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Israel Adesanya explains why he didn’t want to test free agency, argues that UFC athletes ‘shouldn’t have to have a second or third job’

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Israel Adesanya won’t be following the same script as his friend and fellow UFC champion Francis Ngannou. “The Last Stylebender” opted to re-sign with the promotion ahead of his UFC 271 middleweight title defense against Robert Whittaker, inking a contract that has been touted as “one of the most lucrative multi-fight deals in company history” rather than leaning on the option of potentially testing free agency, as Ngannou has threatened to do in 2023 if he and the UFC are unable to reconcile their differences and come to terms.

Adesanya (22-1) is one of the biggest stars in the sport and MMA Fighting’s No. 2 ranked male pound-for-pound fighter in the world, so he likely could’ve commanded a hefty price tag on the open market. But while the middleweight champion sees issues he’d like to address in the UFC, the idea of leaving the organization was never one he truly entertained.

“For me, I like the UFC. I’ve always loved [the UFC],” Adesanya said during a recent in-studio appearance on The MMA Hour. “This has been my dream. So I’m here now and I know what the potential is, kind of like how Dana [White] believed in the UFC when no one else believed in the UFC. I’m in a spot where I really believe the UFC can step up. I really believe [that], and I think it’s just like — Francis [Ngannou] has kicked it off. I’m speaking out about it. I feel like it’s time. And the rising tide lifts all the ships, you know?

“I’m in a good position so I can just be like, ‘Right, thanks for the cheese.’ I just feel like guys who are starting out in the UFC shouldn’t have to have a second or third job than being a fighter, shouldn’t have to worry how they’re going to pay their manager or pay for their training. You should be able to train eight to 12 weeks, uninterrupted, have your family looked after, and still be able to fight. Because guess what? Their training is going to make them a better fighter and you’re going to get better quality fights, and when that happens, trust me, rising tide lifts [all the ships]. Little details. It’s going to make everyone better.”

The issue of introductory fighter pay in the UFC is one that is important to Adesanya, and something he even addressed in his post-fight press conference after his UFC 271 win over Whittaker. Generally, new UFC fighters begin on a contract that earns them either $10,000 or $12,000 to show and another $10,000 or $12,000 to win, depending on whether they entered the organization through a Zuffa pipeline such as Dana White’s Contender Series.

Many athletes have no option but to hold secondary jobs while they work their way up the ranks in the UFC, as the pay structure for newcomers and even some fighters hovering in the UFC’s middle class is far from lucrative, especially when factoring in the costs of taxes, training camps, managerial fees, and numerous other expenses that eat into fight purses.

Adesanya said he’s reached a point of financial success in his career where he could walk away from MMA tomorrow and still be able to live comfortably. Nonetheless, he still feels compelled to speak up for his teammates and other fighters who aren’t as fortunate.

“I don’t think it’s my duty, but I’ve got teammates who are at that level in the UFC and I know what some of them have to go through to make ends meet,” Adesanya said. “I feel like this is the NBA of fighting or the NFL of fighting — not just MMA, but fighting. I really think so. So I feel like we shouldn’t have to have rookies [struggling], if you will. In the NBA, the rookies, they get nice checks, they don’t have a second job. So why does Joe Blow have to have a second job or third job, or have to scrounge for payments for the next camp or whatever?

“I feel like we should be on, not an even playing field, but we should be be able to look after ourselves, for the guys who were just starting out, the rookies. And like I said, I don’t think it’s my duty, but if I see something that I don’t think is right, I’ll speak out about it. And like I said, I love the UFC, I’ve always wanted to be here, but when something smells fishy, it seems like it’s not supposed to be that way … I’ll say what I have to say.”

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