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Click Debate: What should be made of Mark Hunt’s lawsuit against UFC, Brock Lesnar?

UFC 200 Weigh-ins
Mark Hunt (right) is suing Brock Lesnar and the UFC.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Mark Hunt is used to winning by knockout. This next fight might end up being more like a split decision.

Lawyers for Hunt filed a civil lawsuit against the UFC, Brock Lesnar and UFC president Dana White in U.S. District Court earlier this week, claiming things like racketeering, fraud and negligence.

The suit stems from the situation around UFC 200 when Lesnar, given an exemption from four full months of drug testing by the UFC, failed two separate drug tests for banned substances. One of those tests was administered 11 days prior to the fight by USADA, the UFC’s anti-doping partner. But USADA did not expedite the result and Lesnar fought anyway. Lesnar ended up beating Hunt by unanimous decision, landing more than 100 blows to Hunt’s head.

Brock Lesnar lands punches on Mark Hunt at UFC 200
Brock Lesnar lands punches on Mark Hunt at UFC 200.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC’s decision to exempt Lesnar from four months being in the USADA drug-testing pool and USADA not expediting the result that ended up being positive are critical pieces of Hunt’s legal complaint. There are two caveats there: the UFC is able to waive the four months due to extenuating circumstances and USADA did get back five other negative samples from Lesnar prior to UFC 200.

The UFC said it would waive the four months of testing for returning athletes because Lesnar had retired four years prior to USADA even being on board with the UFC and the promotion said Lesnar had only signed his contract one month before the fight.

In the complaint, Hunt’s lawyers, Christina Denning and Scott Ingold of San Diego firm Higgs Fletcher & Mack wrote that Lesnar said in interviews that his negotiations with the UFC began months before he signed and Lesnar’s name appeared on the UFC’s online roster in May, still about a month before the announcement of his comeback was made.

There are plenty of threads to pull on in the 27-page complaint, a major one having to do with the UFC’s sketchy history of granting therapeutic usage exemptions (TUEs) for athletes who were using testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), which is now banned by all athletic commissions.

But what most onlookers want to know is this: do Hunt’s claims hold any water and does the lawsuit have a chance to stand up in court?

Labor attorney Lucas Middlebrook, best known in MMA circles as Nick Diaz’s lawyer in his Nevada Athletic Commission marijuana case, believes there is a strong chance at an eventual settlement. Middlebrook said the UFC’s legal team is likely to file a motion to dismiss all the claims. Some of the claims will survive; some (likely racketeering or RICO) will not. The claims that remain after the UFC’s motion to dismiss, Middlebrook said, are likely to be settled.

“I don’t think we will ever see this go to trial,” Middlebrook said. … “If they can survive on any one of those claims on a motion to dismiss, then you move into the discovery portion where they can start taking depositions and requesting documents. I would surmise that the UFC doesn’t want to go that route. They don’t want to subject Dana White to a deposition. They don’t want to start turning over documents.”

RICO stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and it has been used to prosecute organized crime leaders for criminal acts that they instructed, but did not actually do themselves. Its initial use in the 1970s was to go after the Mafia. MMA Fighting legal analyst and attorney Jed Meshew said it’s difficult to prove, especially in a case like this.

“The RICO charge requires proving ‘a pattern of racketeering’ which means more than one instance of the alleged activity,” Meshew said. “Hunt is alleging fraud and so he must prove the fraud — which looks to be difficult — as well as prove that the alleged offense has occurred multiple times. It’s like if a fighter had to win a fight two times for it to count.”

Gallery Photo: UFC 152 Weigh-in Photos
A Vitor Belfort drug test from 2012 was mentioned in Mark Hunt’s lawsuit against the UFC.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Theoretically, the UFC could fight this lawsuit and win. The question here is whether or not that would be worth it for the promotion. If the case goes to discovery, it could unearth things the UFC would prefer not to make public.

In the complaint, Hunt’s lawyers bring up the shady situation in 2012 when Vitor Belfort tested positive for elevated testosterone weeks before his UFC 152 fight with Jon Jones. The UFC knew about it and let Belfort fight anyway, per reporting done by Deadspin in 2015. The smoking gun was an e-mail with Belfort’s test results sent out accidentally to dozens of people in the MMA space by a paralegal working for the UFC.

At the time, testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) was admissible with a therapeutic usage exemption (TUE). The UFC seemed to be giving out TUEs before commissions were asked to. TRT was banned by all commissions in early 2014.

The UFC said through then-spokesman Dave Sholler when the Belfort story was published that any sentiment that the UFC was involved in a cover-up was “categorically false.”

Either way, you can see why the UFC would not want any more sensitive e-mails getting out in a trial. The UFC has also yet to comment on the lawsuit.

“Who knows what’s gonna turn up?” Middlebrook said. “If you can settle it for some money and a non-disclosure and confidentiality, any attorney is gonna advise them to go that route, I would think.”

There is a possibility, though, that the UFC would be willing to go to trial. The promotion’s lawyers could feel that settling with Hunt would set a bad precedent and other fighters who compete against athletes that end up testing positive for banned substances would sue, Middlebrook said.

“I would expect it would be the UFC deciding whether they want to dig their heels in and potentially open up the coffers to discovery — if there’s nothing in there that they’re afraid of releasing, then maybe that’s what they do,” said Middlebrook, who represents the NBA referees union, among other labor organizations in pro sports. “Or maybe they go through the discovery process and they file a motion for summary judgment and they knock it out before it ever gets to trial. I think at that point, though, once you open it up to discovery, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak.”

Hunt’s own words could end up shooting him in the foot if it does indeed go to a trial, Meshew said. “The Super Samoan” said multiple times before the fight that he believed Lesnar to be on “steroids” and still expressed the desire to fight him.

"I think he’s juiced to the gills — and I still think I’m going to knock him out," Hunt told Fox Sports Australia in June.

Hunt did express anger at the UFC deciding to waive four months of testing for Lesnar, but saying he suspected Lesnar was on PEDs before Lesnar even tested positive for a banned substance (in this case anti-estrogen agent clomiphene) won’t help him in court, Meshew said.

“Hunt's repeated statements ahead of UFC 200 that he believed Brock to be juicing and didn't care, those don't help him out here,” Meshew said. “It's tough to argue fraud and concealment when he is on the record with remarks like that.”

Hunt told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour recently that he could not have possibly known for sure that Lesnar was using performance-enhancing drugs.

“I didn’t actually go and test him myself,” Hunt said. “Everyone says, ‘You knew.’ I didn’t actually know. Assuming someone is doping is different from knowing. That’s the difference here. I didn't know. I assume everybody is on an even playing field up at the top until they get caught.”

Another strange twist is that Hunt will be fighting for the UFC, the organization he is suing, on March 4, at UFC 209 against Alistair Overeem. Of course, Overeem has also tested positive for elevated testosterone in his career. Hunt has been irate that he has fought three fighters who failed drug tests in fight-night samples: Lesnar, Antonio Silva and Frank Mir. Hunt said on The MMA Hour that the UFC told him he would be in breach of contract if he didn’t fight Overeem.

“It is definitely odd though it's not really a legal conflict of interest as far as I can tell,” Meshew said of Hunt fighting for the UFC in March. “People sue their employers and remain working there all the time. It will be interesting to see if Hunt is afforded a post-fight speech if he beats Overeem and if he's denied that there's a legal argument that that violates Fair Labor but that isn't something likely to be fought over by Hunt.”

The one thing Middlebrook could conclude with some certainty about this case is that it won’t be done quickly. He said Hunt’s lawyers have 90 days following the filing date to serve the complaint to the parties involved. Once it’s served, the other side has 21 days to respond, either by answering or filing a motion to dismiss. That time can be extended.“Then it’s up to the court’s timeline when they rule on it,” Middlebrook said. “I’ve seen courts sit on motions to dismiss for six to eight months sometimes.”

Hunt has certainly beaten the odds before. This is a guy who came into the UFC with a losing record. But the lawsuit definitely doesn’t seem like one of Hunt’s trademark walk-off knockouts.

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