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Judge moves forward UFC class-action lawsuit, adding fighters from 2010-2017

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UFC Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

After tipping his hand earlier this year, a federal judge on Thursday certified a group of UFC fighters as a class, moving forward the ongoing class-action lawsuit against the industry-leading MMA promotion and exposing it to damages from a much larger pool of potential plaintiffs.

During a Zoom conference call on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware certified the “bout class” in the lawsuit, which potentially includes every fighter who competed in the octagon between December 2010 and June 2017, a group that’s estimated at approximately 1,200 fighters. He declined to certify the identity class, which is defined by the plaintiffs as those whose image and licensing rights were exploited during that time.

Fighters who qualify as plaintiffs but don’t wish to be a part of the lawsuit may opt out.

Plaintiffs’ experts have estimated the potential monetary damages against the UFC to be in the range of $800 million to $1.6 billion, though a win for plaintiffs would award them treble damages, and it’s unclear whether the range reflects the absence of the identity class. Eric Cramer, an attorney for several fighters in the lawsuit, told MMA Fighting the bout class represents an estimated 95 percent of the damages sought against the UFC.

Boulware opened the door to settlement talks that might arise as the result of his certification ruling, which he anticipated would trigger an appeal by either side. He added the order will be finalized on Monday.

The antitrust lawsuit initially was filed in 2014 by a handful of UFC veterans who accused the promotion of engaging in an anti-competitive scheme to depress fighters’ earnings and impair business rivals such as Strikeforce. UFC attorneys have argued in court that wage share, the metric used by plaintiffs to determine how much wages have been depressed, are not a proper measure and that overall wages have increased over the period in contention.

Two of the initial plaintiffs celebrated the ruling in a prepared statement.

“This is an enormous win for all UFC fighters, past, present and future,” said former UFC middleweight Cung Le. “For too long, the UFC has taken advantage of fighters by monopolizing the industry, and cheated fighters out of millions of dollars each year. Today’s decision by Judge Boulware means our case can proceed for all UFC fighters that are part of the class.”

“Today’s decision brings us one step closer to enjoying a competitive market which will allow fighters to be paid their true worth,” said one-time UFC middleweight title challenger Nate Quarry. “By bringing this lawsuit and standing up to the UFC, we’ve had more disclosure in the last few years regarding the unfair split of revenues and coercive negotiating tactics of the UFC than in the prior 25 years combined.”

Attorneys for Zuffa did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Speaking on background, a UFC official told MMA Fighting the judge’s decision was anticipated and the promotion plans to appeal the certification ruling. The official said the UFC believes in the merit of its case and will weigh further comment reviewing the official ruling.

An appeal of class certification by UFC attorneys would go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.