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Rampage Jackson's UFC future still cloudy despite ruling

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Quinton Jackson is in the middle of one of the oddest promotional and contractual disputes in modern MMA. First, he signs with UFC despite Bellator claiming he's still under contract with them. Second, a court stops Rampage from competing at a scheduled UFC event after Bellator sues him. Then, in a hugely surprising move, an appellate court reverses a portion of that decision, allowing Jackson to compete at said UFC event, but perhaps nothing else.

Just what the heck is going on here?

To take a step forward, let's quickly take one step back. Remember the criteria we spelled out that Bellator would have to prove in order to win at the preliminary injunction? It went like this:

  • 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

The second point is what this entire order hinges on, namely, the 'irreparable harm' or damage that Bellator claimed we befall them in Rampage was allowed to compete at UFC 186. Recall Bellator claimed in their lawsuit that, "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."

When the injunction was upheld, it was, in part, because the judge agreed with Bellator's point. "[Jackson, the Defendant] signed an agreement to fight exclusively in bouts arranged by Plaintiff, all of which were against other fighters also under contract with Plaintiff in similar agreements," Judge Karen Suter wrote.

"In other words, Plaintiff will lose a fighter in whom it has invested significant resources as part of an effort to raise the quality of its league in an overall strategy to better compete in the MMA marketplace. Indeed, one important benefit to Plaintiff under the Agreement is that, given the limited pool of successful and well-known MMA athletes, any fighter that defects from one promoter to another not only deprives the former promoter of a benefit, but also boosts the latter promoter's reputation in the process. Both parties agree that Defendant is a unique asset in MMA athletics, the loss of whom is significant. If Defendant is permitted to fight outside of his contract, then the harm will be done. This constitutes irreparable harm that cannot be rectified by monetary damages alone. Accordingly, the court finds that irreparable harm will occur if Defendant in not enjoined in this matter."

As it turns out, the appellate court did not agree with judge Suter on this particular prong of the four-part test necessary to win an injunction. Therefore, Rampage is allowed to compete, at least as far as Saturday is concerned. "These assertions, in our view, are nothing other than vague speculation that does not warrant the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction," writes judge John C. Kennedy.

"Given the plaintiffs failure to adduce evidence other than speculation to support the Chancery Division's conclusion that the harm plaintiffs allege 'cannot be rectified by money damages alone,' we have reversed that portion of the preliminary injunction pertaining to the event of April 25, 2015."

So, what does all this mean? Again, predicting the future is difficult, but perhaps two things are worth considering:

1. This is unusual. Cases like this aren't easily overturned. Why? Because there's a high standard of review in preliminary injunction cases. The 'standard of review' is defined as "the amount of deference given by one court (or some other appellate tribunal) in reviewing a decision of a lower court or tribunal." As aforementioned, these types of cases carry a high standard. In most states and jurisdictions, the standard of review for overturning a preliminary injunction is "abuse of discretion", which is when "the adjudicator has failed to exercise sound, reasonable, and legal decision-making skills."

This is a very high threshold of judgement. It's important to note while judge Kennedy ruled one way, it is entirely possible another appellate judge would've viewed matters differently. Moreover, what's notable is judge Kennedy does not provide a detailed explanation of why he thinks judge Suter fell short in this regard. He states she based her views on speculation and signs the order, leaving little to use when examining his reasoning. There's also no comment as to standards of review in judge Kennedy's order, a fact that further complicates this case.

2. Rampage could fight again in the UFC after this. Judge Kennedy's order only applies to Saturday. He didn't touch any other aspect of the case. The rest of the injunction against Rampage is still in place. So, what happens after UFC 186? Frankly, it's anyone's guess.

Attorneys contacted by MMA Fighting were split on opinion about Rampage's future. Some viewed judge Kennedy's decision as proof that Bellator's case against Rampage just got significantly stronger in terms of damages. Others believe once Saturday passes, Bellator still has a larger case against Rampage, but nothing to stop him from competing again in the short run. Bellator will have to file another preliminary injunction to halt any subsequent UFC fight, but if one fight's already been allowed, is there really any additional harm in two or three more?

Ultimately, this is a surprising turn of events, but not the last in this saga. With Rampage and Bellator seemingly uninterested in settling at this juncture, expect this back-and-forth to continue for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: On Thursday, the New Jersey Supreme Court essentially deferred to the relevant appellate court without further consideration after an emergency motion by Bellator to stop Rampage from fighting at UFC 186, thereby clearing the last legal hurdle for Rampage to compete on Saturday. As aforementioned, the rest of the injunction stands and larger lawsuit is still in play. Here's the court document: