Zuffa, Bellator continue fight over 'matching rights' with challenge to drop clause

Strikeforce

In the wee hours of Sept. 23, in the afterglow of UFC 152, Dana White publicly berated rival promotion Bellator for what he insisted was one of the "scummiest, dirtiest things you could do in the fight business."

What raised his ire was the discussion of a controversial clause that allows Bellator to match the contracts offered to fighters who have already been released by them. Essentially, the promotion can let someone go and let the market determine their worth, then match a presented deal and retain them. At the time of White's comments, which were mostly centered on a newly signed UFC light heavyweight named Roger Hollett, Bellator hadn't exercised matching rights, but had simply required the fighter to go through the process of presenting his formal offer before making a decision.

But even that, according to White, was too much.

"I have no beef with those guys," he said. "They're doing their own thing and I could care less. But that's dirty. That's dirty and it's borderline criminal."

When it comes to the legality of the clause, some agree that it may not pass muster if challenged in a court of law, but that's a lengthy and expensive lawsuit that no one has yet been willing to mount. But here's where this gets strange: in the same interview, White confirmed that the clause appears in standard Zuffa contracts, meaning that he's railing against something that his company insists upon including in its deals.

That, according to Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, smacks of hypocrisy. After all, if the clause exists in UFC and Strikeforce contracts, it exists for a reason.

"If the UFC will do away with the section of their agreement that allows them to release a fighter and then retain the right to match, we will immediately do the same," he said in an interview with MMA Fighting.

In issuing his challenge, Rebney pointed out that his organization went through the same process with Zuffa when they signed Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, who had been cut in March.

White, who has been extensively traveling over the last week, did not respond to MMA Fighting's attempts to reach him, but the UFC did make available its executive vice president and general counsel Lawrence Epstein, who oversees fighter contracts.

According to Epstein, there are subtle differences between what the UFC does and what Bellator does. He said that in the case of Hollett, for instance, he had been cut by Bellator, and when it was publicly announced that the UFC signed him, Bellator "asserted" their rights to match. That, he says, is very different than the Lawal situation. According to him, after Lawal signed with Bellator, Zuffa received unsolicited correspondence from his management inquiring about their interest in matching.

According to Lawal's manager Mike Kogan, that is true. He did reach out to Zuffa to determine if they would match his Bellator offer. But only because he felt he was shortening an inevitable process.

"Their contract asks me to submit material terms of the agreement," he told MMA Fighting. "If I would have sent them an email outlining it, that would have delayed [the deal] even longer. So, yeah, they don't specifically say 'bring us a contract,' but if you’ve ever been involved in first right of refusal conversations, when you submit the terms, they always come back and say, 'How do we know these are the material terms?' It drags on. So to avoid that, we just sent them the contract. So in all fairness, they didn't ask for the contract specifically. But the language specifically asks for material terms of the offer, otherwise what the f--- are they matching? In language, they're not asking for it, but they're asking for material terms of the contract, so how else would I submit it to them without any doubt?"

Kogan said that in his experience, the practice is industry-wide, leaving no promotion room for moral high ground.

Rebney, however, doesn't think the clause is an inherently unfair provision. In the case of Tyson Nam, which was also a recent MMA cause célèbre, Rebney said it was Bellator which presented Nam with the opportunity to fight outside the organization through matchmaker Sam Caplan. When Nam upset their bantamweight champ Eduardo Dantas in Brazil, offers to Nam came pouring in. According to Rebney, it would have been irresponsible to simply let him walk away without at least examining the offers to determine whether they should match and retain him. After all, his new value was at least partially the result of an opportunity they created for him while he was still under the terms of their deal.

"In a competitive landscape with one organization backed by FOX and another backed by Viacom where the singular most important aspect of those businesses are the fighters, if you're willing to forego rights that you have in your contract, we'll do the same," he said. "But I don't believe it's an unethical clause. You're not asking the athlete to take a lesser deal."

Bellator ultimately chose not to match deals for Hollett and Nam, letting both move on to the next chapters of their respective careers.

Epstein said that during his five-plus years at Zuffa, neither the UFC nor Strikeforce has ever cut a fighter and went on to assert matching rights. Yet the clause is still included in contracts because according to him, the provisions don't cover one specific situation and may pertain to some future possibility that is as of now, unforeseeable.

That means that Rebney's challenge to the UFC and Zuffa about removing the clause is unlikely to be met.

"My response is this: I absolutely believe he’d make that challenge, because Bjorn, it's been alleged in a lawsuit we filed against him, stole all of our agreements and and copied all of our agreements," Epstein said, referring to a 2010 lawsuit that is still working its way through the courts. "It's not really a challenge. He has tried to copy everything we do anyway. So I'm not going to respond to it. All I can say is he's proved that he’s willing to copy -- or at least try to copy -- anything we do."

But Rebney reiterates that he's serious about his proposal, saying his company would be at a competitive disadvantage if it was the only one of the two promoters without the clause in its contracts.

While White sees the exercising of that clause as wrong but still includes it in his deals, and Rebney sees it as a necessity, fighters hoping to sign with either of the groups likely won't have an opinion that matters much past their own two cents.

Athletes approached by Bellator, Strikeforce and the UFC will still be asked to sign a deal in which they can be let go, sign elsewhere, and then be brought back under matching rights. It's an instance that has yet to happen, but given the right set of circumstances, it's only a matter of time until it does.

"I don't really pay too much attention to it," Kogan said. "Yeah, it's unfair, but the whole f------ thing is unfair, so what's the point? I look at these contracts and calculate the worst-case scenario. I explain that to my athletes, and as long as they understand that going in, we're fine."

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