Trading Shots: Justin Gaethje wants to get rid of his win bonus. Is he onto something?

Justin Gaethje had a clear request after his win at UFC Fight Night 135, and it’s one he hopes to make when talking business with the UFC very soon. Is he onto something? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Downes: Justin Gaethje didn’t waste any time in Lincoln, Neb., on Saturday night. It only took him 87 seconds and one right hand to put away James Vick. Then he turned his attention to something more important – money.

Specifically, Gaethje said that he would like to have a “business meeting” with UFC brass. As he told MMAjunkie: “The way I put it all on the line, I need all my money up front. And that’s how it should work for people like me.”

It’s hard to argue with Gaethje on this one. As he himself has pointed out many times, his style isn’t exactly built for the long haul. Also, while it has given him 19 career wins, his four-fight run in the UFC has illustrated the tactical flaws inherent in fighting the way he does. By eliminating the show-win structure in his contracts, he can continue to fight the same style without worrying about losing any money.

We all know that this would benefit Gaethje, but couldn’t it benefit all fighters? More importantly, how likely are the UFC and other MMA promotions to switch to guaranteed money from the current model?

Fowlkes: If you’re trying to incentivize fighters to go out there and put on an exciting show, whether in victory or defeat, then it definitely makes sense to get rid of the show-win structure. If instead you want fighters to be focused on winning at all costs, then that pay structure makes a lot of sense. The problem is, the UFC says it wants one thing but often acts like it wants the other.

There are some fighters with deals in which they get all their money upfront. Usually that’s just the ones with the kind of juice to demand something like that and actually get it. Everyone else gets stuck in this same structure, which allows the promoter to sell each fighter on the dream of a certain fight purse, all while knowing full well that only one person in each bout will actually get it.

But if ever there was a fighter who deserves a flat fee, it’s probably Gaethje. Like he said, the UFC should use him as an example. You want action fighters? You want a bunch of people who are a guaranteed good time when they set foot in the cage? Show them that fighting like that has its rewards – even if certain victory isn’t one of them.

Besides, do we really need to incentivize fighters to win? Isn’t the threat of humiliating defeat on live TV enough to convince them to do their best? Or is there an actual value in making sure that losing only pays half as well as winning?

Downes: There’s certainly value in making sure losing only pays half as well as winning, just not for fighters. The current structure insures promoters no matter what happens. Win fights, but want more money? You need to put on a show! Put on exciting fights and want more money? You need to win them all.

The same principle applies when angling for a title fight. Winning fights isn’t enough. Being exciting isn’t enough. All you need to be is an entertaining fighter who wins all the time and has a charismatic personality. Simple, really.

I can only think of two possible arguments against moving to guaranteed purses. The first would be that it further promotes “stand-and-bang” culture. By rewarding Gaethje, you’ll inevitably create fighters trying to copy his style. But then, would that be so bad?

Furthermore, if you don’t think the UFC already rewards aggressive or reckless fighting styles, you haven’t been paying attention. The promotion has been conditioning fighters to go out there and trade for years. It’s just more difficult than people think. Gaethje isn’t some dork from a “Toughman” competition. He’s a talented fighter with the attitude and conviction to pull it off.

The second (and I think more reasonable) argument against guaranteed money is that it would further depress salaries. The average fight card payouts would certainly decrease under this system. It’ll be the same situation as when fighters were given the choice between more money or keep the post-fight bonuses. Do you want $10,000 to show and $10,000 to win, or a guaranteed $15,000?

This doesn’t seem like quite so bad of a deal, but as the contracts tier up, the overall payouts would drop dramatically. So besides Gaethje, who does this dramatic shift in payment benefit?

Fowlkes: If guaranteed money would depress fighter pay, why is it that everyone with a little negotiating power seems to opt for it? If anything, doing away with win bonuses allows fighters to get a clearer picture of what they’re really getting paid.

You tell me I’ll get 50 grand to show and another 50 to win, hey, sounds good. Since I’m never going to go out there planning to lose, a part of me is already spending that full 100 grand. I might even think about what a good deal I’m getting, making six figures for one fight. What I don’t factor in are blind judges or my opponent’s big right hand or any of the dozen other ways you can always lose in this sport.

Guaranteed money not only takes some of the pressure off, it also allows fighters to see the situation for what it really is – not what it could be in the most perfect possible version of reality.

Gaethje’s right to think he’s earned that, and also right to think it would set a good example if he were to get it. If you’re the UFC, you want other fighters looking at that guy and concluding that the risks he takes are worth the rewards. I just wonder if the UFC isn’t too busy trying to save a few bucks here and there to realize it.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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