No Respect: The Pay Scale of Women's MMA
I recently had an interview with Knoxville women’s MMA matchmaker and editor for The Ultimate Female Fighter, Katrina Belcher. The questions on the state of matchmaking in women’s MMA turned into an article for my column on The Examiner. However, there was a large and rather important tangent on the issue of pay scale for female fighters. And, since the information is related to some of my most unpopular and inflammatory opinions, bullshido is clearly the place to report on it.
The last professional event containing a major name in women’s MMA that has released salary information is Strikeforce’s “Diaz versus Shamrock." On that card in April, Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos, arguably the second biggest name in women’s MMA, earned $18,000. That includes her $10,000 win bonus. So, her base pay was $8,000. Her opponent, Hitomi Akano, got $1,450 for her trouble. These numbers do not include adjustments made for Santos coming in over weight.
The Cyborg v Carano fight was already a foregone conclusion when the contract for this fight was being negotiated. And, while it may be a stretch to think that Strikeforce executives already knew the bout would be headlining a card with four separate title fights, they had to know that Santos was the heel of some headlining material. So, the fact that only one man on the main card received a lower base salary, and most of the men had at least double, does sound like gender inequality.
On the surface.
Belcher said, in regards to putting together cards, that “Every time you hear about an upcoming MMA event, the first question, whether it’s a local organization or national, is “who’s fighting?” and really that means “who are the men that are fighting?””
This attitude doesn't just effect billing, it also impacts salary. The proportionate gap in pay for Santos was actually kind compared to some smaller organizations.
Belcher put forward some interesting arguments about how making women’s MMA more visible and creating better communication between fighters and organizations can fix this perceived lack of value of women fighters. Some of these arguments are covered in her blog.
But I have a much simpler and more cynical view of the issue. The problem isn’t so much perceived inequality of women fighters as it is perceived inequality of the sport. The average fan considers the MMA that the guys do to be the real MMA. The kicker is that those fans have good reason to think that.
As mentioned, Carano v Santos is going to be headlining an event in which it is only one of four title fights. This certainly will make the women’s divisions more visible. It will get even the casual fan’s attention. Strikeforce is wheeling out all their biggest guns to assure that. But will it grant women’s MMA legitimacy?
I’ll rephrase. Can a fight between two athletes who have been, by virtue of their status, allowed to scoff at the idea of weight classes while gleefully eating up tomato cans bring legitimacy to the divisions?
Okay, so Santos only came in over weight once. But a good number of her opponents were on the smaller end of 135 and were asked to move up, so she was always a monster in comparison.
If it weren’t for the fact that so many legitimate women athletes are hoping that this match will open up opportunities for them, we’d all be calling this fight what it is. It's a good old fashioned, Kimbo Slice style, freak show. Santos isn’t going to get paid that much on her own because she is a foil to Carano’s looks. Commentators just hope that their skills foil out as well so the two MMA heroines don’t turn out to be as disappointing as some of the EliteXC disasters.
Shayna Baszler fought Sarah Kaufman at the last Strikeforce event this past June. The rounds were 5 minutes long. The opponents were reasonably similar in size and skill level. There were positional changes, reversals, and some technical counter punching. And watching it I was thoroughly shocked that such a well put together female fight was allowed to be aired on television.
Those are the kind of fights that will have to become the rule rather than the exception for women’s MMA to be taken seriously. And Strikeforce is doing its part to further that cause by airing matches like Baszler v Kaufman. It’s just not happening on the headline.