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5 millionaire UFC fighters with real-life rags-to-riches journeys

Ronda Rousey | Photo via Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Ronda Rousey | Photo via Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
ANALYST
Modified 07 Apr 2021
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When we talk about the world's most popular sports, MMA doesn't rank well with the lowest least ratio of millionaires. In a bid to widen MMA's following, the UFC was founded a little more than 25 years ago albeit with an uncertain future.

With the growing popularity of the sport, several fighters soon started to find eminence and stardom through MMA.

The most heart-warming tales are of the fighters who escaped the clutches of poverty and the grind of dead-end jobs to become millionaires inside the UFC octagon.

Take a look at five millionaire UFC fighters with real-life rags-to-riches journeys that will put any fairy tale to shame.

#5 - Anderson Silva

Anderson Silva (right) with Israel Adesanya
Anderson Silva (right) with Israel Adesanya

Born into poverty, Anderson Silva was brought up in São Paulo, Brazil with three of his siblings. With his father working as a police officer, Silva's family was unable to pay for his expenses. Because of this, they had to send the future millionaire UFC fighter to live with his uncle and aunt at a young age.

Financially poor, Anderson Silva was still rich at heart. He dreamt of comic book super-heroes and practiced martial arts with the kids in the neighborhood. After turning 12, Silva started training in taekwondo, capoiera and muay thai.

In his youth, the future UFC hall-of-famer and millionaire moved from one dead-end job to another as he couldn't rely on his family for expenses anymore.

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In 1997, Silva joined the famed Chute Boxing Academy and officially started an MMA career where he racked up an 11-2 record. However, due to shortage of funds, the future UFC millionaire faced a series of setbacks in 2003. He had a fall-out with the Chute Boxing Academy while also facing setbacks in his PRIDE FC career.

Disillusioned with everything, Anderson Silva soon turned back to work at McDonald's while planning to run a car wash.

However, fellow PRIDE fighter Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira motivated The Spider not to let the talent slip out of his hands. Anderson Silva then left Chute and joined Noguiera in the Brazilian Top Team where he got his first win in 2004. Thus, he started his journey to become a millionaire UFC fighter.

After winning a series of fights for different promotions including Cage Rage, Anderson Silva made it to the UFC in 2006. The rest is history.

In a matter of a few years, Anderson Silva won the middleweight title and went on to defend it a record 10 times in seven years, establishing himself as an MMA legend.

Anderson Silva would soon earn as much as $800,000 for a win against Nick Diaz at UFC 183, selling over 1 million PPV tickets. He became one of Brazil’s most famous sporting icons and bagged lucrative endorsements with brands like Nike, Burger King and Budweiser to enhance his millionaire status.

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#4 - Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey
Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey was born in California as the youngest of three daughters. When she was six years old, her father committed suicide.

Learning from her mother, who was the first American to win the World Judo Championship, Ronda Rousey trained to be a renowned judoka. In 2008, she became the first American to win an Olympic medal in women's judo, taking home the bronze medal and a $10,000 pay-cheque. Soon, she would go on to become a millionaire UFC fighter.

It would seem crazy to imagine one of the most popular female fighters in the world working as a bouncer, a bartender, or a cocktail waitress back in the day. However, after turning 21, Ronda Rousey did have to work at numerous part-time jobs to earn a living.

When she decided to take-up a career in MMA, things were at their lowest for the future champion and millionaire. At this point, she was living out of her car before moving into a tiny 12×12 studio apartment.

However, MMA turned out to be the perfect match for Rousey. She signed with Strikeforce and soon won the 135lb title. Such was her buzz that UFC president Dana White had to create a women’s division to not miss out on the phenom.

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She took the UFC by storm, going on a six-fight winning streak as its bantamweight champion. While money has stopped being a concern now, she rose even higher in fame after signing up for several Hollywood movies and endorsement deals.

She broke UFC's attendance record when she faced Holly Holm in front of 56,000+ fans in Australia, with an additional 1.1 million watching on PPV. By 2015, Ronda Rousey had entered the list of top 10 highest paid female athletes in the world, becoming a millionaire UFC fighter.

#3 - Jose Aldo

Jose Aldo
Jose Aldo

Jose Aldo is another example of a UFC fighter who rose from the painful depths of poverty to become an MMA star and a millionaire.

Born in a slum in Manaus in Brazil, Jose Aldo barely had a roof over his head during his upbringing. Moreover, the future millionaire UFC fighter relied on charities as a kid to train in martial arts.

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During his teenage years, Jose Aldo wanted to join the renowned Nova Uniao gym in Rio. As a result, the future millionaire worked double-shifts in construction to save up money for a plane ticket to Rio.

When he managed to reach Rio, 'Scarface' showed up at the gym of his dreams with one bag of clothes and no money. Eating once a day and sleeping inside the gym, Jose Aldo, the soon-to-be millionaire, could hardly complain.

Also nicknamed as 'Junior', his first pro fight was at the age of 17 where he knocked out his opponent 16 seconds into the first round.

The painful sacrifices soon paid off for Jose Aldo and he started off on a legendary MMA career that would make him a millionaire UFC fighter. He fought for different promotions before joining the UFC as a world featherweight champion in 2004.

Jose Aldo defended his featherweight title seven times in the UFC, becoming one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in the world. What helped him become a millionaire UFC fighter was his six-figure fight salary.

His biggest payday ever, though, came at UFC 194 in 2015 when he faced his rival Conor McGregor in one of the most heavily promoted fights in UFC history. Even though Aldo shockingly lost the bout in 13 seconds, he earned a basic salary of $400,000 along with his cut of the 1.2 million PPV buys.

Now a millionaire UFC fighter, Jose Aldo has left the days of living in the slums and eating once a day far behind.

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#2 - Francis Ngannou

Francis Ngannou
Francis Ngannou

The now-millionaire Francis Ngannou was born to a poor family in a small town in Cameroon called Batie. With his father bringing ill-repute and no money to the family owing to his drinking and street-fighting hobbies, Ngannou was sent to his aunt's family.

Barely able to afford education and food, Francis Ngannou started working in a sand quarry at 12 years old. Ngannou soon started dreaming of becoming a boxer in order to right his father's wrongdoings and feed his family.

However, the dream would require Francis Ngannou to travel nearly 3,000 miles. The journey would see the future millionaire swallowing money wrapped in plastic to avoid being looted, getting jailed for illegal immigration and fighting off rats for leftover food.

Francis Ngannou first made it to Morocco and then entered Spain illegally by sea, getting detained instantly on arrival. After getting released, he traveled to Paris where he slept on the streets and found a gym that would train him for free.

The trouble started to end for Ngannou as he was in the land of opportunity. Sleeping out in the open wasn't a problem either, as compared to where he was in Morocco, "a parking lot was like a five-star hotel."

Francis Ngannou soon found his MMA coach Didier Carmont. It was Ngannou's boxing coach Fernand Lopez who booked him in his first few MMA fights. The Predator was 5-1 in no time and that was when UFC came knocking on his door.

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Francis Ngannou's journey to becoming a future millionaire UFC fighter had started.

While his UFC career started in 2015 and solved all of his money problems, his dream wasn't over until he became the heavyweight champion.

Defeating Stipe Miocic in a rematch at UFC 260, Francis Ngannou did not just bag the UFC heavyweight belt, but also became a millionaire UFC fighter with a pay-cheque worth $730,000.

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#1 - Conor McGregor

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor

Conor McGregor's rise to becoming a millionaire UFC fighter is inarguably one of the most remarkable in the history of combat sports.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Conor McGregor started training in boxing at the Crumlin Boxing Club at the age of 12. At 18, McGregor was commencing a plumbing apprenticeship with no career in sight. However, a turn of events saw him meet future UFC fighter Tom Egan and the duo decided to train in MMA.

He soon signed up with Cage Warriors and became a two-division champion in the UK organization. However, the reality was that Conor McGregor was stilling living under his parents' roof at the time, getting money from social welfare schemes.

After TKO'ing Marcus Brimage in his UFC debut, Conor McGregor revealed to the media:

"Just last week I was collecting the social welfare. I was in there saying to them, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m signed to the UFC. I don’t know. Blah, blah, blah.’ Now I suppose I’m just going to have to tell them, [expletive] off."

In 2013, McGregor collected his last welfare cheque, a grant worth $220. Since that day, 'The Notorious' has never looked back. He is now the sport's most popular star and a millionaire UFC fighter.

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The Irishman has been part of seven out of ten of the UFC's highest-selling PPV events. In his fight against Floyd Mayweather, labeled as the 'Money Fight', Conor McGregor reportedly made upwards of $100 million, cranking his millionaire status up a notch to say the least.

His whiskey company Proper Twelve made a billion dollars in sales in its first year. The millionaire UFC fighter also owns a multi-million dollar yacht and clothing line. Not bad for a fighter who had once almost given up MMA to become a plumber!

Published 07 Apr 2021, 20:21 IST
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