Saturday, December 27, 2014

Class Action Lawsuits Against Zuffa Set the Stage For an Interesting New Year

By: Rich Bergeron

Before you read this story, listen to Comedian Jim Gaffigan's take on legal documents for a good laugh:

Recently-filed class action cases brought by former and current UFC fighters against Zuffa, LLC are generating controversy and discussion from all corners of the MMA media. The first of these California-based cases hit the docket just as press releases went out to announce the filing. There was also a full-blown press conference celebrating the start of this intriguing course of litigation against the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the undisputed world leader of the sport of mixed martial arts.

At first, Cung Le, Jon Fitch, and Nate Quarry (L-R above) were the three faces of the legal action. Another filing naming plaintiffs Javier Vasquez and Dennis Hallman hit the California docket Tuesday with language that is reportedly nearly identical to the other case. A third filing appeared on Christmas Eve, another lump of coal in Zuffa's stocking. This time it was Pablo Garza and Brian Vera as plaintiffs. Duplication of proceedings can be a nice way of forcing the other side to spend more money than usual defending the first salvo. If there is good reason for the cases to go on separately without quick consolidation, it will be three times the hearings the opposing lawyers need to attend, three times the paperwork, and three times the aggravation.

An initial  statement from the UFC indicated that they had not even been served the documents yet after the first round of stories emerged on the subject. Lawsuits traditionally begin with prompt service of documents, which involves someone called a process server, or in some cases a deputy sheriff or even a U.S. Marshall actually handing the lawsuit documents to the company representative. This is serious legal business, since you can't win if the opposition isn't even aware you're suing them. Some defendants try to play games to refuse or avoid service, but once they are served, the case is official. If the UFC persists in saying they have not seen the documents, the plaintiffs can also argue that service is already accomplished through publication, which is sometimes a last resort.

Examining the crux of the legal arguments in the initial filing, I can only conclude that the case makes a ton of legal sense to me. I would even say it does not go far enough. As a person who can say I've done legal battle with the attorneys for Fertitta Enterprises (a holdings and investment company owned by the same Fertitta family that owns the UFC), I'm also convinced the UFC's parent company will attack this with a relentless army of specialized attorneys. They won't be the ones who charge $500 an hour that Gaffigan mentions above. Some of them will charge  much more than that for a phone call or a short consultation. The Fertitta-owned Station Casinos chain paid some of their bankruptcy lawyers as much as $900 per hour or more to carry that case through the court process.

These firms backing these fighters will have to be ready for all out war, and in many ways it was a crafty and cunning move to publicize this effort before it even became an official legal action. It also makes sense to duplicate the proceedings on the off chance that the cases end up before two, three, or even dozens of different judges as multiple stand-alone litigation streams instead of being consolidated at some point. Legal battles often hinge on the paperwork, and well-heeled firms aren't afraid to kill a few trees to overwhelm their opponents with copious amounts of reading material. Responses to everything in all cases would also have to be filed, each of those detailed legal documents requiring different content and unique defenses. It's actually more like what Zuffa does when pursuing their own worst enemies in the courts. They are used to being the big bully who always gets what he wants. This time, they might be facing an army of Davids against one Goliath.

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream combat sports media wants to remain in the UFC's good graces and will not publish a crooked word about the company. Most of the "news" sites that support the UFC no matter what will dismiss these legal proceedings as worthless and hopeless. That's really too bad, since the UFC's objectionable and corrupt business practices are laid bare in these legal documents. If you really count yourself as a fan or supporter of this promotion you should read this whole case despite the difficulty of the language and the dozens of pages involved. To access the full case document from the opening action, click here.

Trying as hard as I can to look at this case objectively, I do have some important questions to raise.

The first question is where are the financial figures coming from in these documents? There are claims like, "On information and belief, UFC Fighters are paid approximately 10-17% of total UFC revenues generated from bouts." Yet, there is no exhibit or affidavit this statement points to for proof. This is not to say I do not believe this could be possible. I just want to see where these financial estimations are coming from.

The second major question is why are these lawyers only pursuing this action on behalf of such a narrow group of the larger spectrum of victims that their described monopsony/monopoly scheme impacts?  The reality of conditions exposed in these documents cries out for other promotions, individual promoters, managers, agents, burned sponsors, trainers and other supporting staff to be included as plaintiffs. Perhaps I should just wait and see on this front. These firms filed three detailed lawsuits in a single week, so by next month there could be dozens. Like Gremlins, these furry little legal creatures could multiply and turn into monsters.

Finally, what is the average fighter's costs for a year of full time training? There ought to be a reflection of this somewhere in this suit. I would love to see a poll of UFC fighters asking this question. Also, what is the average yearly income of a mid-level UFC fighter, and what percentage does he or she keep after taxes and expenses? Some of this information could come out of the discovery process if the case goes that far. A Median Income Level would be an excellent baseline for these attorneys to show that the fighters were not getting their just due out of this raw deal they had to make with the UFC in order to compete at the "elite" level of the sport.

I am certain there are still fighters out there who literally wind up in the negative after each fight with their purses and bonuses going directly to paying off expenses. Travel and lodging, passports, training staff, management, medicals, and the countless other costs associated with a typical training camp can bring a fighter from $60,000 to zero in a heartbeat. I think this is the harshest reality that will be exposed in these litigation streams. Yes, the UFC has medical insurance, but fighters bear the costs of medical testing required for every fight. To get to the level where you are attracting huge show, win and bonus purses, you need to treat mixed martial arts training like a full time job. Fighters don't just drop out of the womb as seasoned experts at every discipline. It takes dedication, heart, patience, and in many cases copious amounts of money to get you and your entourage to the promised land. Sponsors can only chip in so much after they pay the UFC just for the privilege to be associated with you. Purses can dissolve before the fighter sees a penny.  

This case tackles a plethora of actions the UFC took to lock down the MMA marketplace as the dominant, controlling force. The Federal Trade Commission investigated many of the same circumstances and found no evidence that would lead to any formal action. The fact that the FTC was even looking into the fight promotion at all was headline news, but their lack of action made the UFC look as if it was vindicated of all monopoly and monospony claims. The reality is there are just too many obstacles to a government entity bringing such an action against such well-funded and well-positioned opponents. These agencies have to deal with red tape, politics, and influence peddling on top of trying to build a rock solid case while fighting against highly skilled corporate attorneys. It doesn't help that the Abu Dhabi government is in bed with the promotion by way of their 10 percent ownership of the UFC through Flash Entertainment. Talk about an unbreakable piggy bank!

The Fertittas are notorious wheel greasers, and they promote and support powerful politicians like Harry Reid with frequent donations and endorsements that Reid repays when he can. They are also traditionally very supportive of the Republican Party. Just because all their direct Mafia ties are long gone does not mean they forgot the art of maintaining "connected" status. This is why the FTC's refusal to bring charges does not really mean there was nothing concrete behind their concerns. The Fertittas are also responsible for a large chunk of taxes paid in the state of Nevada and California, and wherever else they do business across the country. Being an average Joe taxpayer isn't going to get you out of many major jams, but things change when you pay the kind of epic tax bills the Fertittas foot every year.

At the same time, a civil law firm does not have the same constraints to worry about. They're not playing with taxpayer money. They listen to their clients, not constituents or powerful politicians. They don't have to fear a backlash. Still, the court system can also be influenced through political channels. It's an uphill battle either way. So, even when there's plenty of smoke, there's no guarantee any of it will catch fire unless conditions are absolutely perfect. This may just be that time when the blaze finally erupts, but I would be more inclined to expect a quiet settlement once the first flicker of flame becomes visible here.

Reading this suit reminded me of so many cases of fighter favoritism, payment complaints, and the UFC's many moves made to squash the competition. I am reminded first of the IFL's demise and their longtime feud with the UFC. The creators of the IFL allegedly took the UFC's proprietary information when they left the company's employ to start their new team-based fight league. The resulting lawsuit revealed that Dana White personally threatened company employees at the time with termination if they did not all immediately sign a formal non-compete agreement.

I also served as an informal consultant to one of the lawyers handling the PRIDE suit against the UFC after promises to keep the top-tier MMA promotion viable were quickly broken. The money to purchase PRIDE actually came from something called a "senior secured credit facility" that is due next year. This complex loan and credit package totaled around $400 million, and even Billionaire Mark Cuban invested in the debt. This is ironic, especially since I actually received correspondence from Cuban during the time when he was battling the UFC in court to retain the services of Randy Couture in his own fledgling fight league (HDNet Fights) that never quite got off the ground. Cuban was trying to put together a Couture vs. Emelianenko fight, but the bout fans were screaming for would never happen due to the whole ugly legal debacle. 

Cuban told me in a personal email that he was keeping an eye on my case against the Fertittas, and it came as a bit of a shock. A true financial genius, he eventually figured out how to make money off the UFC with or without Randy on his payroll. I later questioned Cuban on the Fertittas owning Xyience, which at the same time was sponsoring the UFC. Cuban wrote back and explained that there is nothing inherently wrong with them doing that from a business ethics standpoint and the arrangement was perfectly above board. Still, I thought it was strange that the Fertittas seemed to go out of their way to obscure their ownership of their own sponsor.

The recent class action lawsuit takes time to further explain Couture's issues with the UFC, including his refusal to sign over his lifetime rights. At the time Couture took a stand against his former bosses, it was a move that was unheard of. Most fighters knew if they wanted to get anywhere in the industry, they had to maintain a friendly relationship with the UFC bosses and toe the company line. Couture was one of the promotion's success stories and could claim a healthy fan base and a huge part of the UFC's history. He didn't want to short change his legacy and struggled with the UFC over their demand for lifetime rights and other concessions. The feud would grow to be a bitter one. It's actually still simmering quietly in the wake of Couture being excluded from even being able to corner his own son when Ryan Couture was a UFC fighter for a brief stint.

I interviewed Ryan Couture personally in Las Vegas a few years ago, and he told me off camera that his father encouraged him to join Strikeforce because, "The UFC likes to keep you under their thumb." The UFC's buyout of Strikeforce eventually led to Ryan having to take the best offer that came along, which happened to be the UFC's. Losses to Ross Pearson and Al Iaquinta were enough to force the organization to part ways with Ryan, and he now fights for Bellator.

So, I have intimate knowledge of how this climate of dominance developed and how fighters have been conditioned to think that you can't fight the UFC, even if you have a legitimate beef. UFC fighters are taught from their earliest involvement with the company that you're better off being blindly loyal, staying perpetually quiet about any grievances you might harbor. Typically, fighters who do speak out are those who are above reprisal (i.e. Jose Aldo or Jon Jones) or obscure enough to dismiss as disgruntled nuts (i.e. Jacob Volkmann and John Cholish). The bulk of the UFC masses want to remain employed and on the rise, hoping for brighter days and bigger paychecks. Criticizing the company leadership is a great way to earn a demotion or guarantee that you'll never get a fight bonus again.

The case also highlights Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's past run-ins with the promotion he just recently re-joined after referring to his old bosses as "the devil you know" in a Twitter post. The complaint, which Jackson is not a party to but could still actually benefit from, describes how Jackson secured individual deals with a figurine company called Round 5 and sneaker giant Reebok before the UFC moved in and blocked these moves in favor of arranging their own longtime agreements with these companies.

Jackson and Tito Ortiz both departed the UFC for Bellator amid very public disputes regarding how their careers progressed under their UFC contracts. They both once had plenty to say about how much they were mistreated, but now they are singing what sounds like the same tune and avoiding run ins with this all-powerful force in the industry. Business is business, explains Jackson. Ortiz officially turned down the opportunity to join this round of lawsuits, citing his ongoing responsibilities as a manager and agent for fighters. In other words, he doesn't want to burn down the bridge he just began to rebuild after burning down the first one.

The basic gist behind Ortiz's motivation for opting out of the court battle is actually explained on page 47-48 of the initial complaint by Le, Quarry and Fitch:

 "Professional MMA Fighters who compete at the highest level of the sport cannot 'opt out' of UFC because the UFC’s anticompetitive conduct has made it impossible to maintain a successful MMA fighting career outside of the UFC."

So, if that statement is indeed correct, it's highly likely that Ortiz will bite his tongue and wind up following Jackson back to the UFC in the near future. Still, where some fighters are convinced the UFC will have their backs in the long run, others are buoyed by the suit and want in. One such fighter is Sean Sherk, who retired with a 36-4-1 record that included a long stint in the UFC. Like many fighters who are no longer in the inner circle of the company as fighting superstars or honorary executives, Sherk can't help but look back and feel cheated. What he put in seems to be exponentially greater than what he was able to reap in return as far as purses, profits and residual income. Sherk is the first fighter I've heard of supporting this case who actually owned a UFC belt at one time, so if he gets formally involved it will certainly be monumental.

Though many experts might think most current UFC fighters will refuse to sign up as plaintiffs for fear of reprisals or retaliation, it might also be hard for some to explain why they signed a petition that was reportedly circulated to UFC fighters in 2012 (as described by Pablo Garza). The petition reportedly asked fighters to confirm the promotion was not a monopoly and that all its fighters were treated fairly. The signatories of this petition might be used against the plaintiffs in these class action cases as proof that the UFC is running a reputable and upstanding operation with no hint of monopoly involved.
The reality is, there really are "company" fighters who get all the breaks while their lesser or equal counterparts continue to get the short end of the stick. This group of pampered active and retired insiders includes Chuck Liddell, Dominic Cruz, Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier, Brian Stann, Dan Hardy and Kenny Florian (among others). Other than Liddell, they all have lucrative television gigs. Liddell has commercials instead with Duralast and Bud Light. I have never personally heard any of these guys present an argument that the UFC is in any way corrupt, greedy, or worthy of any significant criticism. You often find the same level of intense blind loyalty with whoever gets picked as a coach for The Ultimate Fighter. The lone exception may be Jason "Mayhem" Miller, who was hired more for comic relief than being a yes man. Sticking to the old company line is obviously being rewarded for most of the fighters who bite their tongues when it comes to lashing out against the company's management.

Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey are stars who are really almost bigger than the promotion, but they still wind up being sponsored by who the company wants to highlight most. I suppose they are fighters who still get treated like they can do or say no wrong, but they still have to stand by the main causes the company champions. They are spokespeople by default, shilling whatever they have to in order to remain loyal to their bosses. Both Rousey and Jones were sponsored by Xyience when the Fertittas owned it. Ronda is also the "prettiest" face involved in the UFC's frequently-airing commercials for a major cell phone network. Cain Velasquez is also featured in the same commercials. Jon Jones is also the first MMA athlete to sign on with DraftKings.Com as they assemble their very first Fantasy MMA offerings in time for his upcoming bout with Daniel Cormier.

The only hint of any major animosity shown toward the promotion by any of the above-named "company" fighters in my recollection was when Brian Stann retired and cited concerns regarding PED usage in the sport, the same sentiment Longtime UFC Welterweight Champion George St. Pierre pointed to as the main reason for his departure from the sport.

Stann also recently made a telling remark during last Saturday's UFC broadcast. During one fight that didn't live up to expectations, Stann stated that as a fighter, "You have to take risks if you want to make a name for yourself in the UFC." If anyone should know, it's Stann.

If you end up washed up or not making enough money, so many fans and UFC supporters (often called nuthuggers on MMA forums) will condemn you for not trying hard enough. It's your fault, no matter what, even if you spent half your own life savings trying to make it in the sport. Yet, the UFC is not a powerhouse because it has only successful and dynamic fighters. It takes some fighters who are not so dynamic and amazing to actually show how good the best fighters really are. Having these lower-tier fighters on board is essential, but their lack of extraordinary talent also makes it easier for the UFC brass to abuse these folks. The very design of the bonus system and the fighter pay structure encourages fighters to take risks in every fight in order to achieve success in the UFC. You can't just win by split decision on a smart, boring strategy and expect to get all the spoils of fame and fortune that fighters who always win by knockout get. It's no longer a case of winning being enough. You also have to put on a show to get anywhere in this organization. 

Even though he's not a perfect poster child for fighters who did everything right and still got shafted, Cody McKenzie's recent retirement is worth noting here. He recently expressed some major issues he had with working for the UFC and trying to survive on the outer fringes of the sport and failing. Though it would be easy to argue Cody and other complainers like the Diaz brothers just don't work hard enough, you could also make the claim that they were maybe convinced at some point along the line that working harder just wouldn't matter. Some people just either don't have that natural talent or simply have no chance of getting to the elite level of the sport. The cards really are stacked against some fighters, even though some of them possess all the talent in the world.

Whatever the reason a particular contender has for lacking supreme ass-kicking ability, being a halfway decent fighter also takes a tremendous amount of work and sacrifice in this sport. The effort put in by these less than superior combatants in the UFC is just as tremendous at times as those fighters who hold championship belts. Yet, the same effort rarely earns the same return under the UFC umbrella. It's all about popularity, positioning and performance in the UFC. You can't just work hard. You also have to suck up to the brass, align yourself with the right people, and just be a good soldier in general. Even if you get booted from the UFC at some stage of your career, you still have to keep quiet about your bad experiences if you ever want to make it back into the fold.

The UFC taught Cody McKenzie a hard life lesson. They basically told him to "go fish," which is actually a career the Alaskan native would have  been better off pursuing. After all, everything on the boat is paid for. There's no on-the-job travel expenses, trainer and management fees, or dependence on extra bonus money for superior performance. You show up, you work hard, you get paid, and you go home if you don't wind up in the hospital or on the bottom of the ocean due to some kind of tragic accident.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has a serious problem with the way they treat fighters, plain and simple. Does this lawsuit do enough to put a stop to it? I doubt it, personally. I envision this whole situation fading away quietly with each fighter getting a few million and the lawyers getting all their fees paid. All it will take is one or two bigger names coming out in support of or actually joining one of these classes of plaintiffs. There will be a point when the bad publicity and mounting sense of revolution will become too much for the UFC brass to bear, and they will pay a settlement. Nothing will actually change for the better in the long run if that happens.

For sweeping change to come out of any of this litigation, it will have to go to trial. People will have to testify, damning documents will have to be exposed in discovery, and fighters will have to tell the sordid details of their awful personal experiences with this all-powerful promoter for the record. No matter how dedicated the plaintiffs and their attorneys are, I doubt California's political climate and the possible favoritism of the Fertittas due to their casino and property interests in the state will allow this case to get to trial.

So, it makes for a good story and promotes healthy debate on the monopoly subject, but if any changes do eventually come out of this court battle, it will take years for them to take effect. The worst case scenario would be a climate where the lawsuit is actually killed before it gets off the ground, which is entirely possible if the UFC has that much behind-the-scenes influence in California.  

Nevertheless, this is a fantastic start in the quest to bring this organization to task for the way their overbearing actions negatively impact the sport of MMA as a whole. It is one thing to build something great while focusing only on your own business model and building it up from the initial concept into a worldwide force to be reckoned with. It is something else entirely to focus on destroying and/or minimizing everyone else in your niche to get to the top. Honesty is hardly ever the best policy in our capitalist way of doing business, though. Sometimes keeping secrets is actually crucial to a company's survival.

Consider the case of a guy named Ken Pavia who used to be a big player in the MMA industry and is now a bit more removed from the sport. Pavia shared some UFC contracts with Bellator and wound up on the business end of a Zuffa lawsuit against him. The debacle eventually led to Pavia leaving the country to work for an overseas fight promotion. Pavia told me during this period that Dana White personally threatened him over the situation, telling him that the company would do everything in its power to get revenge. He even claimed White told him he would not be happy until Pavia's fiance left him and he committed suicide. A countersuit filed on behalf of Bellator and Pavia helped initiate a settlement in the case that is not allowed to be discussed by either party. So, now the outcome of a case about company secrets is itself a company secret.

The point is, the UFC is constantly building up their power base, and they have tremendous pull when it comes to making or breaking a fighter under their employ. They can also make life difficult for anyone who may rely on their support to do business in the industry.

Often the courtroom can be the last place to look for any semblance of real justice, but the tide has to turn somewhere. Maybe it will turn here, but my outlook on the situation is colored by skepticism and personal experience with the type of lawyers the Fertittas hire and how they operate. I'm more inclined to think more publication and less legalese would be a better way to inspire change. A blockbuster documentary exposing fighter complaints, maybe with a few blurred faces and distorted voices, might go a lot further in blowing the lid off this corruption.

Unfortunately, there's also a chance that this behemoth is just too big already and nothing will be able to keep it in line. As these class action cases outline, the UFC has been at this monopoly building thing for a long time, and they're very adept at avoiding culpability for their worst transgressions. Still, all it will take is one honest judge in California who is willing to hear the case out and let it continue to a final conclusion. And it would certainly help to have a few more high caliber fighters coming out of the woodwork to join the cause and levy their own personalized complaints and grievances.

I have been harping on the possibility of a legal action like this against the UFC for a long time, ever since Dana White started saying he wanted the UFC to be as popular and powerful as the NFL someday. I predicted years ago that a class action lawsuit could be the only way to stop the rampant abuse many fighters under UFC contract face in trying to earn a respectable and comfortable living. Even the highest paid UFC athletes no doubt make a huge chunk of their income from sponsors and endorsements. The most famous fighters also get movie roles on top of all that, so there's not much to complain about. Yet, what does it say about the sport and the owners of the biggest promotion in the sport when even their top athletes aren't making a luxurious living off the actual wages they're paid? Why should they need to depend on all this outside income when the profits of the promotion make it possible for them to be compensated much better without all that hoopla?

The answer to those questions may be more simple than you think. It all amounts to one short word, just five letters long: GREED. And the UFC brass is so downright greedy that I can't imagine them spending more on a settlement than they would be willing to shell out on the army of legal bulldogs it will take for them to crush their opposition here. When you are as corrupt and conniving as the Fertittas and Dana White, lawyers can be the most important piece of the puzzle. Some of the sleaziest attorneys are just as likely to advise you on how to break the law through sophisticated maneuvering as they are to help you make sure to follow it to the letter. The kind of lawyers employed by these folks are the ones all the lawyer jokes are really made for. Many of them already sold their souls to the highest bidder, and they have no scruples or morals remaining to stop them from taking these valid fighter complaints and turning them into a puff of smoke.

I, for one, will be rooting for the fighters to score a key victory here that finally exposes the UFC for taking advantage of the very people who made the organization what it is today. The publication of the suit itself goes a long way in doing just that, but results are what will really matter in this case. This legal team has the personnel and the persistence to make things interesting, but what they really need is to secure a final judgment or at the very least get to trial.

Stay tuned as we follow this case to see if any of this legal wrangling will pan out for the plaintiffs in the long run. I know one of the folks behind this case is interested in starting a fighters union at some point, so even if the case settles it might lead to some financing for that future endeavor. This development might not represent a perfect plan to revolutionize the way the UFC does business, but it's a damn good start as far as attempting to root out some of the corruption and mistreatment some of the promotion's fighters endure. I will keep a sharp eye on these cases as they play out and pass on new documents and developments as I acquire them.

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