Life at the Bottom: Most Boxers Earn Less than Minimum Wage

When Tyson Fury and Oleksander Usyk square off on Saturday, it will not just be for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, it will also be for riches beyond the dreams of most people. 

Usyk reportedly will take home somewhere in the region of $30 million, while Fury co-promoter Bob Arum has said that, “If you told Tyson Fury that he's going to make $100 million dollars, he would really be upset because he thinks, and I think he’s right, that he's going to make a lot more.”

While the highest paid boxers are earning more than ever before – Canelo Alvarez also reportedly took home $35 million for beating Jaime Munguia earlier this month – those at the bottom of the food chain are struggling to get by, and a new study by the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Institute shows to what extent. 

The study, Down But Not Out: Labor Struggles for Professional Boxers in California’s Ring, focused on boxers – and specifically Latino and Latina boxers – in California, noting that from 2017 to 2022, approximately 14 per cent of all boxing cards in the United States (453 out of 3,178) took place in the Golden State and that 49 per cent of the boxers on those California cards were of Latino descent.

It found that, while high-level championship bouts inevitably and understandably attract the most attention, 84 per cent of all fights in California during the study period were four-, six-, or eight-round fights and that the median compensation for those bouts ranged from $1,500 per four-round contest to $7,000 per eight-round bout. Fighting four eight-rounders a year could therefore yield an annual income of $28,000 per year – which, the study notes, is $5,000 less than the annual earnings of a full-time worker earning California’s minimum wage.

Furthermore, lead author Rudy Mondragón of UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor & Employment told BoxingScene, those figures actually overstate their income.

“They don't reflect the 10 per cent that goes to their trainer, the 10 per cent that goes to their manager, the cost of their training camp – which could be anywhere from $200 to $2,000,” he explains. “There's a lot of things behind the scenes that are so nuanced and complicated. A fighter might be working at the gym they are training at to offset the cost. Some fighters get money from their family to be able to do rehabilitation, work, cupping, acupuncture, physical therapy et cetera.”

Additionally, as independent contractors, most boxers have little to nothing in terms of safety nets.

“They're not covered by federal, state and local labor standards, which means that there isn't a legal minimum wage. California has a $100 per round minimum purse, but I’m not aware that other states have a similar kind of minimum,” Mondragón explains. 

The study addressed cases such as Joel Diaz, who is now a well-respected trainer, but who was forced to retire from the ring at the age of 24 after suffering a detached retina.

“And then he wasn't even eligible for his pension, because he didn’t accumulate enough rounds during that time where you can make a case to get that pension in California,” Mondragón says. 

“We also had a fighter that we interviewed who fought three four-round fights in one year and made less than $5,000. And in that year, they also suffered an eye injury that sidelined them from their boxing career. But none of that is compensated by the promoters who put on these events. There is insurance for the night of the fight, but often these are injuries that present themselves days later after a fight. And then the fighters are the ones that have to swallow the cost of surgeries or treatments for these injuries that they suffer while they’re working as independent contractors.”

The study makes several recommendations for improving the welfare of boxers at the bottom of the totem pole. One is for California’s $100-per-round minimum payment to be boosted to $375 per round, ensuring that the average pay of $1,500 for a four-round contest becomes the minimum purse. Another is for an increase in the amount of money that is put aside, in California at least, for boxers’ pensions.

At present, California pays for its boxers’ pension fund through an 88 cents fee per ticket levied on all cards in the state, but that figure is capped at just $4,600 per event. In 2023, the average pension for boxers was a one-time payment of $17,000. The study argues that the cap should be raised to $200,000 per event, and payments adjusted in line with inflation. 

Another key component: education. With few boxers entering the sport with much understanding of financial management, the study argues that a financial literacy tool should be a key component of a commission’s process in granting boxers a professional license.

Mondragón believes the study adds weight to the demands for a central, unified authority to run boxing in the United States. In the interim, however, given that 43 per cent of cards in the US are held in California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, and Nevada, he suggests that those key states could come together to create a functioning authority by which the sport elsewhere is governed.

“There’s already existing leadership that can come together and make something like this happen,” he says. “And given what we have and the assets that we have in boxing, I think that would be a potential route to essentially governing the sport.”

Mondragón stresses that his motivation for the study was that he is a boxing fan himself who wants to improve the sport.

“But I also want to critique the industry and the boxing business, because I feel like we’re lagging behind in terms of better protecting such an important labor force, because they’re not just entertainers,” he says. “And I want this policy brief to really get out the message that these are workers at the end of the day. They’re laboring in very risky work to put on entertaining fights at the local level and in the big arenas. So, I think it’s important for us to look after them and really think about boxers not just as celebrities and entertainers but first and foremost as laborers and workers.”