“How much do you get paid?” a question that most serious amateur fighters hate answering. The layman hears “amateur” and “I don’t get paid” and immediately scoffs as if to say, “oh, you’re not that serious. ” After all, their buddy from high school is a pro MMA fighter and he just started training 2 or 3 years ago. This drives me nuts.
Unlike ball sports, combat sports athletes don’t have the luxury of a regulated system that tracks the years you’ve put in and the level of competition that you compete at. In order to get your first amateur fight, you essentially just have to know a guy who knows a guy. Training isn’t even technically a requirement. Sure, most promoters will only accept trained fighters who will put on a good show for their crowd. But let’s be real here, when amateur fighters drop at the last minute, promoters tend to get desperate and accept anyone who is willing to save the show. I have seen some terrible fights at some local shows because of this. It really is the Wild West out here if you don’t have an experienced trainer looking out for you.
I wish I could say it was much harder to go pro, but in some states its really not. Although you stand a much higher chance of brain damage, technically, the system is the same. You probably have to talk yourself up a bit more and maybe even just flat out lie to the promoter but at the end of the day, there’s still no back-end infrastructure to prove that you’re “bullshittin’”. After you have managed to con yourself in there and sign the contract, all you have to do is show up and (probably) get knocked out. Congratulations, you now get to tell all your friends that you’re a professional fighter.
This happens more than you might think.
However, the real problem here is not bullshitters getting knocked out, or that amateurs don’t get paid. It’s the fact that, in America, there are only 2 rungs on the ladder, Amateur and Professional. There are no levels in between that the serious athletes can use as an indicator of ability or for common people to apply prestige too. A college football player and a high school football player are both amateur athletes but are vastly different in ability and prestige.
Now imagine that high school football player who is the best player in his league. If his league’s competition is at a lower level, he still may not be at the level that his favorite colleges compete at. Now imagine the ranking system for the leagues doesn’t exist either, there’s no D1 or D2, there’s just football. If there’s no one around to check his ego, he may try and make the jump to college-level competition and meet a rude awakening.
In football that rude awakening would most likely happen at some sort of combine or college try-out. In combat-sports, it happens on a stage with an audience and a killer across the ring causing you brain trauma to score points.
On top of that, once you go pro in the US, you can never fight as an amateur again. Going pro can be a costly mistake that if made too soon, could result in a series of damaging losses and end your fighting career entirely. These are the risks that an amateur fighter takes when they go pro.
The question of whether or not to go pro also depends on which combat sport you mean to compete in. Once you’ve gone pro in any combat sport, you must remain a professional in all of them. That means if you’re a great grappler and you go pro in MMA, you can never take an amateur boxing match to build that skillset. Competing as a professional boxer is your only option if you want boxing experience on your resume. Needless to say, professional boxers tend to be better boxers than great grapplers, so it can be hard to cultivate their boxing skillset with competition once they have already gone pro.
It also takes more competition experience to get prepared in a serious fashion to go pro in some combat sports over others. It seems to be related to the age and progression of the particular sport within the USA. MMA is the youngest combat sport and least developed on the amateur level. Mixed martial artists tend to have the least amount of amateur fights before going pro, sometimes not even having 1 and still reaching the UFC. As opposed to amateur boxers who usually average around 100 matches and couldn’t possibly hope to even win one professional fight without amateur experience. Floyd Mayweather Jr. was 84-6 as an amateur, and Andre Ward was 114-5. Most successful Muay Thai fighters find themselves right in the middle, averaging anywhere between 20-50 amateur fights before making the leap to better competition and a paycheck.
That doesn’t speak very authentically to the skillsets that need to be acquired or the time spent training to acquire them. In all combat sports, years of training are required in order to make a serious run at the professional ranks.
With all of this considered it still leaves me dumbfounded. There really isn’t a right or a wrong answer to the question. I have personally seen professional fighters in all combat sports that I know I could destroy in competition, yet I remain an amateur. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make me prepared for a professional career in any of the combat sports.
So what does? Over the last few years I’ve taken it upon myself to find the answer to this question from every resource available to me. In either my own, or other’s interviews, I’ve been able to extrapolate advice from champions like Gastón Bolaños, Kevin Ross, Joe Schilling and world renown coaches like Eric Haycraft and Kirian Fitzgibbons. They all seem to reiterate the same advice. Stay amateur for as long as possible. Once you go pro the stakes are higher and the competition is brutal. The most effectual piece of information that I found came from Eric Haycraft when he explained to me in an interview that going pro means you are going to fight less. There are significantly less promotions out there for professional fighters, especially in boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai and its much harder to find fights.
So if you’re thinking about going pro, consider this.