PFL hit by lawsuit after shelving fighter

He won a fight on PFL Challenger Series, but now finds himself in a 3-year-deal with no bouts booked for the immediate future.

By: Zane Simon | 3 months ago
PFL hit by lawsuit after shelving fighter
Manoel Sousa celebrates his PFL Challengers win. IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

One of the many serious problems swirling around in the mixed martial arts ecosystem is the tendency for promotions to lean on long-term, exclusive contract structures. Even outside the UFC, PFL, or Bellator, fighters often find themselves tied to regional promotions, sometimes for years, in exclusive rights deals. And if an athlete is competing with one of the big shows? As Manoel Sousa recently discovered, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be on lockdown.

A rising top prospect from Sao Paulo, the 26-year-old Sousa last competed in the PFL Challenger Series in February of 2023. The set of annual small-scale events, meant to find young talents to bring into the upcoming PFL ‘regular season’ bigger cards, ran eight shows in 2023, with Sousa competing on their ‘Week 4’ fight card.

Unfortunately for the Brazilian, however, despite winning (and taking his record to an unbeaten 10-0), PFL didn’t offer him an immediate spot on the roster for the 2023 season. Instead they offered him another Challenger Series fight on March 3rd, which he was unable to take due to COVID. At that point, Sousa assumed his business with the PFL was complete.

PFL stops Sousa from DWCS booking

Unsurprisingly to anyone that’s followed the MMA business for long, contracts in combat sports are rarely that simple. With the latest season of Dana White’s Contender Series approaching, and a strong record to his name, Sousa accepted a chance to compete for a potential future UFC deal. After all, the PFL had their look at him, and passed.

Booked to compete for DWCS on August 15th, that was when Sousa discovered that the PFL had actually retained their contract rights for his services as a “backup” fighter for their 2023 season, effectively icing him out of competition unless called upon to replace an injured or suspended competitor.

“They put me as a back-up, but that wasn’t my goal. I told them I would’t do it,” Sousa told MMA Fighting. “I train really hard every single day, I live in the gym, and I’m chasing my dreams. My dream is to fight in the UFC and the [DWCS] offer came, but [PFL] wants to keep me locked. I thought I was free to fight anywhere else, but that wasn’t the case. They don’t want to let me go.”

Fighting reports that the deal Sousa signed was not, in fact, for just one Challenger Series fight, but a 3-year contract to compete with the PFL. As such, the promotion informed the fighter that “they would not release ‘Manumito’ in any way since he’s a prospect of the sport and should be revealed only by PFL, the defendant, for mere commercial whim,” according to the lawsuit filed in Sao Paulo, and provided by Sousa’s lawyer to MMA Fighting.

The lawsuit also alleges that Sousa is functionally illiterate, even in his native Portuguese, and did not understand the original PFL contract he had signed, which was delivered in English.

No Ali Act for MMA

Cases like Sousa’s especially highlight the lack of legal protections that MMA fighters have in comparison to their boxing counterparts. Introduced in 1996, the Ali Act includes specific provisions that are meant to prevent exactly the kind of contract situation that Sousa has found himself in.

  • (A) A Contract provision shall be considered to be in restraint of trade, contrary to public policy, and unenforceable against any boxer to the extent that it—
    • is coercive provision described in subparagraph (B) and is for a period greater than 12 months; or
    • is a coercive provision described in subparagraph (B) and the other boxer under contract to the promoter came under that contract pursuant to a coercive provision described in subparagraph (B).
  • (B) A coercive provision described in this subparagraph is a contract provision that grants any rights between a boxer and a promoter, or between promoters with respect to a boxer, if the boxer is required to grant such rights, or a boxer’s promoter is required to grant such rights with respect to a boxer to another promoter, as a condition precedent to the boxer’s participation in a professional boxing match against another boxer who is under contract to the promoter.

At the very least, whether or not the courts would find any of PFL’s contract provisions coercive, there’s no way they could lock down his services for 3 years. In MMA, however, that kind of deal isn’t just possible, it’s more or less the standard.

Unfortunately, unless the PFL plans to wash their hands of the whole thing and release Sousa in a hurry, no matter the potential for success or failure of his legal actions, it seems likely he’ll be tied up with the courts for the immediate future.

Other fighters have suffered similar disputes

King of the Cage developed something of a reputation over the years for locking young fighters down in long-term, low-paying contracts. Back in 2013, top Hawaiian prospect Lowen Tynanes lost out on more than a year of his career due to a court battle with KOTC owner Terry Trebilcock, over a 3-year deal that Tynanes claims included a signature forged by his manager.

While he did end up competing in the UFC, bantamweight Drako Rodriguez found himself in a similar position with the KOTC promotion back in 2019—when Rodriguez got an offer to compete for that year’s DWCS run, while still under contract. Trebilcock claimed that, while he mostly just wanted Rodriguez to fulfill the remaining four fights on his deal, he also didn’t feel the fighter was ready for a step up in competition and was being misled by his management.

“This kid has the potential to be a gold mine, but he’s not a gold mine at 22 years old,” Trebilcock explained at the time, noting that while Rodriguez’s boxing was great, “his jiu-jitsu is terrible.”

Rodriguez would only compete once more for KOTC before getting his shot on the Contender Series, submitting Mana Martinez with a Triangle Choke just 2:22 into the first round. Rodriguez went 0-2 in the Octagon, however, and was released shortly afterward.

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About the author
Zane Simon
Zane Simon

Zane Simon is a senior editor, writer, and podcaster for Bloody Elbow. He has worked with the website since 2013, taking on a wide variety of roles. A lifelong combat sports fan, Zane has trained off & on in both boxing and Muay Thai. He currently hosts the long-running MMA Vivisection podcast, which he took over from Nate Wilcox & Dallas Winston in 2015, as well as the 6th Round podcast, started in 2014. Zane is also responsible for developing and maintaining the ‘List of current UFC fighters’ on Bloody Elbow, a resource he originally developed for Wikipedia in 2010.

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