You can tell a given moment is momentous when a simple date won’t suffice.
When you bring exact times into it, you’re probably in red-letter territory. It thus felt appropriate that when legal reps for three elite MMA fighters announced they had officially filed suit against the UFC in a case that could change MMA forever, they added the hour and minute: 12:45 p.m., Tuesday, December 16.
The minute was a line in the sand, after which point things for MMA were different. Brought by UFC middleweight Cung Le, former UFC title challenger and current World Series of Fighting welterweight Jon Fitch and retired UFC middleweight Nate Quarry, the suit was formally made public Tuesday afternoon in a news conference and media call in which Bleacher Report participated.
The plaintiffs are seeking as-of-yet-unspecified damages (though it may reach nine figures, according to Brent Brookhouse and John S. Nash of Bloody Elbow). Along with Fitch, Le and Quarry, other parties, including fighters, can and just might join the suit later, attorneys said. Packing both MMA star power and legal firepower, the plaintiffs appear to have assembled a formidable challenge to the UFC status quo.
Before we go any further, let’s make the statement that should be obvious but isn’t in this world where technical pseudo-experts swarm in droves and attack in packs: No one knows how this will play out. Not even Internet writers and article commenters.
However, there is one firm statement that can be comfortably made: Over the coming months or years, the UFC is going to find itself in a protracted fight, one it won’t be able to tamp down with the bluster and strong-arm tactics that have characterized many of its other public confrontations. For that reason alone, this case is virtually unprecedented.
But back to the case for a moment. The complaint document, which you can read in its entirety here, summarizes the lawsuit clearly:
The UFC has engaged in an illegal scheme to eliminate competition from would-be rival MMA Promoters by systematically preventing them from gaining access to resources critical to successful MMA Promotions, including by imposing extreme restrictions on UFC Fighters’ ability to fight for would-be rivals during and after their tenure with the UFC. As part of the scheme, the UFC not only controls Fighters’ careers, but also takes and expropriates the rights to their names and likenesses in perpetuity. As a result of this scheme, UFC Fighters are paid a fraction of what they would earn in a competitive marketplace.
In general terms, the suit alleges, among other, more granular accusations, that the UFC and parent company Zuffa underpay its fighters, suppress competition by buying and dismantling other promotions (Pride and Strikeforce, for example) and control the way fighters use their own names and likenesses in products like video games.
These accusations are nothing new. What’s new is that a group of attorneys are now claiming they can prove these practices break the law, most notably the Sherman Act, which provides the framework for U.S. antitrust rules.
Over the years, Zuffa leaders, especially UFC President Dana White, hasn’t exactly kept its strategy under wraps.
“There is no competition,” White told MMAjunkie.com in 2010 in an interview quoted by the complaint. “We’re the NFL. You don’t see people looking at the NFL and going, ‘Yeah, but he’s not the best player in the world because there’s a guy playing for the Canadian Football League or the Arena League over here.’ We’re the NFL. There is no other guy.”
That’s exactly the kind of mentality that plaintiffs are out to exploit. Sports leagues like the NFL, the suit states, typically include a group of teams that compete against one another for athletes, with none centrally controlling league operations.
Contrasted with that model, does the UFC constitute an illegal monopoly? Should other promotions like Bellator and WSOF be considered legitimate competitors to the UFC, or are they clear “minor leagues”? That’s what this lawsuit will ultimately decide.
“Today, there is only one real promotional option for elite MMA: the UFC,” said Joseph Saveri, the plaintiffs’ co-counsel and lead attorney for the Joseph Saveri Law Firm, during Tuesday’s news conference. “The purpose is to right this wrong, change the status quo and restore healthy competition.”
Credit where it’s due: Le, Fitch and Quarry know how to lawyer up. They’ve hired some very heavy hitters in the world of antitrust and class-action litigation. Saveri and his firm recently won a big antitrust ruling against Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Intel. Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll have won major decisions over the likes of Dow Chemical. It’s fair to conclude that the plaintiffs aren’t cutting corners in the deployment of legal resources for this case.
In its response to the suit, the UFC did not back down one iota, noting in an unattributed statement published online that it “will vigorously defend itself and its business practices.”
That reaction is decidedly unsurprising. Throughout its existence, Zuffa has shown a pluck and ready willingness to defend itself—and attack its opponents—that dovetails perfectly with the confrontational product it peddles. Problem is, those confrontations are usually in the UFC’s own sandbox and against opponents who are, for various reasons, not in the best position to fight back.
What is surprising is that this time is different. Look at all that legal muscle the plaintiffs are deploying in their attempt to force the UFC to change the way it operates.
Will it work? Nobody knows. But the UFC is going into deep waters this time with an opponent that appears to be pretty close to its own size. For Zuffa and the UFC, that makes this a real landmark.
Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter. MMA lead writer Jonathan Snowden contributed to this article. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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