Top fighters in mixed martial arts, as a group, are grossly underpaid. The big events draw thousands of spectators to arenas nationwide. Pay per view adds millions more. When you factor in concessions, advertising, site fees, and all the other revenue streams, each event makes the Fertitta brothers and Dana White very, very wealthy. Most fighters, on the other hand, only see a fraction of that revenue, especially when compared to top athletes in other sports.
I say all that to make my general position known in advance. I'm pro fighter. They are the men and women risking their well being, they are the ones who are providing the entertainment, putting it all on the line for fame, glory, and yes, money. To me, that means they deserve a fair shake and then some.
With that out of the way, I think it's fair to point out that Dan Henderson makes too much money. For the services he provides, he's not just a little overpaid - he's grotesquely overpaid. He's the Allan Houston of MMA fighters, an athlete paid like a star when he's really filling a supporting role. ESPN reports that Henderson will bank $800,000 for his main event tilt later this month against Fedor Emelianenko.
It's actually fairly incredible. With the exception of UFC 75, the first high profile main event ever shown on free television in America, Henderson has a dubious history of attracting paying customers to the box office or viewers to the television set. Yet, he will make more for a bout on Showtime than many UFC main eventers will make for headlining wildly successful pay per views. A star in the Pride promotion in Japan for much of the last decade, Henderson is one of MMA's most successful fighters historically. He's won titles in two weight classes and competed with the sport's very best. But he's never carved out a large fanbase, isn't a sustained household name, and wasn't considered capable, as he crept into his 40's, of headlining a pay per view for the UFC.
UFC President Dana White watched in amazement as Strikeforce engaged in a bidding war with seemingly no one for Hendo's services. White was happy to let a supporting player go with a superstar's price tag. He knew that Henderson would never be worth that kind of money - as usual he was right.
On CBS, headlining against Jake Shields, Henderson attracted barely half of the audience Emelianenko had drawn in Strikeforce's first fight card on network television. In bouts with Rafael Feijao and Renato Sobral, Henderson performed like any other Strikeforce fighter in the ratings. He didn't add viewers, despite cashing the pay check of the kind of fighter who should.
With Emelianenko leading the way, and Nick Diaz gaining ground, Henderson faded into the background as just another fighter. Now Fedor is floundering, twice a victim of larger grapplers in the Strikeforce heavyweight division. While his last fight was still a box office success, there are legitimate questions about how consecutive losses will affect his drawing power.
The entertainment industry is complicated - predicting trends and creating stars are both a sophisticated alchemy. And really, that's what the fight business is - entertainment. As a fighter, Dan Henderson was one of the best. As an entertainer, he's arguably fallen short. Strikeforce, long speculated to be on the chopping block after being purchased by the UFC's parent company Zuffa, continues to struggle with this idea, letting its biggest stars walk away, while using resources on fighters like Henderson who pack questionable box office punch.
Gina Carano is missing in action. Kickboxing star Alistair Overeem dropped out of the Heavyweight Grand Prix, a successful but jinxed tournament. Nick Diaz, a rising star, was immediately moved over to the UFC brand. It leaves Strikeforce in a bad place - Sports Illustrated's Jeff Wagenheim believes it's time for Zuffa to call it quits on the promotion. If they do, contracts like Henderson's, symbolic of misused resources, will be one of a myriad of reasons why.