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The Bellator vs. Rampage Jackson lawsuit explained

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Tomorrow we could find out if Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson will successfully be able to return to the UFC. Yet, it won't be with a performance in the cage. Bellator is trying to stop Jackson from not just fighting Fabio Maldonado at UFC 186, but fighting for the UFC altogether. While Jackson claims Bellator breached its contract with him and that's why he left their organization, Bellator says it did no such thing. In fact, it claims it is Jackson who breached the contract when he tried to walk away and fight for the UFC.

Who is right? Who will win? What does this all mean?

We aren't lawyers, but MMA Fighting read all of the relevant documents and spoke to several attorneys familiar with the case. While we can never be too sure about what could happen, there are some areas of emphasis that deserve some explanation and attention. I've compiled this explainer to hopefully cover the more relevant issues.

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1. Why did Rampage claim Bellator had breached its contract?

This is pretty well publicized, but in short, Jackson claims the terms of the contract he signed with Bellator were not met. Specifically, Jackson asserts he wasn't given a copy of the pay-per-view returns. In addition, he's saying his bouts with Bellator were not properly promoted and that he wasn't given the entertainment opportunities promised to him, at least according to the terms or good faith intentions laid out in their written agreement.

2. Ok, but what about Bellator? After all, they are taking Jackson to court. What are they saying here?

Among a few other things, they're saying they never breached their contract with Jackson. In fact, they claim, Jackson is the one who breached their agreement. They're asking the court for a preliminary injunction, which would stop Jackson from competing at UFC 186. They're also asking the court to stop Jackson from participating in any fight outside of those they claim he still owes them.

Just so that's clear, a preliminary injunction is just a decision, before the merits of the legal case are decided, to see if one party can be restrained from doing something. Plenty of times a party can win on the injunction and lose on the overall case. We'll be following how this all proceeds.

3. What's Bellator's argument for that?

This one is longer and a bit more complicated (and deserves a longer reading of the documents), but it goes something like this.

MMA is a sport where promoters invest heavily in developing fighters, marketing fighters and events, "in a manner that raises awareness, generates revenue, creates brand loyalty and provides the fighter the best opportunity to become a superstar not only in the MMA industry but around the world." Bellator positions itself as the number-two promotion in the sport, behind UFC.

The sport, so the argument goes, is star driven. "An MMA promoter's success is based upon the ability to develop and promote MMA fighters that are not only successful in their fights but also have the personality and charisma to draw a public following," Bellator claims. On top of that, Bellator argues becoming a star is difficult. It takes time, resources, the ability to win as well as connect with an audience. That's why having a stable of stars is important for a promoter's reputation or ability to make money, especially a promoter that's secondary to but competing with the UFC.

Jackson, it notes, had an illustrious career in MMA, but had had fallen on hard times in the UFC, losing four of his last five and three straight before leaving the UFC. Despite this, it still saw potential in him as decided to sign him. Bellator and Jackson eventually entered into an exclusive, written agreement. Bellator eventually promoted three fights for Jackson and, it notes, provided a range of different entertainment opportunities related to the obligations in the contract.

Despite what Bellator says was their successful effort in rebuilding Jackson's image (and meeting all the terms of the contract), Jackson still wanted to re-negotiate after the third Bellator bout.

Bellator says Jackson was disappointed a pay-per-view bonus didn't kick in from the buyrates of the bout opposite Muhammed Lawal, but paid Jackson a $200,000 bonus to keep him satisfied. Eventually, it says, this still wasn't enough. Jackson and his management more or less complained they weren't given enough entertainment opportunities, not fully promoted Jackson's fight and failed to provide a copy of the pay-per-view buyrates from the Lawal bout. There was an attempt to satisfy Jackson's issues, Bellator says, but these failed.

Eventually, Bellator says, Jackson and his management claimed he is a free agent and sent Bellator a termination notice. After talking to one of the UFC's lawyers and explaining to them Jackson was still under contract, UFC responded that was not their understanding of what was happening. Jackson announced soon thereafter he'd signed with UFC.

Bellator argues Jackson breached their agreement. It claims by signing with UFC, he breached the portion of the agreement where Bellator would be his exclusive promoter, "which provides that Bellator has the exclusive right to use Jackson's 'names, images likenesses' for the purpose of 'advertising and/or promoting and/or exploiting' Bellator's events and brand." They also say Jackson breached the portion of the agreement that gives them twelve months following the contract's termination (for any reason) where Bellator has the exclusive right to match any offer Jackson received from another promoter. In addition, Jackson was supposed to give Bellator written notice of any offer from a different promoter within five days of getting it. It claims he failed to satisfy this condition.

4. Beyond proving the above, what else does Bellator have to do to stop Jackson from fighting at UFC 186?

The key for Bellator isn't just winning the argument as stated above in some general sense. There is also a burden they have to prove when it comes to preliminary injunctions, namely:

  • There is a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the case
  • That they face a substantial threat of irreparable damage or injury if the injunction is not granted
  • That the balance of harms weighs in favor of the party seeking the preliminary injunction
  • That the grant of an injunction would serve the public interest

Whether Bellator has satisfied these conditions is up to the court to decide. Bellator explicitly states in their filing not only would they lose money if Jackson were allowed to walk - both from what has been spent as well as what they'd lose in future opportunities - but that the "departure of an MMA star while still under contract with a promoter sends ripples through the industry.

"Other fighters and their managers take this kind of seismic disruption as a cue that they and their fighters can simply ignore their contracts and likewise bolt for perceived better opportunity if one seems possible. Managers have informed Bellator that if Jackson is allowed to walk away from his contract, other fighters will do the same."

Without an injunction, they claim, "Bellator will suffer irreparable harm to its business and reputation."

5. Wait a second, what about Jackson's claims? Do they have any merit?

They certainly seem to, yes. According to multiple attorneys contacted by MMA Fighting, some of Jackson's or his management's claims for terminating the contract fall flat. The evidence to substantiate the claims Bellator didn't fully promote his fights or provide all of the entertainment opportunities required in their written agreement is not, the attorneys say, particularly strong. That isn't to say these won't be relevant at the impending hearing, the attorneys stress, but these didn't seem to be Jackson's best arguments.

On the contrary, all of the attorneys agreed Jackson has a very strong point when he claims Bellator breached the contract when it failed to provide a copy of the pay-per-view buyrates for the Lawal fight from Bellator 120. The bout agreement between Bellator and Jackson states,"PROMOTER shall deliver to FIGHTER, promptly following PROMOTER'S receipt from its pay-per-view distributors and licensees that telecast the Bout in the PPV Territory, a copy of a summary report of pay-per-view buys in the PPV Territory, which PROMOTER receives from distributors."

Bellator claims neither Jackson nor his management ever asked for a copy. They also state they told Jackson's management the buyrate and the figure was widely reported in the media. Yet, according to one the attorneys contacted, "the general understanding and dictionary definition of 'copy' is a written document," something Bellator directly admits they never provided, albeit for their own reasons.

6. Maybe they didn't, but let's assume Bellator breached that term of the contract. Isn't that enough for Jackson to terminate the agreement and walk away?

This might be what the entire case hinges on. Let's suppose you sign a contract to mow my lawn every Saturday at 10 a.m. for five weeks. On the very last week, you show up five minutes late, but proceed to mow the lawn to the appropriate specifications. Technically, you breached the contract. Yet, you also essentially carried out the terms as we had agreed upon in good faith.

The question for the courts to decide is, if this is a breach, just how substantive this breach truly is. If the court finds it is a material breach, and if Bellator fails to satisfy the conditions for a preliminary injunction, Jackson could soon be a free man (although there are types of material breaches where walking away from a contract still isn't justified).

Still, Bellator claims there's no way this breach is that serious. "Such a failure would not be a material breach that would provide a basis for termination of his agreement by Jackson," they state. They're not granting they did breach the contract, but note, even if they did, that's still not cause for Rampage to declare the contract is terminated. There are provisions in Jackson's contract that enable them to cure many different kinds of breaches, which they believe even in a worst case, covers this scenario. For example, they could just provide Jackson a written copy.

Yet, Bellator argues the information contained on pay-per-view reports is confidential and proprietary. They claim this is partly why they were reluctant to share it with Jackson's management (more on this in a minute).

That argument, however, may be hard to get a judge to find compelling. Attorneys tell MMA Fighting Bellator had ways to protect themselves while complying with the clear requirement of the contract to deliver a written copy.

7. Is there anything else we should pay attention to?

Potentially, yes:

  • If we assume Bellator did not properly comply by providing a written copy of the pay-per-view buyrates, was that failure central to the heart of the contract? Is the contract about promoting fights or about something wider? The parties will widely differ in their answers here and that has implications for the entire hearing.
  • Jackson is not seeking any damages, but even if he was, Bellator believes he's been unharmed. They claim he wasn't entitled to any bonus payment from the underwhelming pay-per-view buyrates, but received a bonus, anyway. Will Jackson be able to prove he was still harmed by this contract?
  • Bellator asserts the contract gives them 45 days to cure any alleged breach. But, they say, they couldn't even do this with respect to the copy of the pay-per-view buys because "Jackson's manager simultaneously threatened that he was going to share all the information about the Bellator/Jackson relationship with the public. Further, he asserted that he was not bound by any duty of confidentiality. Thus, because Bellator could not be assured that any information given to McGann would remain confidential, Jackson deprived it of a reasonable opportunity to cure to which it was entitled to under the Agreement and Jackson cannot therefore claim breach." Jackson and his team say they gave Bellator not 45, but 70 days to resolve this. Will a court recognize Jackson's claims or Bellator's here?

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As a reminder, many minor technical matters can affect how a hearing proceeds and whether a preliminary injunction moves forward. Maybe the court decides Bellator didn't breach the contract by not providing a written copy and instead believe Jackson's arguments that he was not properly promoted. Maybe neither of things happen. Anything is possible. All we can do is take educated guesses about what's next. Tomorrow should be very interesting.