Marloes Coenen thought she had it made. She was a 19 year old college student, four fights into her pro career, and had just won the 2000 ReMix World Cup MMA tournament in Japan. Unbelievably, by some grand accident of accounting or maybe just incredibly good fortune, she took home $100,000 for the tournament victory. The gods of finance had smiled upon her. She just knew her life would never be the same.
“After that, I quit my studying,” says Coenen. “I was studying at the university in Rotterdam and I thought, now I’m going to make a lot of money. I don’t need this. But it was a one-time thing. It never came back again.”
Not only did the six-figure payday never repeat itself, it never even came close. Coenen spent the next 10 years climbing up the ladder of women’s MMA, earning sometimes as little as $1,500 per fight. She racked up a very respectable 17-4 record and most recently challenged Strikeforce 145-pound champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos in a losing effort broadcast live on Showtime.
Her total disclosed take for that title bout, confirmed by Coenen herself? A mere $2,000. Far less, Coenen says, than she made on sponsorships for the fight.
“I only would have made a lot more money if I had won,” she quips. “But I didn’t.”
It’s a familiar story among female MMA fighters. If you’re doing this for the money, they say almost unanimously, get ready to be disappointed.
“I probably make between $12,000 and $15,000 a year,” says Miesha Tate, a veteran of Bodog and Strikeforce. “That’s including sponsorships. I try to either find part-time jobs here and there, or else I just live really, really frugally.”
So what’s keeping women’s salaries so low in the MMA world? The answer is a bunch of things, actually. But it essentially boils down to two main factors: a lack of venues, and a skewed calculus for determining a fighter’s value.
First, there’s the UFC, the goliath on the MMA landscape, which has decided to stay away from female fighters altogether. With EliteXC now out of the picture, that leaves Strikeforce as the only major MMA promoter in North America willing to showcase the division. A seight-year veteran of the women’s MMA scene Amanda Buckner explains, fewer outlets lead to a weaker negotiating position with the regional organizations.
“I think it’s a case of a promoter taking advantage of the knowledge that women do not have as many opportunities as men so they are more likely to take a fight for crappy money,” says Buckner.“ Most women are so desperate to get a fight that they feel like they do not have any choice but to accept what is offered.”
The trouble is, even Strikeforce—the highest-paying and most respected venue for female fighters in the United States—doesn’t necessarily put a women’s fight on every card. Even when they do feature the ladies, they typically only offer one women’s fight per event.
Male fighters under contract with a major MMA organization might fight anywhere from three to five times a year, which means more fight purses and more chances to sell sponsorships. Women like Tate, who’s on the Strikeforce roster but has fought an average of once a year for the promotion, are often forced to take lower-paying fights outside of the big show just to keep themselves afloat.
There simply aren’t enough opportunities, or even enough opponents, to continue reeling in quality paychecks.
That part, according to Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, may be about to change. While he acknowledges that Strikeforce’s current roster doesn’t allow for much more than one female fight per event, the fan response to the women’s division has encouraged the organization to seek out more fresh talent.
“In the summer coming up here, our goal is to host a couple of tournaments for female fighters, one in the 135-pound weight class and one in the 145-pound weight class,” Coker explains. “We’re working out deals with other promoters around the world for them to hold their own tournaments, and then the winners would come here and fight in our big tournament.”
But even with opportunities to compete on the rise, top female fighters still make a fraction of what their male counterparts do. Unless, of course, you happened to be named Gina Carano.
For her last foray into the cage, Carano earned a reported $125,000 in a losing effort against Santos. This made her not only the highest-paid woman in MMA, but also the top earner on a fight card that featured several veteran male fighters. A step toward gender equality in MMA? Perhaps, but the rules for Carano don’t necessarily apply to anyone else. Maybe that explains why Santos pocketed less than a quarter of Carano’s salary for a first-round TKO victory over the face of women’s MMA.
“I think the crown jewel right now of women’s mixed martial arts is still Gina Carano,” explains Coker. “She’s the most popular fighter, and somebody we paid a lot of money to fight for us. She’s kind of set the benchmark for popularity among female fighters. I think our pay scale is very fair, and as some of the females become more popular they’ll start making more money. Gina didn’t start at the top. She worked her way up. When we were promoting her in kickboxing on the under cards of the K-1 fights in Vegas, she was making $2,000 or $3,000. She’s worked her way up and paid her dues over the years.”
But anyone who’s seen so much as a snapshot of Carano knows that her hefty price tag wasn’t just a result of paying her dues in the sport. For women in MMA, looks matter, and everyone knows it. From a prominent MMA agent who insisted that the first step in being financially successful as a female fighter is to “be good looking,” to the fighters themselves, no one disputes the connection between beauty and money in women’s MMA.
“People want to see pretty girls fighting, so if you have that on your side, it’s going to help,” says Tate. “But do I think it’s right? No. I think it should be just like the guys, where it’s based on how you fight. With the guys, looks and marketing still helps, but you can still be really homely and make a lot of money as a fighter and get noticed. People don’t care about your looks nearly as much as with the women.”
And the women like Coenen, who made less for a title bout than relative novice Greg Nagy, who came in to face Herschel Walker on the same card with an uninspiring 1-1 record, and yet still earned $5,000? She says she knows it needs to change, but insists that’s not something you can do simply by letting it drive you crazy.
“I can become mad about it. I could be very childish about it and say, ‘I’ve been in the game longer than you.’ But there’s a reason the promoters give more money to the men than they do to me. The only person who can change it is me. I have to attract more attention to the fight. I look at it like I am a product. They don’t ask me to fight because they think I am such a nice girl. They ask me to fight because they think people want to see me kick another girl’s ass.”