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Report: UFC 249 fighters can be fined for disparaging COVID-19 safety protocols

UFC 249 Spann v Alvey Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The UFC has touted its safety protocols as the best possible solution to holding events during a global pandemic. And according to a new report, it can punish fighters who say otherwise.

Yahoo! Sports on Saturday reported UFC 249’s participation agreement includes a non-disparagement clause that allows the promotion to fine fighters for criticizing its handling of safety matters.

UFC President Dana White said the clause was standard to UFC contracts and would only be utilized if a fighter said something that was untrue, which is typical of defamation clauses often included in entertainment contracts.

“If a fighter says something that isn’t true — if he says we didn’t test anyone for this — that would [violate the agreement],” White said to Yahoo!. “But if he said something that was true, his opinion, then that is different.”

According to the New York Times, nothing in the agreement makes clear that only untrue statements are subject to fines.

Word of the clause initially came via Twitter from Showtime boxing executive Stephen Espinoza, a promoter with whom White shares a long and contentious past. The two clashed as co-promoters of “The Money Fight” between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor in 2017, and they’ve sniped in the media since White berated Espinoza’s claim that the pay-per-view blockbuster drew the second-highest domestic buyrate.

“It’s called an anti-disparagement clause, and if I know what that is, that scumbag [Espinoza] is a lawyer, and you would think he should know what that is,” White said to Yahoo!.

Yahoo! included specific language from the contract that would allow the UFC to revoke “all or any part” of fighters’ potential compensation for the event.

“If the Participant is a Fighter, the Participant hereby acknowledges and agrees that in the event that the Participant breaches this Paragraph 7, the Company may revoke all or any part of any prize monies or awards won by the Participant in connection with the Activities, including, but not limited to, purses, win bonuses, other fight-related bonuses and event-based merchandise royalties,” the agreement states.

Language that indemnifies the UFC against legal action is nothing new. Standard promotional agreements and other UFC contracts contain such clauses in addition to confidentiality provisions designed to protect business practices that the promotion considers its trade secrets. The non-disparagement provision appears to strike new ground during an unprecedented time in the company’s history.

After initially dismissing the threat of COVID-19 in early March, UFC President Dana White hunkered down like millions of Americans. The promotion was forced to postpone several events in March and April as state government shutdowns forbid large gatherings and sporting events. But he moved aggressively to preserve UFC 249, securing the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, Calif. Only when the promotion’s brodcast partners asked him to “stand down” did he postpone the event.

UFC fighters on site in Jacksonville have praised the promotion’s efforts to keep them safe despite fears of the virus. Heavyweight Greg Hardy said he was “terrified” of COVID-19, particularly because he has asthma, but added he felt like he and the promotion are partners.

On Friday, less than 24 hours before UFC 249 was set to take place, that confidence took a punch to the gut when middleweight Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his corner people tested positive for the virus. Upon arriving at the host hotel, the Brazilian, who lives and trains in Orlando, reported that one of his family members had tested positive for the virus. The initial tests he took were negative for the virus. But two days later, he failed a third one and was scratched from the bout.

The UFC and Florida State Boxing Commission, which is regulating the trio of events, claimed Souza had been isolated. But video on social media showed him cozying up with fellow Brazilian fighter Fabricio Werdum. And he was present at the weigh-ins, where he appeared in gloves and a mask.

Before putting his hands up for a staredown with his opponent Uriah Hall, Souza bumped fists with White, who was wearing neither gloves or a mask.

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