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Judge hedges, but ‘likely’ to certify UFC anti-trust case as class-action lawsuit

UFC Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

Plaintiffs in the long-running UFC anti-trust lawsuit got more encouraging news on Thursday when the presiding judge said he is “likely” to certify the class of fighters seeking damages from the promotion for anti-competitive practices.

On a Zoom conference call Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware said he had yet to finalize his ruling on class certification, a key step for advancing the high-profile case filed in 2014 that alleges the UFC implemented a scheme to depress fighters’ earnings and impair rivals such as Strikeforce. But on several occasions, he indicated he was “going in that direction” to certify the case as a class-action lawsuit, which would group some 1,200 fighters together against the UFC in court and potentially expose the promotion to far greater monetary damages. Estimates of damages from the plaintiffs have ranged from approximately $800 million to $1.6 billion.

The news was first reported by editor-at-large Josh Gross via Twitter. A UFC official declined to comment on the hearing. Nate Quarry, one of several fighter plaintiffs in the case, cast it as a good sign for an eventual victory in court.

“We didn’t get the ruling we were hoping for or expecting,” he told MMA Fighting. “But this was a very good day for us. In our opinion, this ruling is so overwhelming. This is more than just the main plaintiffs. This is more than the 1,200 fighters in the class. This will affect the sport of MMA moving forward, and it will directly affect the UFC.

“We think that Boulware, he wants to make sure there’s no one able to question his decision, and having a status call like this, where he said, ‘If the court certifies the bout class, and that’s most likely going to happen,’ and then he said a second time, a third time and a fourth time. He asked [attorneys], ‘Do you have anything else to say about this? Is there any other arguments, or evidence that’s come up, because I’m most likely going to rule in the plaintiffs’ favor.’ And both lawyers said, ‘No.’ I think he really wants to make sure his decision on this cannot be questioned.”

In a brief appearance, Boulware inquired of both sides whether the case had been impeded by the coronavirus pandemic and then said he was working to finalize his decision. He then asked attorneys for possible next steps in the case, which could include an appeal of the ruling on class certification or a summary judgement the UFC filed to head off the fighters’ case.

Attorneys for both sides have fought in court over the past six years to get to the point of certification. This past September, attorneys for the plaintiffs and defense squared off in Las Vegas, seeking to sway Boulware on their interpretation of the UFC’s alleged anti-competitive conduct between December 2010 and June 2017, the period at issue in the lawsuit. In deciding whether fighters had been damaged by the UFC’s alleged conduct, plaintiff expert Hal Singer argued the judge should consider the fighters share of wages relative to the promotion, while defense expert Robert Topel countered that absolute or total wages, which have gone up, should be used.

According to reports from Bloody Elbow’s John Nash and Forbes’ Paul Gift, Singer emerged as the winner in convincing Boulware that his use of wage share and a regression formula to measure damages was valid, while Topel fundamentally agreed with many of the plaintiff’s arguments for measuring the UFC’s monopsony power; a monopsony is a market condition where there is only one buyer who uses that dominance to influence prices, or in this case, fighter purses.

Quarry likened the long court fight to one in his career in the cage.

“I had a fight that was supposed to be a 15-minute first round, which is a really long first round,” he said. “Well, the timekeeper bumped the clock, and we fought for 22 minutes straight. And at 15 minutes, I didn’t just hold up my hands and say, ‘Hey, we should be over by now.’ I waited for the bell to ring. So as far as I’m concerned, the fight’s going to take as long as it’s going to take, because for us, this is personal.”

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