A fighter claims he was treated unfairly by Bellator, and Quinton Jackson is at the center of the dispute.
Gavin Sterritt and his team are seeking commission sanctions against Bellator for allegedly attempting to create an unequal playing field against him due to his relationship with Jackson, MMAFighting.com has learned. Bellator and Jackson are currently in litigation over his status with the promotion.
Sterritt wanted Jackson, his coach and close friend, in his corner for a fight with Brennan Ward at Bellator 140 on July 17 at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. Bellator complied, provided Jackson followed guidelines presented to him in a letter sent July 6. The culmination of the situation was Sterritt being released.
In that letter, which has been obtained by MMAFighting.com, Bellator vice president of business and legal affairs Tracy Lesetar-Smith made reference to Jackson's promotional agreement with Bellator, signed in 2013.
"Bellator is willing to grant you permission to corner Mr. Sterritt pursuant to Paragraph 12(E) of your May 29, 2013 Promotional Agreement (the "Agreement), provided that during the course of your permitted Cornerman duties (including, without limitation, at weigh-ins, other pre-bout events, and at the event itself), you strictly abide by Bellator's conditions, including, without limitation, those contained in Paragraph 20 of your Agreement as well as those set forth below."
The letter went on to state that Jackson could not wear or do anything Bellator deemed inappropriate for its event. Because the letter made reference to Jackson's Bellator contract, his lawyers advised him not to attend the event or corner Sterritt, according to Anthony McGann, manager for Sterritt.
Jackson's main argument in his litigation with Bellator is that he terminated the agreement Lesetar-Smith referenced. His lawyers felt that by showing up to corner Sterritt at Bellator 140 that it could be construed that Jackson was acknowledging the validity of the contract, McGann said.
At the end of the correspondence to Jackson, Lesetar-Smith warned that if Jackson were to violate the terms of the letter the week of the event (under Bellator's "sole discretion") that Sterritt would not be granted a late-notice cornerman and that any other cornermen could face further restrictions "as Bellator sees fit."
"What's sole discretion mean?" Sterritt said. "You don't like my shoes today? Sole discretion. When I saw the letter, I was thinking like hold on a minute, 'Is Brennan Ward getting this f*cking letter as well?' I've done nothing wrong. I've followed all the rules."
Because he felt the deck was stacked against him in multiple ways by Bellator, Sterritt declined to fight Ward. Bellator replaced him with Roger Carroll, who Ward defeated by first-round knockout. Bellator released Sterritt from his contract a week before the fight took place.
Sterritt believes Bellator and Lesetar-Smith overstepped their bounds with regards to cornermen, which is why he filed a complaint with the Mohegan Sun attorney general. Cornermen are licensed by the commission and promotions have little authority over them, according to Association of Boxing Commission (ABC) rules.
Mike Mazzulli, the director of the Mohegan Tribe's Department of Regulation, did not wish to comment on this specific instance. But he did reiterate that it is the regulatory body -- not the promotion -- that dictates cornermen.
"We look out for the best interest of the fighter and the safety of the fighter," Mazzulli said. "If the fighter feels he cannot go into the ring or into the cage without a certain cornerman, he shouldn't be going in.
"If an individual fighter wants a certain second or cornerman, as long as they're licensable in the eyes of the Mohegan Tribe they can work on the Mohegan reservation. It's not a decision for a promoter to make."
Sterritt, 35, said that Jackson has been in his corner for all of his seven pro fights. He believes that Bellator knew that and waited until the "last minute" to send the letter.
"It kind of felt a little bit like they used me to get to him and it's wrong, because it put a strain on me and him as well," Sterritt said. "It put him in a bad position. He was apologizing. I said, 'It's not your fault. It's them.'"
In a statement, Bellator said McGann threatened to go to the media and file a complaint with Mohegan Sun following the fight withdrawal unless the promotion paid Sterritt "a considerable sum of money not owed under his contract."
"We understand that Mr. Sterritt, Mr. Jackson, and their manager were notified on multiple occasions by both the Mohegan Tribe Athletic Department and Bellator MMA that Mr. Jackson would be approved to corner Mr. Sterritt, with the expectation that he behave in a professional, sportsmanlike manner, and in accordance with the Athletic Department's policies," the statement said. "It seems Mr. Sterritt and his manager were unwilling to accept these confirmations, instead threatening to publicize the situation and file a complaint with the Athletic Department unless Bellator gave Mr. Sterritt an alternate opponent on a later date and paid him a considerable sum of money not owed under his contract. Mr. Sterritt was rightfully released from his Bellator MMA contract after he withdrew from his bout one week prior to the fight for reasons entirely unrelated to injury or his health."
Sources told MMAFighting.com that McGann proposed that Bellator give Sterritt the $5,000 signing bonus owed to him, his $10,000 show money and a new opponent at a later date and he would not take the situation any further. McGann confirmed that he did just that.
"I gave them several ways out of this," McGann said. "I said, 'Look, the fight is unfair. Just pay him his purse, not his win bonus. Just pay him his purse. You already owe him his 5 grand. We'll kick the can down the road and we'll forget about it.'"
Sterritt had not fought since March 2014 and preferred not to face a fighter the caliber of Ward, one of Bellator's top welterweights, after a long layoff, McGann confirmed. Sources said that Sterritt had turned down a previous opponent as well. McGann confirmed that Bellator offered Sterritt a new contract if he would fight top prospect Chris Honeycutt. Sterritt's team declined based on the contract situation, McGann said.
"Our final position on it was we're not accepting a deal if it hinged on a fight," McGann said. "Either give us a new deal or don't give us a new deal."
Jackson, an MMA legend and former UFC and PRIDE champion, signed with the UFC in December, claiming that he terminated his agreement with Bellator due to a breach of contract. Bellator denied that and sued Jackson.
The promotion filed an injunction to prevent Jackson from competing at UFC 186 in March. Days before the fight with Fabio Maldonado, an appellate court judge reversed a portion of that injunction and allowed Jackson to fight. Jackson beat Maldonado by unanimous decision.
Jackson's case remains in the New Jersey courts and it remains unclear when -- and with what organization -- he will compete next.
An experienced attorney, speaking under condition of anonymity, told MMAFighting.com that if Jackson showed up to corner Sterritt, Bellator could try to use it against him in court, but the tactic actually working would be "a longshot."
"That's just lawyer games," the attorney said. "Any experienced judge would see through that stuff."