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Slim Trabelsi in contract dispute with MMA Factory coach Fernand Lopez after UFC signed and released him

It appeared heavyweight prospect Slim Trabelsi was one month away from making his UFC debut when the promotion suddenly released him from contract, just days after he agreed to the deal.

The sudden change came as a result of a contractual dispute between the Tunisian-born fighter, his longtime coach Fernand Lopez, and high-profile manager Ali Abdelaziz.

As of now, Trabelsi is tied to a contract with Lopez, who owns The MMA Factory in France and also oversees the careers of several MMA Factory fighters as the owner of Management Factory. The manager and coach believes he is Trabelsi’s rightful representative. He was willing to let Abdelaziz buy out a three-year management contract the heavyweight signed prior to his UFC deal – the initial asking price was 90,000 Euros.

Now, the offer might be off the table.

Abdelaziz claims he didn’t know Trabelsi was represented by Lopez before arranging to book the fighter at UFC 280. He accuses Lopez, who among others reps ex-UFC interim heavyweight champ Ciryl Gane, of grandstanding and calls the heavyweight’s contract “slavery.”

Trabelsi said he is unable to make a living and just wants to be able to fight on the world’s biggest stage. But right now, he is bound to ARES Fighting Championships, the France-based promotion where he is the heavyweight champion. Lopez co-founded and serves as ARES’ chairman, a position he claims is legal in France but appears to put him in violation of the country’s Code of Sport and U.S.-based athletic commissions.

“I don’t want any problems,” Trabelsi told MMA Fighting. “I’ll fight in the UFC, I’ll make my dreams and that’s all. I don’t need nothing for [Lopez]. I don’t want any problem with him, but let me go.”

****

Originally from Tunis, Tunisia, Trabelsi arrived in France without a visa or proper documentation to live and work in the country. Before trying MMA, he hoped to wrestle in the Olympic games. He said couldn’t afford to go through the proper channels to receive his visa.

“I [have lived] in Europe for six years,” he told MMA Fighting. “I was qualified for the Olympics in 2016, and I left to Europe to change my life, to make a new career. But I live here illegally. I have a problem with [documentation].

“I was a French champion in wrestling. I met Fernand Lopez, and he said to me, he will [help me learn] MMA. But after that, he just used me for sparring with Ciryl Gane, with [Francis] Ngannou. I was sleeping in the street for a long time, for many, many years. I have no documents, I am illegal. He used me as he wanted all this time. He never helped me. He never did nothing for me. He could help make the documents so I could live here, but he didn’t, so I stayed like slave to him. He used me as he wanted.”

Trabelsi doesn’t believe Lopez acted in good faith when it came to his career because he never attempted to help him gain legal status in France, which made him further beholden to his coach and manager.

Trabelsi, however, ended up signing with Lopez’s promotion, ARES. Because of his visa status, it made traveling to other countries incredibly difficult. He struggled to get fights on a regular basis.

Things came to a head with Lopez, in part, due to Trabelsi opting to work with high-profile manager Abdelaziz, who also handles fighters such as Kamaru Usman, Henry Cejudo and Kayla Harrison. Abdelaziz said he was told that Trabelsi wasn’t under contract with any other manager — a fact Lopez later disputed once the UFC deal got announced.

Lopez said he managed Trabelsi until the 29-year-old heavyweight asked to be released from his contract in August 2021, unhappy with the services he was receiving. Then, in May 2022, Lopez said Trabelsi apologized for wanting to sever business ties and ultimately returned to ink a new three-year management deal.

“[I said], ‘Slim, I know you,’” Lopez told MMA Fighting. “‘You are someone who is peaceful, but very angry inside. You have something that I can’t tame. I’m pretty sure this message is not you. I think somebody gave you advice to come back so you can have something from me but I can’t work with someone who doesn’t believe in me. So don’t do that.’

“[He said], ‘This is me, coach, I recognize what I did. I will apologize to you, I need to apologize to Ciryl [Gane], because at some point, I said Ciryl wasn’t helping me, he was just thinking about himself. But that’s not true, I need to talk to him, I need to talk to you, I need a second chance.’”

Serving as an MMA promoter and manager is universally seen as a conflict of interest in the combat sports industry. Lopez, however, claims it’s not an issue in France, where he runs his businesses.

“In France, it’s totally legal,” he said. “I’m not doing anything illegal.”

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After their initial split as coach and manager in 2021, Trabelsi said he traveled outside of France, hiding in cars, he said, to cross over borders between countries to fight; he still didn’t have legal documentation to work in Europe. He eventually competed twice in Levels Fight League, an organization based in Holland. But he said Lopez attempted to interfere with that deal.

“He called the promoter of LFL and he said, ‘You must stop giving him fight in LFL,’ so I came back to him,” Trabelsi said. “I came back to fight in ARES.”

Multiple people with knowledge of the situations between Trabelsi and Lopez, who asked to remain anonymous, told MMA Fighting there was a conflict where Lopez “asked LFL not to give Slim any more fights,” though he still ended up competing there on two separate occasions.

“I came back to [Lopez] and I fought in ARES, and he said, ‘OK, you can train in any gym you want if you cannot live in France – you can train in any gym,’” Trabelsi said. “But after I fought with Luis Henrique, he said, ‘No, if you want to fight for the belt in ARES, you must come to train in my gym.’ … He said this so I would have to spar with Ciryl.”

Lopez disputes that there was nearly as much animosity with Trabelsi after the heavyweight returned to his gym and management firm. But he conceded that changed more recently when preparations were being made for Trabelsi’s ARES heavyweight title fight.

“He said to me, ‘You are a bad guy, you lied to me that you will train me,’” Lopez said. “‘I went in your gym, you train me only seven days, and then you went on vacation, you left me alone.’ That’s true, but I’m not a bad guy because I have 10 days’ vacation in a year.

“I have a show coming up. I have three fighters in UFC Paris. But because I promised my family and I booked every ticket, I have to go on that vacation.”

Lopez said he left a full complement of trainers and coaches to work with Trabelsi in the days leading up to his fight, adding that he never corners his fighters competing in ARES because he’s also acting as the promoter for the event.

“You’re asking too much,” Lopez said of his response to Trabelsi. “I know you for four years. In four years that I’ve known you, I’ve never had one single dollar from you, not one single dollar.

“I spend money, sometimes to buy you clothes. I spend money sometimes to give you a place to stay. I spend money on medicals because you don’t have insurance – he has eye problems, I pay for glasses. We have a shop that can give that to me, and we pay that for him.

“We did everything we could. We don’t owe you anything. When you sign a management contract, you’re the one who will pay me for the services I do for you. I can’t find you a good fight out of the city because you are illegal. I’m trying my best to give you the best opportunity to have a higher fight. So, please stop complaining.”

While fighting on the regional MMA scene rarely affords anyone a comfortable living, Trabelsi said Lopez made promises that he just didn’t deliver on.

“I sacrificed a lot this year,” Trabelsi said. “I didn’t even have one Euro to eat because I don’t have documents. I cannot work here. I can’t work normally because I don’t have documents. If they catch me, I can go to prison.

“He never helped me. He never tried to help me one time with my documentation. All this so I can stay with him. I fight in his organization without any documents. I have no documents.”

*****

UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard was in attendance when Trabelsi won the ARES heavyweight title on Sept. 2, one day before the UFC’s first-ever event in Paris.

Lopez said he’d already spoken to Maynard about looking at Trabelsi as the next heavyweight from his gym to make waves after he previously developed Francis Ngannou and Gane.

“I was talking to him two years ago, sending him messages about Slim, [saying], ‘Please Mick, keep eyes on this kid,’” Lopez said. “I used some tapes where [Slim] was training – he was throwing Ciryl around, he was throwing Francis around, and I used that to tell Mick this is the next big thing. Mick is behind me [at the event].

“At some point, he’s like, ‘Brother, are you sure Slim is your guy?’ I’m like yeah, I’m positive. He said, ‘Under management with you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m positive.’” (UFC matchmakers are not allowed to speak to the media; a UFC PR rep did not respond to a request for comment by MMA Fighting.)

By then, Trabelsi had already started dialogue with Abdelaziz through his cousin, who made the initial contact. After hearing about Trabelsi’s struggles to gain legal status in France, Abdelaziz said he offered to help the fighter, making payments totaling approximately $10,000 to two separate immigration attorneys.

A deal was then struck for Trabelsi to replace Hamdy Abdelwahab at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi, where he was expected to face Parker Porter. That’s when Abdelaziz said he learned about Trabelsi already working with Lopez as a manager rather than just his trainer and coach.

Copies of text messages obtained by MMA Fighting, which could not independently be verified, show a conversation in which Abdelaziz tells Lopez he wasn’t aware that Trabelsi had a prior management agreement in place.

As a result, Trabelsi reached out directly to the UFC and told the promotion he would be managed by Lopez moving forward while apologizing for the “unnecessary drama.”

According to Trabelsi, the management contract with Lopez wasn’t what prevented him from joining the UFC, but rather his deal with ARES, where he’s now serving as heavyweight champion.

“[Fernand Lopez] said, ‘He cannot go fight in the UFC because he is with me in ARES,’” Trabelsi said. “He wants just to block me because I am not with him. I am with another manager.”

Conversations continued in an attempt to hash out the differences over Trabelsi’s status. That’s when Lopez contacted Abdelaziz with an offer to buy out the fighter’s deal to free him from all prior obligations. Abdelaziz responded by posting the offer online.

“The compensation will be 90,000 Euros, and you brought that to the public,” Lopez told MMA Fighting of Abdelaziz’s response. “You brought that to your Twitter, kind of mocking me. I asked for 90,000 Euros.

“Think about Ciryl Gane, I sell you Ciryl Gane’s management contract for three years and I tell you before Ciryl Gane’s first fight in the UFC, will you buy Ciryl Gane for 90,000 Euros? That’s a very good investment, right? That’s what I was saying to Ali. Don’t blame me on this.

“I was claiming to Mick Maynard three years ago, this kid is the next big thing, but you are the leader of managers, you are very good at what you’re doing. You should tell the kid not to do that. This is not the way to deal with people. If you’re under a management contract, stick to your manager, and when it’s over, you can move. Don’t do that. That’s wrong to do that.”

Lopez said the offer was really about taking a stand against Trabelsi’s attempt to renege on the three-year management deal.

“The 90,000 wasn’t about the money,” Lopez said. “It’s that people need to respect that when you start to do something, and you work on that, you don’t do that to people, [and] you don’t want them to do that to you.

“I’m pretty sure if I asked for 300,000 Euros for someone to have Ciryl Gane or Francis Ngannou’s contract for three years, they would give me 300,000 if they had it, because it’s a good investment.”

Trabelsi saw things much differently, especially considering the money he was earning in ARES. He was about to become a first-time UFC fighter, and there was no guarantee he would ever generate that kind of income in his career. Add to that, he had already agreed to return to Lopez as a manager so they could strike the deal to join the UFC roster.

“If I had money, I would give it to him, but I have nothing,” Trabelsi said. “I live illegally. I cannot even work here. Even normal work, even to make some money, you cannot work, because I live illegally. I have no money to pay him.”

While management deals won’t stop the UFC from signing anybody, an existing agreement with another promotion can quickly kill a contract if that organization won’t allow a fighter to break free. Lopez said ARES usually works hand in hand with the UFC to sign fighters from the promotion, but he looked at Trabelsi as a special case.

“We don’t hold kids,” he said. “We want them to be free to move to live their dream, but we have the right to say to a kid who’s signed with us you have a fight coming up, you’re waiting. We can do that if we want. If we don’t give the release, you can’t move, and this is our right.

“Everything is about an agreement. The matchmakers in ARES have an agreement with the matchmakers in the UFC to have people move, and we don’t have that problem having kids move. Josh Parisian fought in ARES, but when the UFC called him, we let him move. There’s a very good agreement with his management. We don’t have any problem with that. He never lied to his manager. We have a bunch of fighters that come from us and then they can move.

“In this case, you have a fighter who comes to me with an agenda to use me and then claim that as soon as they have the belt is running away. He stopped with the management, and he stopped with ARES.”

Abdelaziz said that despite relinquishing any relationship with Trabelsi as a manager, the deal with the UFC was still killed. In a statement sent to MMA Fighting, Abdelaziz wrote that nobody should get in the way of the opportunity afforded to Trabelsi that was earned in the cage.

“It’s not about me and Fernand, it’s about this young kid,” stated Abdelaziz, who himself ran afoul of the Nevada Athletic Commission for acting as manager and matchmaking for the World Series of Fighting (now the PFL). “He has to hide when he travels. It’s sad and gratefully the UFC gave him an opportunity to become a free man. Now, we have this individual who wants to flex his muscles and take it away from him.

“We told [Lopez] he could manage him, he could be his manager and continue on and let this kid live his dream. He’s talking to every media outlet to promote himself. He wants to be famous, but you can be famous in the right way through hard work and dedication. I don’t respect people like that who put their egos and self-interest over somebody’s freedom. We’re talking about somebody’s freedom. It’s absolutely disgusting.

“Nobody’s perfect, but you hold the kid hostage for what? One thing people know about me, I never give up on people. I’ll have his back, and I’ll make sure he’s free from the slavery he’s in.”

Trabelsi hopes he can eventually get back on the UFC’s radar after the debacle cost him a contract.

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