Inside The World Of Professional Fighting, A Fight For Fair Pay

Michelle Waterson is a highly skilled mixed martial artist who competes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). She’s also a wife and a mother. I had the opportunity to meet her at the Ellevate Network's Mobilizing the Power of Women Summit. (Ellevate also blogs for Women@Forbes.) She spoke about how she fights for fair pay in an entertainment industry.

Waterson started doing karate at age 10. She has been fighting professionally for a decade and is currently ranked sixth in her weight class.

“I want to own all my spaces — wife, mother, and Karate Hottie — with confidence,” says Waterson, whose nickname in the ring is ‘The Karate Hottie.’

She spoke about how she’s paid as a female fighter. Women can be penalized when they are assertive in a negotiation, and Waterson’s job is literally to win fights. Yet she still doesn’t negotiate her own contract.

Waterson said her husband, Joshua Gomez, negotiates on her behalf, because she doesn’t want to jeopardize her relationships with UFC.

Talking about pay amongst fighters is seen as taboo. If someone turns down a fight due to low pay, another fighter is waiting in the wings to take her place.

“The next person will say, ‘I’ll take it. It’s not about money, it’s about pride.’ We need to get over that,” says Waterson.

Rankings do affect pay. Fighters are paid a fight purse and a win purse. When you win, you are paid twice as much as when you lose.

Waterson says the UFC values their fighters for what they bring to the table: “If you draw an audience, they value you. If you have media pull and a big social following, that impacts your status. Win, lose, or draw, it’s going to be entertaining because our emotions come through. At the end of the day, UFC is an entertainment business.”

It’s an entertainment business that can take a heavy physical toll on the fighters. Waterson has suffered a knee injury and a broken hand in recent years, in addition to black eyes, a broken nose and ear injuries.

“At the end of the day, every time you fight, you’re taking headshots and sacrificing your health and time away from your family and children,” says Waterson. “Right now you’re healthy, but when you’re done fighting, what are you going to have left to show?”

She stresses that although it’s an individual sport and fighters tend to view each other as competition, they have common interests.

“We need to band together if we want to rise and be respected as professional athletes, rather than people who would like to bar fight and be on TV.”

Waterson said it’s important to not lose sight of why she’s stuck with this career. At times, she’s even questioned why she continues fighting when she knows she could be making more doing something else.

“I’ve been doing martial arts for 20 years, and I’ve been fighting professionally for 10 years,” said Waterson. “Why stop now? I’m almost at the top of the mountain.”

This post originally appeared in Women@Forbes, where Alexandra Dickinson is a contributor. She writes about how to use a negotiation mindset to achieve your goals.
 

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Alexandra Dickinson

Alexandra Dickinson is the CEO and founder of Ask For It, a boutique consulting company working to close the gender wage gap by effecting change at both the institutional and individual level. We work with companies, schools, organizations and individuals through a combination of trainings, workshops and consulting. Our goal is for women and men to be paid based on their talents and skills, regardless of gender, and for our company to have been an important part of that change.