Champions generally don't leave their promotions while in the midst of a title reign, but that's exactly the route that Vinny Magalhaes is planning to take. As he tells it, the decision to part ways with M-1 has been a foregone conclusion for months, and the impetus came smack in the middle of his last match.
Last October, Magalhaes was in the midst of successfully defending his light-heavyweight championship against Mikhail Zayats at an M-1 show in Phoenix when his manager Juan Sanchez heard M-1's director of operations Evgeni Kogan openly rooting for and instructing Zayats.
"Once that happens, I don't know how you can trust somebody," Magalhaes told MMA Fighting.
As it turns out, he can't. And so on Tuesday, Magalhaes (9-5-1) declared his free agency, saying he's lived out the terms of his contract. While Sanchez told MMA Fighting that M-1 has a matching period, he doesn't expect them to equal any new deal. There's little doubt he'll be a hot commodity, as the 27-year-old has gone 7-1 since ending his first UFC run in April 2009.
Magalhaes and Sanchez believe that the M-1 relationship had first been fractured before the Magalhaes-Zayats match. Before Fedor Emelianenko had been scheduled to fight Dan Henderson, Magalhaes had been invited to help him train in Holland. The offer came uncompensated, and Magalhaes had just started a new job at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, so to him, the decision was clear to stay home.
Then, days before Magalhaes fought Zayats, M-1 head Vadim Finkelstein was quoted as saying he was going to invite Magalhaes to train with Emelianenko as he prepared for Jeff Monson. The pairing made sense as Magalhaes is a highly decorated grappler who had just captured first place in the Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling world championships. But no one from M-1 had ever approached Magalhaes about it, so when he was asked about it just days before his own fight, Magalhaes said he wouldn't do it without getting paid.
"I didn't think it was a big deal," said Magalhaes, who first came to prominence as a finalist on season eight of The Ultimate Fighter. "I didn't feel like I said anything bad. I just said if they want a service, they have to pay for it. But apparently Evgeni took it as an insult. It's not a package, like I fight for M-1 so I have to give them that service for free. It doesn't work like that. They only paid me to fight."
Shortly thereafter, though, Magalhaes and Sanchez claim that they didn't even pay him for that. Magalhaes says he was pulled off two shows in late 2011, and communication between the sides was cut off aside from one contract extension offer.
"They don't have that many fighters," Magalhaes said. "It's not like they didn't have spots for me."
M-1's Kogan declined to offer any comment when reached by MMA Fighting. But according to Sanchez, under the terms of the deal, Magalhaes' contract ended on Jan. 13, and on Tuesday, his exclusive negotiating period came to a close.
"The No. 1 thing is to honor what you sign, and we've honored exactly what he signed for on the contract," Sanchez said. "The fact is, they didn't let us finish up the fights, but we've honored everything as far as time, and we haven't talked to any other organizations or taken any outside fights."
That will change quickly. Sanchez plans to begin fielding offers immediately, and Magalhaes, anxious to fight, says he hopes to have something signed as early as the end of this week.
The UFC is likely to be one of the interested parties, even though Magalhaes washed out quickly in his first run there. He says now that the opportunity came too soon.
It was one he wasn't even looking for when it happened. Largely because of his friendship with Dan Henderson, Magalhaes was given a spot on TUF without ever trying out.
When it came time to fight though, Magalhaes wasn't a complete mixed martial artist, relying on his overwhelming ground game to win. He eventually lost in the finals to Ryan Bader. That defeat served as a wakeup call about his future.
"I shouldn't have been in the UFC with the experience I had at the time," he said. "I didn't know how to fight. Three years later I can say, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no strategy. I would just go out there and hope that I would get taken down to the ground and maybe get a submission. But I had no strategy other than that."
His journey since then has been about rounding out his skills, and it was with that in mind that he signed with M-1, hoping for frequent fights. In his four bouts, he earned four stoppage victories, two by submission and two by TKO.
The chapter of his life apparently over, he'd like to return to the UFC, but is willing to listen to offers from other promoters, including Bellator. Anyone really, except for M-1.
"I've always been a competitor," he said. "It sucks for me to find motivation if I don't have a goal. Of course, I do have a goal. I know I'll fight, but for a while, it's been hard to fight motivation to be in the gym full-time. So hopefully, in the next few days I'm going to have an opponent somewhere. I'm really looking forward to that. In my mind, if I'm in the sport, I don't want to be just another guy. I want to be the best. I want to be fighting for a title. I want to be a champion."