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Couture and The UFC: A Dispute Between Friends?

We knew it was coming. Like tax day or Armageddon, it has loomed on the horizon for some time now, but that didn’t make it any better when I heard the news this morning. The UFC is suing Randy Couture, and not just for breach of contract. They’re suing him for damages, for “intentional torts”. They’re asking for “in excess of $10,000”, claiming he has caused the company “irreparable damage”.

In other words, the UFC wants to stick it to Couture, who is not without blame for this mess. He did walk away in the middle of a contract. But torts? Damages? It pains Dana White to have to do it, apparently, and yet somehow he soldiers on.

“What’s really tough for me, to be honest, is we have been friends for a very long time,” White told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “The hard part is that he is not living up to his obligations. Captain America is not keeping his word.”

How’s that for pathos? Never let it be said that White is afraid to bring out the comic book imagery when making his case in the press.

This is a sad, but inevitable day for mixed martial arts. Despite the fact that there’s more money than ever before in this sport, there suddenly isn’t enough to go around. The word you’re looking for here is greed.

Dana White would have you believe that he and Couture are friends who’ve come upon a disagreement over money. So what do friends do? They sue for damages. They allege “irreparable harm”. So much for my plan to friend Dana White on MySpace.

Whether he’ll say it or not, what White is really doing right now is sending a message to the rest of the UFC’s fighters. He’s essentially trying to hound Couture into retirement, making it impossible for him to compete as a fighter or use his own name for promotional purposes with any other organization.

White knows that Couture doesn’t have a decade to wait this out. Time hasn’t ravaged him the way it has other fighters, but nobody goes on forever. He’s trying to put Couture out of business. And he’s hoping everyone else in the stable gets the message.

It’s not hard to see what the UFC is afraid of. If they allow a champion to “resign” from his contract and wait out the duration, they’ll soon find that every title-holder and top contender has his hand out for more money. This is about setting a precedent.

But at the same time, what is the cost of victory for the UFC? Best case scenario, they’re awarded some cash for whatever “irreparable harm” Couture has done them (maybe enough to cover damages for the TUF house after next season?), and “The Natural” is forced into a kind of MMA exile.

That doesn’t mean the UFC, as a company, is really any better off. They’re still without Couture, and there isn’t a single, viable competitor that’s going to fold up shop just because they can’t get him.

As for the other fighters? They’ll get the message. How could they not, it’s vitriolic enough. But all it will do is convince them to wait until their contract is up before they demand more money, which they will surely do. The UFC gains only the resentment of the multitude of fighters and fans who look up to Couture, and that’s hardly worth it.

The UFC is, as of this moment, the biggest and most successful MMA organization in the world. And here they are taking one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors to court just so nobody else can have him. These are the politics of children. It’s just plain sad.

When “friends” fight like this, nobody wins but the lawyers. Irreparable damage, indeed.

Ben Fowlkes is the publisher of The Fighting Life, as well as the editor of IFL.tv and a contributor to CBS Sports.

21 COMMENTS
  • Gong says:

    After looking into the issue a bit more, I’m a bit puzzled at the suit. Why are they suing for damages and not breach of contract? And why 10k? If they’re really serious about this, they’d take their contract disputes to court AND sue for more money. But right now, they’re doing neither and I’m really confused.

  • Tom says:

    Wait? The UFC takes Randy Couture who was well liked, but coming off of 2 straight losses to Liddell and gives him a title shot, and he rebuilds his career off the UFC champ, gets greedy, and then the UFC is just supposed to let him go fight for some other promotion? It’s great that Randy feels he’s worth more, but he signed a deal which was not contingent on his being able to fight Fedor — too bad he didn’t have the foresight to add that to his contract demands. What is a contract if it gets so easily broken and parties are allowed to break terms at will? Are UFC contracts unfair? Most likely… but that doesn’t mean that the fighters HAVE to sign them. No one made them do it — EliteXC thinks they’re a top competitor — Randy could have come out of retirement to fight for them. I don’t blame the UFC for taking him to court — it’s a lose-lose situation. By going to court, they’re trying to make sure both sides lose — it’d hurt worse if they lose Couture and then he gets what he wants. It sucks, but this is how Randy chose to have this situation play out.

  • Michaelthebox says:

    “These are the politics of children.”

    That looks to me like the propaganda of children.

  • canuck says:

    Gong-

    From what I’ve read, this suit relates more to Randy’s team with the IFL and not with his refusal to fight – they’re saying the scope of what his contract limits is very broad. This is a pretty smart move, they’re casting the net wide and if they win this, they’ll have firmer ground if there’s a suit about fighting.

  • Drewdoodoo says:

    #3, I think you’ve got it. I think they are testing the waters to see how they will fair when the big suit comes. I think Randy agreed to the contract because he never thought he would fight anywhere else. I read on mmaweekly that there is something like a 12 month noncompete if he leaves the UFC. Not something an old timer who was thinking he would ever move on would agree to. I think Randy wants to fight Fedor, the rest is BS. Why not go out on top sticking up for the little guy?

  • “That looks to me like the propaganda of children.”

    Propaganda? How so? And to what end?

    My point is, trying to destroy something you can’t have just so nobody else can have it is not exactly honorable. That’s all. I’m not trying to be Goebbels over here, dude.

  • Kelvin says:

    ” And here they are taking one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors to court just so nobody else can have him. These are the politics of children. It’s just plain sad.”

    No, it’s just plain business.

  • Rln says:

    “My point is, trying to destroy something you can’t have just so nobody else can have it is not exactly honorable.”

    I think it’s even less honorable to not be a man of your word and uphold your end of a contract that you just renegotiated.

  • I agree that it wasn’t a good idea for Couture to leave while still under contract, and I see where you guys are coming from and respect your opinions, but I have to say I’m surprised at how many people are siding with Dana White on this one.

    Fedor is the only fight that makes sense for Randy right now. If the UFC would have landed him, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. But they didn’t and now Randy wants to go fight him, which also makes sense to me.

    And let’s not act like the UFC did Couture a huge favor by letting him fight for them. Both Couture and the UFC made a lot of money from each other. He revived their heavyweight division, for one thing. Anybody want to buy a pay-per-view based on the drawing power of Sylvia-Gonzaga? I doubt it.

  • Mike Wolfe says:

    Ok, here’s the thing. The statement about “irreparable harm” is legalese to support the issuance of an injunction, which the UFC might or might not be able to obtain. An injunction is a court order preventing somebody (Couture) from doing something unlawful (fighting outside the UFC in violation of his contract). So the UFC lawyers had to put the magic words (“irreparable harm”) in the complaint so they would have a basis to try to get the injunction. It’s like saying your marriage is “irretrievably broken” in your divorce action. You gotta say the right things to get where you want to go. The magic words probably don’t have any other significance.

    The complaint refers to “intentional torts” for legal reasons, too. You have to state all your theories of liability in the complaint. I’d be astonished if the complaint didn’t also refer to “breach of contract”. “Bad conduct” can be breach of a contract or a tort. These theories can overlap. Also, if UFC wants to include defendants besides Couture, UFC has to have legally recognized grounds for doing so. For example, Couture’s agent probably can’t be included in a breach of contract claim because they probably didn’t sign the agreement. However, if they encouraged Couture to violate the agreement, they may have liablility under other theories, such as torts.

    The stuff about damages in excess of $10,000 is probably necessary to satisfy the court that the lawsuit is filed in the proper court rather than in some court designed for smaller dollar amounts. Believe me, the amount in controversy is way the hell bigger than $10,000.

    Punitive damages are intended to punish malicious, willful conduct, and whether UFC is entitled to them depends upon whether they have evidence that satisfies the requirements under Nevada State law. Once again, you have to ask for everything you could conceivably recover or you run the risk of being precluded from asking for it at all.

    I guess you can characterize the suit as “greed” or a vendetta, but that’s naive. Contracts are signed so the parties can plan their business dealings with confidence, and business dealings are always about money. That’s how our society and the societies of most other countries function, unless they’re so primitive that they’re on a barter system. The courts are available so a party can obtain the benefit of what he or she negotiated for. If there’s no enforcement mechanism, contracts aren’t worth much and it would be difficult to do business of any kind. Back to the barter system in open markets while we squat in the dirt.

    I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong in this situation, but Couture better have something better to say than that he had second thoughts or later decided he was entitled to a better deal. He’ll have to prove that UFC somehow breached its agreement so his performance was excused, or that the contract means something different than what the UFC says. By the time he’s through, finishing his last two fights as quickly as possible and moving on may have been his best choice. For his sake I hope he got some objective advice including the risks of lawsuits.

  • Michaelthebox says:

    Ben:

    “Propaganda? How so? And to what end?

    My point is, trying to destroy something you can’t have just so nobody else can have it is not exactly honorable. That’s all. I’m not trying to be Goebbels over here, dude.”

    There are 1000 posts on Sherdog, 150 posts on MMAJunkie, who knows how many on the underground and the other forums, that shows very clearly that the issue isn’t so simple as “trying to destroy something you can’t have just so nobody else can have it is not exactly honorable.”

    You have very clearly set your stake down on Couture’s side: you state that Fedor is the only fight that makes sense (arguable) and that the UFC has nothing to gain from this case (also arguable). Furthermore, you ignore the fact that Randy is forcing this confrontation, not the UFC. You play Randy up as “one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors” but he’s catching a lot of mud in this conflict.

    This is a very difficult and complex situation where both sides have a lot to win or lose. You summing it up as the UFC using “the politics of children” reeks of favoritism and the sort of childish viewpoint you place on the UFC.

  • It’s hard to say how this case is going to turn out, but I’d expect that Randy Couture would defintely be bound to Zuffa until October 2008, and that the one-year no-compete clause after that would also probably hold up in court because no-compete clauses of one year or less usually do hold up in court.

    So, at that point it would be October of 2009 and Couture would be 46 years old. The obvious question at that point is, “What could Couture possibly accomplish in MMA when he’s 46 years old?” but then again Couture defied the odds at 43 years old to win the UFC Heavyweight Title and then successfully defended it when he was 44 years old, so who knows?

    The issue goes beyond October of 2009, however, as Zuffa is essentially trying to make Randy Couture their property for life with these clauses regarding contracts being able to be “extended indefinitely” if a fighter is unable to accept a fight for any reason whatsoever (whether it’s injury, resigning from the company, or anything else). That amounts to a no-compete clause for all of time, and there’s no way that is legal or would hold up in court. No-compete clauses lasting more than one year have a horrible track record of holding up in court.

    Heck, the UFC wouldn’t have been able to sign their latest headliner, Brock Lesnar, if not for the fact that WWE was basically getting their ass kicked in court when they tried to enforce the six-year no-compete clause that Brock Lesnar signed (as part of the WWE contract from which Lesnar quit just months after signing due to the stress of being on the road in WWE).

    In addition, the so-called “champion’s clause,” where the UFC tries to essentially claim ownership of a fighter if he is one of their champions, is not likely to hold up in court. In a previous case where BJ Penn won a UFC title on the last fight of his UFC contract and then went to fight for more money in K-1 Hero’s shortly thereafter, Zuffa sued him on the grounds that the “champion’s clause” in the contract that he signed should have made him bound to Zuffa even though his title victory over Hughes was the last fight on Penn’s contract. As with Lesnar and WWE, that was not going well for Zuffa in court and just as with Lesnar it led to a rather one-sided settlement that very much favored the individual (Lesnar, Penn) over the corporation (WWE, Zuffa).

    The IFL thing would be a fairly blatant violation of Couture’s no-compete clause if he was actually the coach of that team in the IFL, but he’s not, nor was he ever scheduled to be. Shawn Tompkins is. The only potential issue there is the fact that the word “Couture” is in the name of the gym that Shawn Tompkins coaches out of (ie, “Team Xtreme Couture”). This could be a non-issue by tomorrow if they just change the name of the IFL team to “Team Tompkins,” with the same coach that it was always going to have: Shawn Tompkins.

    So, basically, Zuffa would obviously have an air-tight case when it comes to their contract with Randy Couture through October 2008, and would probably have a good case when it comes to the one-year no-compete clause if indeed there is such a clause in the contract with very clear language detailing it, so that would lock Couture up contractually through October 2009, but beyond that, I think they have a very weak case as far as their efforts to lock Couture up contractually for the rest of his life.

  • Sergio says:

    This column is completely slanted.

    I love Randy Couture, love the guy. His fight at 68 was 25 of the best minutes of my MMA life.

    But he signed a contract, plain and simple.

    Just because he doesn’t get to fight who he wants to fight (besides, isn’t that Joe Silva’s job?), doesn’t void that legally binding contract.

  • Yes, Couture signed a contract. Which expires in October. After that, there’s the one year no-compete clause. So fine, he fights after October ’09. As Ivan pointed out, he might not be at his peak then, but who’d have thought he be this good now? Contractually, I don’t see the problem. Why can’t he wait his contract out if he’s unhappy, for whatever reason?

    As for the Xtreme Couture team, I don’t know what will happen there. Couture isn’t coaching them or promoting the team, so I don’t see how the UFC can claim ownership over his name and his gym. Would they drop the suit if the name was changed to Xtreme MMA?

    Mainly though, I find this depressing. All of it. Some of you seem glad to see this lawsuit, which is baffling to me. If you’d rather see Couture in court than in action, fine. But I have to wonder why.

  • Michaelthebox says:

    I’m glad its going to the courts because I view Randy/Fedor as the first step down the road toward the boxing promotional model. And that model scares the crap out of me.

  • mike wolfe says:

    The Xtreme Couture/IFL issue may not depend upon whether Couture’s name is involved. Covenants not to compete are usually drafted in the broadest possible terms and can include situations in which the party to be restrained (Couture) can’t own or work for a company that is in the same business (MMA) as the restraining party (UFC). If the non-compete is sufficiently broad, Couture’s operation of a business that participates in the IFL could be a violation. Different states enforce non-competes differently, so who knows what a Nevada state court will do, especially if the law of another state applies or could apply.

    I wouldn’t say I was happy to see this in court, but I do find it interesting. With the rapid growth and increasing popularity of MMA, these kinds of growing pains are probably unavoidable. I suspect this will be resolved without trial because both sides have incentives to negotiate. Neither the UFC nor Couture will make any money on this lawsuit instead of promoting fights and fighting in the Octagon. It’s a distraction and bad PR for both sides. Furthermore, if the parties won’t sit down and negotiate, the court will be asked to rule on the contract’s proper interpretation, at which point the outcome of case will be determined for all intents and purposes.

  • Mike Wolfe wrote:
    “Ok, here’s the thing. The statement about “irreparable harm” is legalese to support the issuance of an injunction, which the UFC might or might not be able to obtain. An injunction is a court order preventing somebody (Couture) from doing something unlawful (fighting outside the UFC in violation of his contract). So the UFC lawyers had to put the magic words (”irreparable harm”) in the complaint so they would have a basis to try to get the injunction. It’s like saying your marriage is “irretrievably broken” in your divorce action. You gotta say the right things to get where you want to go. The magic words probably don’t have any other significance.”

    Bingo.

  • It’s interesting to note, as MMAPayout’s Adam Swift has, that Zuffa’s lawsuit against Couture only mentions his employment contract with Zuffa (ie, commentating duties), not his promotional contract (ie, fighting). Even though all of Zuffa’s public statements up to this point have been all about the fighting contract, the lawsuit itself doesn’t allege that he breached his fighting contract, it only alleges that he breached his employment/commentating contract.

    And by Zuffa’s own admission in the lawsuit, he does have the right to resign from his employment contract and then work elsewhere following a one-year period from the date of his resignation, so that would only tie him up contractually through October 2008, which is the date that Couture has been publicly citing all along as the date when he believes he’ll be contractually free and clear from the UFC. According to the detailed article by Adam Swift, there is nothing in the lawsuit talking about the promotional contract (ie, the fighting contract) at all, which would mean that there’s nothing in the lawsuit disputing that October 2008 timeframe.

    What is in the lawsuit, however, is Zuffa’s attempt to get an injunction that would serve as a temporary restraining order to prevent Couture from “competing with the UFC” during that time period, and that would include fighting for any other organization. We’ve known for months that Zuffa’s legal position is that they’re going to do everything in their power to prevent him from ever fighting for another organization, so ultimately what they want here is a temporary injunction leading to a more long-term injunction.

    By only focusing on the commentating contract and not the fighting contract in this initial lawsuit, what they’ve done is basically make a strategic decision to try to attain their end-goal here (which is an injunction preventing Couture from fighting anywhere else), without having to actually claim or prove a breach of contract on his actual fighting contract. If a judge agrees with the case that they’ve laid out, they could theoretically get an injunction that prevents Couture from fighting without ever even directly challenging his right to fight elsewhere after a certain date.

    The reason this is vitally important is because it gives them the chance to potentially get what they’re ultimately seeking (an injunction that prevents Couture from fighting elsewhere) without having the legally questionable aspects of their fighting contracts potentially thrown out of court. (In particular, the de-facto no-compete-clause-for-life would likely never hold up in any court, and the so-called champion’s clause would be unlikely to hold up in court very well, either, since it didn’t hold up very well in the BJ Penn lawsuit.)

    If they had sued Couture directly on the basis of a claimed breach of contract on his promotional/fighting contract, then they’d be seeking what they ultimately want, but they’d be doing so at the risk of getting some of their key contractual clauses thrown out of court and declared invalid, which would affect a lot of other UFC contracts.

    By only suing on the basis of the employment/commentating contract for now, they’re still seeking the injunction that they ultimately want, but without the risk of having to put the aforementioned contractual clauses under legal scrutiny.

    I would expect that when or if anything goes poorly for Zuffa’s side in this legal case, or it looks like there’s a good chance they’re not going to be getting the injunction that they’re seeking via this particular lawsuit, then at that point you can expect another lawsuit to be filed with the full gamut of legal claims about Couture’s actual fighting contract. What has happened up to this point has essentially just been a gamble to see if they can get that injunction without having to subject all of their fighter contractual clauses to legal scrutiny.

  • Rln says:

    “I would expect that when or if anything goes poorly for Zuffa’s side in this legal case, or it looks like there’s a good chance they’re not going to be getting the injunction that they’re seeking via this particular lawsuit, then at that point you can expect another lawsuit to be filed with the full gamut of legal claims about Couture’s actual fighting contract.”

    Do the Zuffa lawyers go with what they feel is the strongest case first or do they hold off and put out what they feel has the weaker chance at getting the desired outcome?

  • “Do the Zuffa lawyers go with what they feel is the strongest case first or do they hold off and put out what they feel has the weaker chance at getting the desired outcome?”

    They put out the case first that has the least chance of putting their most questionable contractual clauses under legal scrutiny, while still potentially getting them the same result (in an injunction that would, among other things, prevent Couture from fighting for any other MMA organization).

  • Mike Wolfe says:

    Is a copy of the complaint posted anywhere on the internet? If so, where?

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