The last time the UFC shorted “Raging” Al Iaquinta on a performance bonus he thought he deserved—after knocking out Joe Lauzon in Las Vegas back in January 2015—he slugged stolen vodka from a plastic cup at the MGM Grand, held court at a press conference that spawned his Spanish-language Twitter alter-ego, and trashed his hotel room. More than two years later, after knocking out the once frighteningly durable Diego Sanchez in the first round at UFC Fight Night 108 and getting denied another Performance of the Night bonus, the 155-pounder told the UFC to go fuck itself, and offered a vague promise to repeat what happened in Vegas.
Iaquinta hasn’t been shy about his dissatisfaction with the payouts on his UFC contract. Last fall, he withdrew from a fight with Thiago Alves scheduled for the UFC’s Madison Square Garden debut—his first bout after a knee injury sidelined him for more than a year—and briefly retired from fighting while on a four-fight win streak. Then he went public with his grievances with the promotion: they wouldn’t renegotiate his contracted $26,000 to show and $26,000 to win, and the promotion barred him from consideration for performance bonuses for three fights after a series of missteps, including skipping a fighter summit and trashing said hotel room.
He picked up where he left off after starching Sanchez in 98 seconds on Saturday, his first fight since the tectonic shifts on the promotion through the Reebok outfitting policy and WME-IMG ownership. “I love fighting, but I’m not gonna ruin my body. This is no game, man. This is for real. [Getting paid $26,000 and $26,000] is not a lot of money. For doing what I’m doing, for being on TV, for me driving the car I’m driving, I’ve gotta be living a lot better than this. I could be doing anything in the world and making the same kind of money. And I don’t have the risk of getting hurt. I don’t need to fight now. I have my real estate career. I’m set with that. So if I want to fight, I’ll fight.”
We’re used to top draws that make millions and curtain-jerkers that make peanuts because MMA is as stratified as the rest of society. But the future of mixed martial arts—as a sport, as entertainment, as a business—demands a secure middle class of athletes who can live comfortably from fighting alone.
Al Iaquinta fits the profile of a middle-class fighter: an Ultimate Fighter finalist long past the expiration date for that to mean much, another face in the weight class lorded over by Conor McGregor. But he’s good, exciting, and successful on the merits: his five straight wins include the likes of Sanchez, Lauzon, Jorge Masvidal, and Ross Pearson, all but one by some variation of knockout, and he’s ranked 14th in his division. And he’s a natural fighter, which made the switch to a white-collar career in Long Island real estate difficult. “I definitely would rather be fighting,” he told Bloody Elbow in January. “It’s pretty hard when you’re fighting in front of thousands of people or whatever, and then you’re working in the office.”
Iaquinta is expendable, but he’s also essential if the UFC continues to expect us to surrender so many Saturday evenings without falling asleep before 10 p.m. in service of their schedule. The Zuffa-era UFC’s strength was top-to-bottom cards of skilled violence—the main event got you in the door, and the supporting cast gave you your money’s worth. The pay-per-view draws of today were plucked straight from the lower ranks of yesterday: Georges St. Pierre was supposed to get chewed up by Karo Parisyan on the prelims of UFC 46 before he became the greatest welterweight in the world, and Conor McGregor debuted on the whatever-the-fuck prelims in Stockholm. There are no PRIDE or Strikeforce champions to sign away anymore. Everything is homegrown.
Paying more to fighters who aren’t stars is an investment, not a loss. If every UFC fighter could live comfortably from fighting alone, they’d get better than they would if they had to check text messages from clients between sparring rounds and rush home to update a Zillow listing for a three-bedroom Cape. Ideally, that focus would mean impressing on fight night, and ideally audiences would remember their names as a consequence. They might not be the type to chat up Jimmy Kimmel and headline pay-per-views, but who knows? You don’t have to be a marketing genius to do magic with a Long Islander named Raging Al who goes Def Leppard on his hotel suite.
It’s not the UFC’s job to function as a charity, but it’s responsible for upholding its reputation as MMA’s standard-bearer. Claiming an 18-fight veteran who made $66,000 to show was “super fucking expensive” doesn’t fly when its current owners purchased the promotion for north of $4 billion. For what it’s worth, if Iaquinta only earned the $52,000 he took home from Saturday night, he’d be a low-income resident of Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties.
So how much money is enough? That’s a question better answered by the UFC and, ideally, a fighter’s association. The way fighters are paid is as much an issue as the numbers on the check: $52,000 broken into a biweekly paycheck offers security that doesn’t exist when you’re expecting the money all at once, and it might be cut in half if you have a bad night, assuming you don’t get hurt and have to pull out ahead of time, and you still have to pay a third of the check in taxes. Performance bonuses are good incentives for spectator-friendly fights, but they only reinforce the unpredictability of a fighter’s lifestyle. If a fighter is only worth $10,000—the standard price tag for an anonymous debuting fighter—maybe they shouldn’t be fighting for the UFC (or Bellator, for that matter).
But Iaquinta signed a contract, right? His show and win money from Saturday night weren’t surprises. If he leaves the UFC with a grumble, western Long Island might shed a tear or break an alarm clock and bedside lamp, but the UFC machine will keep chugging. No matter how much you pay, you can’t account for the caprice and contempt of a professional fighter, especially one named Raging Al.
But pay is prestige. The bigger problem comes years down the line, when a teenage wrestler who’s thinking about taking jiu-jitsu classes in the off-season and who might be MMA’s next big thing remembers that UFC fighter on a five-fight win streak who became a real estate agent to make ends meet, and he decides to go out for basketball next year.
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