It appears the UFC will be losing yet another name fighter to its main rival. According to MMAJunkie's Chamatkar Sandhu, Gegard Mousasi, the Dutch-Armenian MMA fixture who has been in the UFC for four years and fighting professionally since he was a mere lad of 17, has become the latest free agent to make the move to Bellator after the UFC refused to raise his salary. Mousasi's contract expired in April after his TKO win over former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, his fifth victory in a row. According to Kimura.se, however, despite Mousasi's record, the UFC lawyer handling negotiations didn't think he was a "big enough name" to justify whatever raise he was asking for.
Mousasi made $150,000 for the Weidman fight, with $50,000 coming in the form of a win bonus, but even in May, he told FS1 that negotiations with the UFC were going poorly. The fighter took issue with the approach the UFC takes to fighter pay, saying one's salary should have more to do with in-cage achievement than out-of-cage fame.
"It has to be something to do with rankings. If you're one of the best you should get paid as one of the best. I'm up there. Ten years [in the sport], more than that, so I think I've earned what I should get next," Mousasi said. "If you're one of the best fighters you should get paid. Sometimes it's about nationality. Sage Northcutt, I just heard he's making $75,000 and $75,000, and the guy is, what, a beginner? Don't tell me it's a fair sport."
Of course the UFC brass, and especially President Dana White, have never claimed that fighter pay is a matter of fairness, or rather Mousasi's notion of fairness. Fairness to them isn't dictated by accomplishment but by the ability to attract attention and sell tickets and pay-per-view buys. The night of the Weidman fight, in response to Mousasi pointing out that he was making considerably less money than fighters he had defeated like Dan Henderson and Mark Hunt, White, who is the very model of the modern corporate head, seeking immediate gain over long-term viability even at the expense of those who work for him, laughed off the comparison, as if equating pay with performance were the height of old-fashioned naiveté.
"Dan Henderson has been in the game forever. Mark Hunt has an entire country behind him," White said. "When we do fights in Australia, he sells out arenas. Gegard Mousasi isn't selling out arenas."
Fair enough, but when a fighter's salary is dictated by the whims of the moment rather that the accomplishments of a career—when, in other words, loyalty and achievement mean nothing compared with the shifting demands of whatever commercial impulse happens to be floating in front of your face at a particular moment—a company like the UFC is at perpetual risk of losing disgruntled fighters to other organizations, leaving them with nothing but the hope that the next hot new thing will be coming along soon to keep people entertained and entranced for a week or a month or a year. The problem with that model is twofold. One, what if the next new thing doesn't come around, or proves incapable of sustaining initial interest with quality performances (like Northcutt), or disappears after losing (like Ronda Rousey) or after winning (like Conor McGregor): what, in other words, if your new shining star turns out to be a flash-in-the-pan? And two, it encourages great fighters who may not meet your demands to look elsewhere. Which is what's happening now. With the UFC no longer able to claim it's the only major-league promotion in the game, we're seeing more and more great fighters make the move to Bellator, which would have been unthinkable five years ago. Rory MacDonald, Phil Davis, Lorenz Larkin, Ryan Bader: All top-tier UFC fighters who felt underappreciated by a promotion that seems hell-bent on treating its fighters (not employees, let's remember) like disposable products.
The fact that we can now reportedly add Gegard Mousasi to that list—a man who, with his top-five ranking but placid demeanor embodies everything that Dana White can't stand in a fighter—means the UFC is one large step closer to being caught up to. Add in White publicly trashing champions like Amanda Nunes for "refusing" to fight and threatening to get rid of entire divisions because other champions, like Demetrious Johnson, dare to express reservations and opinions, and you've got yourself an unsustainable business model: viral hype shaped like a company. There are only so many Sage Northcutts and Ronda Rouseys and Conor McGregors in the world, Dana. And don't look now, but they're all gone.