The Dangers of the Free Market: When It’s Worth Exploring the Free Agency in MMA and When It’s Not

Former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson was the first actively winning and top-level UFC fighter to sign with Bellator MMA.
After winning two straight at welterweight, the former champion decided to test the free agency, sporting offers from each major promotion.
In the end, he decided that Bellator MMA’s offer was the most appealing, and he signed with them; the UFC declined to match the terms of this deal.

Henderson will likely be getting a major pay bump, and Bellator has also signed top-ten (and even top-five) fighters in Josh Thomson and Phil Davis, as of late.
Needless to say, these signings—especially that of Henderson—have inspired many other fighters who feel they are worth more than they’re currently being paid to test the free agency and field offers from as many promotions as possible.

To be clear, this is certainly a good thing—a great thing, in fact. Fighters will have more say in which promotion they compete in, and more directly, will make a lot more money than they would have otherwise.

In most divisions and situations, that is.

Alistair Overeem is a heavyweight mainstay who, after partnering with Jackson-Wink’s MMA team, rattled off three outstanding wins over top-level opponents, including a most-recent KO victory over former champion Junior dos Santos. Overeem has successfully reignited his MMA career in vicious fashion, and now finds himself close to a shot at the belt.

After this latest win, though, Overeem decided to test the free agency. At the time of writing, he is still in the process of doing so, and news regarding his progress has yet to be reported. In his last contest against dos Santos, Overeem was paid $542,857, including a $200,000 win bonus, and a miniscule $5,000 Reebok payout.

The heavyweight division is in clear need of contenders, as is apparent to most fans, and evident through the major promotions’ recent prospect-signing efforts. Overeem could very well compete for the belt, once again, and his position inside the Octagon is an important one. Most everyone expects the UFC to fight hard to re-sign him—and rightfully so.

But what if they don’t?

Overeem is once again a heavyweight mainstay, but at thirty-five years of age, how long will he continue to compete for, even with his latest resurgence considered? Moreover, given all of the fights that fans have seen him involved in, how exciting is the prospect of him clashing with the titleholder? Also worth thinking about are his ratings on free television.

He is certainly a draw, but Overeem’s co-main event KO over dos Santos, with the assistance of an anticipated title rematch between Rafael dos Anjos and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in the main event, garnered about 2,800,000 viewers. A respectable number, but nothing to write home about; for reference, UFC on Fox 18, headlined by Anthony Johnson and Ryan Bader, clocked-in at 2,685,000 viewers.

All of these things will be considered by the UFC, and Overeem may very well be made an example of for other fighters thinking of testing the free agency; the vast majority of other athletes are in completely different paygrades and situations than this, but the message will be apparent. Which promotion, specifically, would be able and willing to pay Overeem over one half of a million dollars per fight, including a win bonus? That’s close to the entire payroll of many promotions at a given event!

Of course, Overeem could very well re-sign with the UFC into a lucrative new deal, or align with another promotion for even more money. I sincerely hope he does one of these things, but when the numbers behind the situation are closely examined, in coordination with the inevitable flood of fighters who will be testing the free agency, it becomes clear that the UFC may very well send a powerful, albeit subjective, message by refusing to re-sign Overeem altogether.

Removing the guarantee of support from the largest bidder in the market is a great way to dissuade athletes from fighting their contracts out. It might seem ruthless, but at the end of the day, MMA is a business before it’s a sport—at least at the highest level.