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Thursday, November 20, 2008
Fear, Intimidation, and Making Examples Out of People: UFC Wins Power Struggle, Fighters Give UFC Lifetime Rights to Their Likenesses
by Ivan Trembow

(Previous entry on this subject: "Sign Away Lifetime Rights to Your Own Likeness, Or You're Fired")

Fear, intimidation, and making examples out of people. If you've followed the MMA industry for long enough, you already know that's how the UFC frequently operates during contract disputes, and they're usually successful at getting what they want. The latest situation, with numerous fighters being unwilling to sign over the lifetime rights to their own likenesses, is no different.

After releasing American Kickboxing Academy fighters Jon Fitch and Christian Wellisch and threatening to oust their entire fight team from the UFC, along with any other fight teams that don't want to be "partners" with the UFC/Zuffa (ie, sign anything that the UFC tells them to sign), the UFC has gotten what it wanted. Fitch and Wellisch have re-signed with the UFC, which now owns the lifetime rights to their likenesses. Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, and Cain Velasquez are expected to sign away the lifetime rights to their likenesses shortly.

This situation was perhaps the most abusive example of MMA fighters' need for a union, but that was only going to happen if the fighters or their management teams united in the face of the UFC's despotic actions. Instead, the opposite may have happened. The purpose of the UFC's actions was to scare the living daylights out of any fighter or management team that dared to defy the UFC's orders to sign anything that the UFC wants them to sign, and the UFC appears to have been successful in that effort.

Sam Caplan of FiveOuncesofPain.com spoke with numerous MMA fighters' managers, and even early in the process, they were already scurrying for cover to avoid angering the UFC giant, lest they suffer the same fate as Fitch and his camp. Caplan wrote in one of his first articles on the subject, "No one wants to get on Dana White’s bad side. For an agency to alienate themselves from the UFC is considered to be an act of suicide. Nobody likes the terms of the deal being offered, but thus far everyone appears ready to be bracing themselves to take a bite out of the s--t sandwich."

In a subsequent article that was written after he spoke with even more MMA fighters' managers, Caplan wrote, "In a clear attempt to try and entice fighters to leave AKA and Zinkin [Fitch's fight team and management], White sent a message to non-UFC fighters that train at the gym by intimating that their prospects of fighting for the promotion are damaged as long as they are affiliated with the AKA or Zinkin."

The headline of one of Caplan's articles summed up the situation well: "Fitch’s release a calculated attempt to send fighters and their managers a message."

As Robert Joyner wrote on MMAPayout.com in an article that was aptly headlined simply by the word Brazen, "We knew [the UFC] would look at some unethical ways to get the deals done... but not in our wildest dreams did we have the notion that the UFC would basically go to war with its own fighters in order to get the merchandise agreement signed. For all intents and purposes Dana [White] has taken AKA out into the middle of town square and shot them in the head, making an example for the rest of the village. Sign the merchandise agreements or this could be you."

Later on Thursday, American Top Team manager Dan Lambert went into UFC ass-kissing mode in an interview with MMA Junkie, effectively distancing himself and his camp from the fighters and managers who were not being obedient and signing what the UFC told them to sign.

The only prominent manager who spoke up and said anything that might anger the UFC giant was Monte Cox, who said to Sports Illustrated's Josh Gross, "I just think it's unfortunate... What if the UFC decides they're doing a new calendar? If a guy doesn't want to pose, do they cut him for that, too?"

The Sports Illustrated article also said that Cox will "likely" advise his clients not to sign away the lifetime rights to their likenesses, which could indicate that the UFC's next power struggle will be with Cox and the many UFC fighters that he manages.

Despite publicly saying, "F--k him. F--k them. All of them, every last f--king one of them" about Fitch and the other fighters who would not sign the UFC merchandising agreements, Dana White said in an interview with USA Today that he had no problem at all with Fitch or any of the other individual fighters. He said repeatedly that he just had a problem with their management.

If anything, doesn't that make White's actions worse? He had a problem with someone's managers, so in order to send a message to those managers, inflict pain on those managers, and put pressure on those managers, he released Fitch. Treating the #2-ranked welterweight in the world (or any fighter, for that matter) like a lowly pawn in his own power struggles is supposed to make White's actions less reprehensible instead of more reprehensible?

Fitch seemed to be aware of the bigger picture, as he said on Mauro Ranallo's radio show on Thursday, "It’s 100 percent a power play... They are coming out and they are trying to break us. They are trying to break Zinkin Entertainment and get us to jump off a ship. They are trying to send a message to the rest of the [fighters] out there."

Fitch also spoke again about White's negotiation style, which is essentially to sign what he tells you to sign, or else. Fitch said, "He made those threats. ‘What are you going to do? Where are you going to go? Good luck trying to fight somewhere else.’ This was in the process of the negotiating. This is what he was saying to us.”

The UFC started its very calculated game of chicken by first releasing Fitch's teammate, Christian Wellisch. Then, when Wellisch's teammates still wouldn't sign the merchandising agreements that the UFC ordered them to sign, Fitch was released next. Regarding Wellisch, Fitch told Sherdog, "They cut him from the organization first, I think as kind of a scare for me and [Josh] Koscheck and Cain [Velasquez]." Undefeated heavyweight prospect Velasquez would have almost certainly been next, given that White told Yahoo Sports that Velasquez "can get the f--k out."

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Fitch said, "To have this happen is crazy. This sport is definitely not about fighting anymore. It used to be about finding out who the best guy was, what the best style was. It's not about that anymore. It's about the top company making the most money."

Fitch also said to Sports Illustrated, "I just hope the other guys, the younger guys, everybody else involved, doesn't let them do this. Stand up for yourself. Stand up for your rights. If you don't like an agreement or you're not comfortable with it, don't sign."

Of course, less than 24 hours after he said that, Fitch signed.

As I wrote early this morning, the comments of UFC president Dana White in interviews with USA Today and other media outlets had the clear subtext that the UFC was attempting to essentially separate the fighters from their managers, whose job is to look out for the best interests of the fighters, as opposed to just signing whatever the UFC orders the fighters to sign.

The message to fighters was clear: If you want to keep fighting in the UFC, but your manager or lawyer advises you against signing this merchandising agreement or any other contractual agreement that may arise in the future, you can and should just circumvent your manager, contact the UFC directly, and sign whatever we tell you to sign.

On Thursday, after more unproductive conversations with White, Fitch contacted White's boss, Lorenzo Fertitta, and eventually agreed to sign the same exact contractual clauses that White was trying threaten Fitch and his teammates into signing on Wednesday.

It wasn't the first time that Fertitta has been forced to play "Good Cop" after one of White's outbursts directed at fighters or their managers. Who had to handle Randy Couture's recent contract negotiations? Who had to handle Tito Ortiz' last few UFC contracts? Who had to handle the negotiations to buy Pride FC? Who would have to handle any potential future negotiations with Fedor Emelianenko after all of White's public insults towards Fedor and his camp? Lorenzo Fertitta.

In an interview with USA Today after he had agreed to re-sign with the UFC and sign away the lifetime rights to his likeness, Fitch said, "We talked to Dana [White] earlier today and we didn't get any further. We were still stuck in the mud. The way he talks to us, it just doesn't come across well, and I have a hard time dealing with him."

Fitch also said to MMA Rated on Thursday, "Communication kind of broke down with Dana [White], so we talked with Lorenzo [Fertitta]. I just got off the phone with him, and we came to an agreement. We’re going to move ahead, and I’ll be back in the UFC... we felt Dana was being a little bit hot-headed and was threatening us right off the bat. It didn’t seem like a professional way of doing things."

If you're wondering why Fitch would sign the lifetime rights to his own likeness over to a company that had just used him as a pawn in their own power struggles, had said "f--k... every last f--king one of them" regarding Fitch and his teammates, was threatening fighters into signing away the lifetime rights to their own likenesses, and is still threatening the same consequences to other fighters who don't agree to sign away the lifetime rights to their likenesses, the answer is pretty simple.

It's because, after all, "Where else is he going to go?" That is frequently the position that the UFC takes in contract negotiations with fighters. That is the specific statement that White made to Fitch's camp; that is what White said in his interview with USA Today ("Where the hell else could Jon Fitch go right now?"); and that is what UFC matchmaker Joe Silva was quoted as saying by the Houston Chronicle last year ("Where else is he going to go?") in regards to Andrei Arlovski's contract situation when he had one fight left on his UFC contract.

It would be naive to think that the lifetime merchandising agreements are going to be the final legally questionable contracts that UFC fighters are going to be forced into signing in the coming months and years.

The attitude of, "Where else is he going to go?" combined with the lack of a fighters' union or any form of collective bargaining will ensure that the fighters can't, as Fitch put it, "stand up for their rights" without permanently crippling their careers. And as long as that's the case, the UFC is going to continue to prey on that.

The fact that this has been horrible P.R. for the UFC doesn't appear to matter to them. They have succeeded in sending a strong message to any fighter or manager who is even thinking about refusing to sign anything that the UFC orders them to sign in the future. The UFC got what they wanted, and they got it the same way that they often get what they want in contract negotiations: Through fear, intimidation, and making examples out of people.

It was about a year ago that UFC president Dana White said in an interview that the most important thing for him is to be able to know that his kids don't have a "sleazeball promoter" for a father. It's not clear if that's the case anymore.

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