably walked away with about $110,000. Now I can spend that, and I have to budget for it, and I have to put money away for savings and stuff for my investments, so now I have to budget for everything to make sure I don’t go broke. So it sounds like ‘You made a hell of a lot of money’ and yes and no.”
Ultimately, the most important thing for Sterling is that Chandler speaks from a privileged position and ignores the hundreds of other fighters who don’t make what they are. And given what’s known about how well the UFC is doing, Sterling believes there’s more work to be done.
“My whole statement is, Michael Chandler, you can’t say that,” Sterling concluded. “You are in a different position. If you came here to do what these guys do and had to fight your way up, I might respect it if you say so, but you kind of came in with a silver spoon and the Dana White privilege. …I’m not saying you didn’t earn your stripes, I’m just saying in terms of fighter pay you’re not in a position to talk about it because you came to be one of the highest paid guys at the time you came from Bellator over. It’s not the same as the guys who come in, like a Paddy Pimblett, super popular, probably as popular as Michael Chandler, and get paid peanuts. It’s bloody peanuts for what he does…
“At the end of the day, Chandler, you and I could agree that there is more for the fighters to spread based on the numbers that have been shown and revealed. … I’m not saying the UFC isn’t doing a great job of making sure they make millionaires, but to say we couldn’t do more couldn’t be better for the fighters, I think she would be lying to herself. But it is what it is. I think brighter days will come eventually.”
Watch Sterling’s full video below.