Before he ever arrived on the scene, Cain Velasquez was anointed. The people who scout out talent before it debuts on the big stage almost universally agreed: Velasquez was made to be a champion. Undersized yet rugged, the collegiate wrestling All-American grew such a fearsome reputation in such a short time that he had trouble finding fights to start his career. And so it was that after that just two professional bouts, he found himself competing in the UFC.
Being in the arena for Velasquez’s Octagon debut, you knew you were watching somebody. He bludgeoned Brad Morris in short order, barely getting touched in the process. It was just the start of something big. He finished one opponent after another, and ultimately proved all his advocates correct when he crushed Brock Lesnar to capture the UFC heavyweight championship. No one would have known it at the time, but that was Velasquez’s apex. He’d lose the belt in the next time out, and though he’d recapture it and solidify his legacy with a more lengthy second reign, his stoppage of Lesnar was the brightest his star would ever shine in the UFC.
Early last week, Velasquez linked his name with Lesnar again, showing up on WWE programming to begin a professional wrestling storyline. A short time later, we found out that Velasquez officially retired from the UFC to start a new career.
His retirement does not come as a total surprise. Beset by injuries over the course of his career, Velasquez could never get to the cage as often as he would have liked. Since the start of 2014, he has fought just three times. And after losing to Francis Ngannou in February, his road back to a title shot would have been a long one. It is understandable that he simply tired of this long and difficult grind.
Instead, he’ll move on to a different one, and while he should not be criticized for choosing to pursue a newer and fresher interest, it is worth wondering what, if anything, this says about the UFC. The fact is that time after time, we’ve seen instances where popular athletes look to chase money elsewhere.
On the heels of in-depth reporting by journalists including Bloody Elbow’s John Nash related to an ongoing lawsuit that unearthed the UFC’s intention to keep fighter pay capped at 20 percent of its revenue — a number far short of the 50 percent in most sports leagues including the NFL, NBA and MLB — it is worth wondering how much of a role money plays in decisions like this.
To be sure, Velasquez made more money in the UFC than your average fighter, and probably millions over his decade-long run, yet it’s hard to believe his departure isn’t at least a little bit connected to his paycheck. After all, it’s not like Velasquez retired to concentrate on being a PTA dad. Professional wrestling is also filled with physicality and fraught with danger. It may not be inherently as violent as MMA, but it’s in the same family. It’s a cousin. Essentially, he simply traded one threat for another.
This isn’t even a new phenomenon. Ronda Rousey did the same thing just over a year ago. And other fighters near the top of the pay scale have had their contract issues with the promotion. Conor McGregor has been working for a while now to reach an agreement that would properly compensate him in the wake of the UFC’s pay-per-view move to ESPN’s streaming system — a move that puts two paywalls between consumers and pay-per-view stars. In its stead, he’s concentrating on growing his whiskey business.
Meanwhile, other contract squabbles abound. Colby Covington was bounced from a title fight after he attempted to renegotiate his challenger’s purse. Nate Diaz famously sat out for years because he didn’t like the fights or the money offered. In an organization where the stars sell the product, their power remains largely kneecapped.
That’s an issue that affects the product more than we often stop to consider. Most of the time this sort of thing happens, it’s with fighters who have broken through and built some kind of name and following for themselves. Luke Rockhold and Paige VanZant are two that come to mind that have publicly stated they can make more money doing something other than fighting. One reached the championship level; the other gained significant popularity. They are names that could either headline a card or add some serious wattage to the marquee. There are plenty of others. Lesnar, for instance, only bounced back and forth between UFC and WWE because he was taking the best available offer. Nick Diaz basically walked away after making a couple big paydays.
UFC president Dana White is right when he repeatedly says that of course, everybody wants to make more money. The thing about it is, these UFC stars have earned it. It used to be the case that the promotion could put nearly anyone in the main event and draw a huge crowd. But with the explosion of entertainment options that streaming provides, that’s no longer the case. It takes stars to build an event, and many of the stars aren’t happy. And when the stars sit or chase a buck elsewhere, the product suffers.
Last week in Australia, a new star was born. Israel Adesanya captivated a worldwide audience and captured the UFC middleweight title. During the run-up to the fight, Adesanya spoke of his earning potential, saying he was bound to make $100 million in the UFC. While you admire his moxie, you wonder how he’ll react when he finds out just how difficult that is under the UFC pay structure.
Shortly after he won, for the first time since the release of these court-related documents detailing fighter payment, a UFC executive was asked about the fighter’s revenue cut. Chief Operations Officer Lawrence Epstein had just proudly announced a “historic” event with a gate of $5.5 million and over 57,000 fans attending, when The Athletic’s Ben Fowlkes asked him to comment on the pay split.
“You know, I’d really love to answer that question, but unfortunately we’re involved in this lawsuit and the lawyers that run this have asked that they be the only ones who comment on it,” Epstein said. “I’ve got some great answers for you but unfortunately I’m not at privy to give them to you right now.”
If there are no answers, all we are left with is questions. Questions about how this pay structure affects the fighters and the very product the UFC is selling. All we can do is wonder if the Velasquezes of the world would feel fighting was more worth their while for a bigger paycheck. For now, it’s a problem the sport will continue to wrestle with.