Dana White vs. Randy Couture?
According to Dana White, President of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Randy “The Natural” Couture “definitely belongs to me…he’s under contract to me. No doubt about it.”
Couture is the 44-year old former UFC heavyweight champion (there are five divisions by weight) who abruptly retired from the mixed martial arts (MMA) organization earlier this week, citing money issues, the inability to fight former Pride star Fedor Emelianenko—who earlier this month committed himself exclusively to the owners of the Russian M-1 Mixfight Championship promotion—and also a desire to concentrate on making movies.
White is quoted as being perplexed by Couture’s alleged dissatisfaction with his contract, noting that the UFC had previously voided Couture’s old deal with the company and completed a new one when Couture had “un-retired” earlier this year, coming back from a one-year hiatus. Nevertheless, Couture maintains his vehemence against UFC. “I’m tired of swimming upstream at this stage with the management of the UFC,” Couture stated. White, on the other hand, has his own theories on the matter. Per a recent interview on UFC’s web site, White said that he thinks the real reason Couture is retiring is that he wants to get into acting, and that “his scumbag Hollywood agent” told him to leave UFC. “He hooked up with some Hollywood agent that I bitch slapped about a month ago, and these Hollywood agents are parasites,” White quipped.
Strangely, no one can agree on what the terms of Couture’s contract with UFC actually are. White, for instance, disputes reports that in nine months Couture’s contract with UFC would have expired anyway, after which time he would’ve been a “free agent.” White contends that Couture must honor the remainder of his contract, and that if fails to do so, or if Couture eventually wants to fight for another MMA organization, he’d have to go through the legal system—or otherwise be liable for breach. But Couture’s “scumbag Hollywood agent,” Matt Walker of The Gersh Agency, has other views. “Randy’s contract was on a fight-by-fight basis, and that’s the way he said he was always going to take it–fight by fight,” said Walker. “His acting career is accelerating at an astronomical rate, and with the support he felt some of his peers were receiving in the fight business, this was the logical choice.”
Relating to UFC’s cryptic pay structure, Couture’s alleged displeasure—albeit out of the blue—may have some credence. At a recent press conference, for instance, White was peppered by reporters with questions relating to the alleged inadequacy of UFC fighter pay. Asked about Keith Jardine, who made $14,000 for beating Liddell at UFC 76, White defended that his fighters “weren’t complaining,” noting that former champion Rich Franklin would only make $28,000, plus a $28,000 bonus, if he beat title-holder Anderson Silva in their impending main-event this past Saturday. “If these guys are unhappy with their deals, they’d all be walking out just like Randy Couture,” White argued. “Let me tell you what, there’s a lot of guys out there right now throwing money around. You’ve got Mark Cuban out there throwing money around, these other guys that are with Showtime throwing money around, the IFL’s thrown so much money around, they’re almost gone. There’s a lot of guys spending a lot of money and making a lot of offers. I’ve got these guys for three, four, five, six-fight deals and then their contracts come up. Why are they re-signing with me? Why do they keep re-signing with me when all these other guys are out there throwing crazy money around? Because we’re paying these guys very well and we take care of them.”
White’s story is an interesting one. A former aerobic kickboxing instructor and amateur boxer, White gave up fighting to become a boxing promoter and also to manage fighters such as Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell—men who would later help pull the fringe sport of ultimate fighting, once relegated to an underground status when pay-per-view providers were pressured by politicians to nix UFC programming, to become a mainstream cultural phenomenon in the U.S. that now enjoys weekly cable spots and even a popular reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” on Spike TV. Moreover, according to Sports Illustrated, MMA pay-per-view (PPV) revenues generated close to $225 million in 2006, surpassing both the WWE—World Wrestling “Entertainment”—and boxing-titan HBO, and grossing more PPV revenue than any other promotion in history.
While managing, White learned that the UFC was up for sale by its then parent group, SEG. Political intervention (then-Senator John McCain famously branded it “human cockfighting”) and a drastically curtailed viewing audience had put SEG on the brink of bankruptcy, despite the fact that the UFC had increased its cooperation with state athletic commissions and redesigned its rules to ensure fighter safety and to remove at least some of the gratuitous violence that its critics habitually harped on. White contacted Lorenzo Fertitta, a childhood friend, Las Vegas casino executive, and former commissioner of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Eventually, Fertitta, his older brother Frank, and White incorporated in Nevada as Zuffa, LLC and bought the UFC for $2 million in January 2001. White, who owns 10% of Zuffa, was installed as President. And although Zuffa has historically suffered some significant losses—as much as $34 million as recently as in 2004, its financial turnaround since then is undeniable—UFC programming can now be seen in 35 other countries as well as the U.S, has operations already set up in the UK aimed to expand the European demographic, and earlier this year purchased the PRIDE organization, a Japanese-based MMA organization whose fighters White has recently commented will basically be realigned under the UFC brand.
Because the Las Vegas-based UFC is privately held, its books are not automatically available for general consumption, and accordingly the organization does not divulge fighter pay. And while organizations like the Nevada State Athletic Commission release purse information, said data does not include the fight bonuses or pay-per-view percentages that elite fighters often negotiate into their contracts. For instance, the commission cited a purse of $500,000 for Liddell’s last fight, and $250,000 for Couture—but no word on what the actual breakdown was for the respective fighters at the end of the day.
Couture seems to be in good hands with Walker and with Gersh if indeed his primary goals now are Hollywood—and not Octagon—related. But it appears that White won’t go down without a fight. While he legally cannot force Couture to fight—if indeed Couture is contractually obligated to compete in future bouts with UFC—he could rightfully seek monetary damages in district court if Couture is found in breach, in addition to an enforcement of any non-compete clause that would likely have been part of Couture’s deal.
Regardless of how UFC fighters are compensated—and whether or not they are underpaid in relation to UFC’s burgeoning financial success, domestically and overseas—Couture’s harsh words for UFC only underscores the importance of proper representation. Anytime you’re dealing with a management structure that claims its employees or independent contractors “belong” to the company, no matter how tongue-in-cheek they might mean it, you know that contract negotiations will be no holds barred and that you’d better bring an agent to the table, “scumbag” or not.
–Jason G. Wulterkens
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