Why I quit professional mixed martial arts: lessons for athletes and coaches

by | Apr 21, 2022 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

The most common question asked of a fighter is:

“When are you fighting again?”

The response when I explain that I’m not competing anymore is often dumbfounded. “Why? Your record is great, you could be in the UFC, you could win that Cage Warriors world championship”.

This is often the response of the untrained public or naïve amateur fighter in the gym. Those who know, know. Fighters understand the life of a fighter. This article is here to highlight the challenges faced by a professional fighter and an explanation towards retirement. There are stark parallels of being a professional fighter and those pursuing coaching roles in elite sport. This article will aim to help coaches understand the life of a professional athlete and also, hopefully, encourage coaches to reflect on their ambitions within their own careers.

Fighter Pay

The pinnacle of the sport right now is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), many famous stars have been outspoken against the current pay within the promotion. Relative to other professional sports, such as NBA and NFL, who pay their athletes 50% of total revenue, the UFC pay their athletes 16-20% of total revenue. Fighters often value getting to the UFC as a hallowed ground of ‘making it’ however a realistic look at low tier fighters pay tell a different story. Starting figures in the UFC sit at $12,000 to show, $12,000 to win and Reebok/Venom sponsorship (excluding Contenders series $5000/$5000). So, for a fighter who loses a close split decision comes away with $12,000. Take away management fees, coaching fees, tax etc and they may be left with a net profit of around $4000-$6000 for potentially a twelve-week training camp.

The UFC themselves as part of an antitrust lawsuit aim to keep fighter pay around 17% of revenue (Bloody Elbow). Fighter pay is growing, the share of revenue to fighters has increased over time 1.5-2x from 2005, however so has the promotors increasing by 3.4x in the same period.

I never quite made the pinnacle of the sport, despite being highly touted to reach such heights, but fought on high level international shows such as Cage Warriors, BAMMA, ACA and WFCA. For most of my fights, revenue was under £3000 (including ticket sales), against training expenses and medicals you’re often breaking even from a profit perspective. This level of pay included proposals for world title fights on western Europe’s biggest promotions. The highest purses I had for professional fighting were on Russian promotions ACA and WFCA respectively.

To put this into perspective, the last financial year I have really increased my services in the private sector, a combination of coaching martial arts, strength and conditioning and online coaching, to the point where I can earn dramatically more than the standard pay in the UFC without the physical damage of prize fighting. It also enables me to help more people in my local area instead of the selfish pursuit of a fighter’s life.

Burnout and Injuries

This stark reality is important because most fighters have to work multiple jobs as well as putting in an enormous amount of time and commitment to excel at their craft. I decided to work in an industry that complemented my fighting career. I studied at university to become a sports therapist and then studied again to become a strength and conditioning coach.

Being a professional fighter means injuries happen and fighters are almost always in pain. It’s just something you get used to because you are pushing your body to the limits regularly in chaotic environment, combined with the life stresses of making enough money, travelling for the highest level of training and the emotional/relationship struggles the career can impose. As Dan John once said at a workshop “Your sport will have beaten you up so badly, you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to undo the damage.”

Juggling studies, making enough money to stand on my own feet and training enough to excel at professional sports took its toll. In 2019 during a training camp, I developed a labral tear in my hip during a time of immense stress and travel and after a bout in mid-2019 I developed a serious bout of Bell’s Palsy which still affects me mildly to this day. Burnout not only had an effect on my physical health, but also my mental health which suffered as a by-product of not knowing if I could still compete in the sport, I had dedicated over a decade of my life to. There were also the considerations of the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries and extreme weight cutting, both of which are heavily prevalent in the sport.

If fighters were compensated accordingly and had security after a career then potentially some of the long-term issues could be mitigated. However most retired fighters have to return to work post career, it’s absolutely essential to build some sort of exit strategy into your career. Returning to manual labour or physical work after a professional fighting career is tough and may not even be possible after the orthopaedic cost of the sport.

Relationships and Family

When competing, I thought I could always do other things alongside fighting such as university, coaching and tending to my relationships and perhaps this meant that I did not go as far as I could have otherwise. The phrase “burn the boats” is cast around a lot in circles these days, perhaps with full investment in the sport, you are giving yourself the best chance to excel, statistically speaking it’s still not a smart bet.

Generally, training consisted of 10-12 training sessions weekly but many professionals train more than this. Juggling working alongside training and studying meant that important people in my life didn’t get the attention or time they deserved. For the average professional fighter, they have to work to earn a living and their spare time is almost exclusively dedicated to their fighting career.

The people around you suffer as a by-product – parents, spouses and children. This is common in both the lives of professional athletes and coaches alike who are on the road a lot with their athletes and chasing their ambitions. There comes a point in a career where the heady heights of sporting achievement and mastery no longer outweigh the sacrifices and their subsequent costs in the rest of your life.

Level of Competition

Back in 2015, Fighters Only magazine touted me as one of the hottest prospects in the world: 23 years old, 7-0 as a professional and unbeaten as an amateur. My expectations immediately rose, as did my aspirations in the sport, to be one of the best in the sport.

Creating options throughout my career has allowed me to have a successful exit strategy now as I come to the close of my athletic career. With other rewarding commitments now, such as coaching youth martial arts, strength and conditioning coaching, a master’s degree, and sacrifices made for the last decade I’m unable to train effectively to compete at the level I know I should to be able to compete at the top level. The standard of competition over the last five years has drastically improved, amateurs now are training twice per day, in the coming years the level is going to increase again as those who have had world class training since starting the sport start to emerge into the world scene at a professional level. I have too much respect for my own reputation and the sport of MMA to just make up the numbers, I set out to be one of the best and with a half assed commitment eventually become a journeyman for the next generation of sport, that’s the harsh reality of it unless you are capable of putting in the time and effort required. Being around young highly touted stars in the sport such as Jake Hadley, Aidan Lee, Nathaniel Wood, Dom Wooding etc make me realise how invested you need to be in the sport, I simply cannot give the same effort level these great competitors can give anymore.

Realistically, I have gone as far as I can as a professional athlete. The experiences that I have gained throughout the last decade have enabled me to reach the area of expertise I have now and can monopolise. An unbeaten amateur, 10-2 professional and a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt alongside qualifications in sports therapy and strength and conditioning. I’ve developed a lifestyle that makes training like a world class athlete difficult and instead I look forwards to having a great impact in my local area and helping athletes avoid some of the pitfalls I have made in my career.

I hope these lessons are valuable to athletes who aspire to compete at an elite level and coaches who aspire to work in elite sport above all else. There are commonalities between working in elite sport as a coach and being a professional athlete, this isn’t an article to say don’t chase these high-level aspirations, but a truth that’s often found eventually in one’s career. Fight smart.

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