Fedor, Strikeforce and the Travails of Non-Exclusive Contracts

For years, MMA fans have been railing about seeing Fedor Emelianenko in the UFC. In reality, that is not necessarily what they want. What they want is the opportunity to see the man who many consider the greatest heavyweight of all time available to fight whoever they deem his most dangerous challenger, regardless of where he is employed. Often times, that man is in the UFC. A few years ago it was Randy Couture; now it is Brock Lesnar.

The forces stopping such a bout from happening are neither sinister nor unconquerable. In fact, though Emelianenko's M-1 Global brand and the "crazy Russians" that UFC President Dana White sometimes refers to are often blamed for it, the real reason is nothing more complex than simple American capitalism.

With Emelianenko, M-1 and Strikeforce now going through growing pains in their relationship, it's as good a time as any to examine the reasons for these recurring issues.

When Scott Coker and Strikeforce signed Fedor Emelianenko, it was heralded by the media as the promotion's first shot at the UFC in a newly waged promotional war.

Both as a symbolic and tactical move, it appeared a brilliant stroke. While not a household name, Emelianenko is a big name in the MMA world, and because of his aura as a preternaturally stoic killer in the ring who was willing to buck the UFC, he had previously shown an ability that few MMA fighters have, and that is an ability to draw in the major mass media. He is probably the only MMA fighter ever to be featured in both The New York Times and Time Magazine. Emelianenko's captivating presence coupled with his longstanding success carried rare value that made him a must-have for an upstart promotion with the capital and flexibility to afford him.

The latter criterion was in many ways the key. During negotiations, Emelianenko's M-1 company -- of which he is a 20 percent owner -- refused to back down on certain negotiation points with the UFC. The key points were the issue of cross-promotion and a non-exclusive contract. The UFC was not open to either, but Strikeforce was agreeable to both, giving Emelianenko a new home. Showing immediate value, his signing helped Strikeforce finalize a deal to air events on CBS.

After inking a multi-fight contract, Emelianenko went to work, headlining an event on CBS that drew an average of 4.04 million viewers, a number which was inflated by the Russian star's appearance; his match with Brett Rogers was viewed by 5.46 million people, a dramatic surge of 1.5 million over the previous quarter-hour.

Momentum seemed to be building. But now, just one fight into a multi-fight deal, Emelianenko's M-1 team is seeking to renegotiate the terms of the contract.

In an exclusive fight deal favored by the UFC, a fighter would have little leverage in such a situation. As Randy Couture found when he challenged the UFC in court back in 2007, such a scenario would likely have left him mired in legal limbo for years. After months of sitting on the sidelines waiting for the slow wheels of justice to turn, Couture (whose goal, ironically enough was to fight Emelianenko) decided against a drawn-out legal battle and found a way to make peace with the UFC. Couture might have eventually won the case; he simply could not afford the time to find out.

So Strikeforce is hardly the first organization to have a fighter hold out; it's just that the circumstances with non-exclusive deals tilt the leverage away from the organization and towards the fighter -- or at least a fighter with the clout of Emelianenko.

Strikeforce's willingness to free certain fighters for possible paydays in non-U.S. promotions is an athlete-friendly gesture, but can now work against them. Should negotiations get ugly (and there's nothing to suggest they've yet devolved to that level) Emelianenko can simply walk away -- or threaten to walk away -- to a promotion such as DREAM or Sengoku, or even to fight under his own M-1 banner, as long as it's overseas.

Somewhere, there's always going to be another suitor, and as long as that suitor is a non-U.S. company, Strikeforce can do little about it legally. So what is left to do? Either you dig in your heels to fight and risk further alienating your star, or you grudgingly open the purse strings again. Not surprisingly, Strikeforce is taking the latter approach and at least attempting a renegotiation. Emelianenko's the biggest name on the roster, and it knows any show with him has a better chance of success than one without him.

Keep in mind that Emelianenko's reps have a history of shall we say, hardball tactics. In 2007, he struck a deal with U.S.-based Sibling Sports that would result in a new promotion. That organization -- ironically, to be called M-1 Global -- spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees during contract negotiations. After agreeing to a $1.5 million bonus for Emelianenko and $2 million per fight to him and his management team, according to sources, the new M-1 company was in the process of planning its first show when Emelianenko's management declared him a free agent, saying he'd never officially signed a contract. They never ran a show.

In 2008, Emelianenko and M-1 signed a deal to have him compete in co-promotions with Affliction, but after just one fight with the promotion, his M-1 team asked for and received a reworked extension that would pay Emelianenko $300,000 per fight while M-1 would receive $1.2 million in fees for its services.

Now, after one fight with Strikeforce, another renegotiation is at hand. As in the previous situations, the deal was structured in a way that gives Emelianenko's team leverage in the situation. Could his management try the same tactic had he signed with the UFC? Absolutely. But that's specifically why Dana White and company do not deal in non-exclusive contracts in the first place. It is the very reason for their insistence and demand in exerting near complete control over their product.

This isn't to say Strikeforce is wrong in their approach. After all, every organization and promotion has contract issues, no matter the sport or business, and it is up to them to structure deals that work best for all the parties involved. So to is it up to the individual to decide if he can work under the terms of a stricter contract like a standard UFC deal.

Using non-exclusive deals will for instance benefit Strikeforce because of the loose talent trades they do with DREAM, an agreement that should result in a fantastic lightweight title matchup between DREAM champ Shinya Aoki and Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez on the upcoming April CBS show. That matchup wouldn't be available under the UFC's rigid system. It opens up a whole new world of talent.

Then again, what happens if Aoki wins Strikeforce's lightweight title and then heads right back to Japan? He's fought exclusively there for years, and Strikeforce could risk more protracted negotiations or have a situation where the champion is unavailable for a lengthy period of time because he's overseas defending his title there. There's many reasons that boxing championships got so fragmented, and one is because fighters with leverage stopped listening to commissions and refused mandatory title defenses if they could get higher paydays elsewhere. That's not a scenario anyone wants to see in MMA, but it could happen.

Strikeforce's open stance is a wonderful position when everything goes right. It did, after all, reel in a big fish in Emelianenko. But after seeing M-1 bring its hardball tactics back one more time, it's clear to see that co-promotion and non-exclusive deals are equal parts heavenly and hellish.

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