After years of inactivity, the slow legal proceedings in the lawsuit against the UFC just took a major step forward.

In 2014, Bloody Elbow was first to break the news of a major class action lawsuit filed by several former fighters against the Ultimate Fighting Championship. After several filings back and forth, and judges taking years to make a decision, now the case is finally moving forward.

The class action lawsuit filed against the UFC.

UFC antitrust lawsuit officially certified as class action

In new documents Bloody Elbow’s John Nash has obtained, the Le vs Zuffa (UFC) antitrust lawsuit has been officially certified as a class action.

Judge Boulware has officially certified the “bout class,” and not the “identity class” in the case.

This bout class covers all fighters who competed under Zuffa events that took place or was broadcast in North America from December 16, 2010 to June 30, 2017. The identity class was for a much smaller claim for damages, and only covered a small group of fighters, whose images were used by Zuffa in merchandise or video games in the same time period.

Class certification means the 1200 or so fighters that fought in the UFC during the class period are automatically enrolled as plaintiffs unless they choose to “opt out” on their own. The Named Plaintiffs — Cung Le, Jon Fitch, Kyle Kingsbury, Javier Vasquez, and Brandon Vera — will still represent the Class as the lawsuit progresses, but unless they choose to opt out all members of the bout class will be awarded any damages won. 

Because the identity class was denied, Nathan Quarry is no longer one of the named Plaintiffs.

Lawsuit can cost UFC billions, cause massive changes in MMA

The Plaintiffs have asked for damages of $811 million to $1.6 billion. If the suit goes to trial and the Plaintiffs win, because it is an antitrust case those damages would be trebled, or tripled, by the court. 

The UFC is an incredibly lucrative business, but damages of that size could still be potentially crippling. The Court has also ruled that the fighters “have standing to bring their claims of injunctive relief,” which could be just as threatening to the UFC, with the possibility they’d be ordered to make changes to their business practices.

The fighters alleged that the Ultimate Fighting Championship violated antitrust law, and according to the document, the Court finds “at least three named Plaintiffs were subject to that action when the Complaint was filed.”

“Therefore, at that time, they met the standing requirements of a concrete injury that was fairly traceable to the challenged action of the Defendant and that could be redressed by a favorable decision.”

An injunction could restrain the UFC from continuing some of their business practices. Despite potential billions in damages, this actually poses a much bigger risk to the UFC’s business as it could affect the things that let them keep control and make them such a dominant force in this sport.

Previous filings by the Plaintiffs suggested the possibility that relief could come in the form of UFC contracts being no longer than 12 to 24 months maximum, with no extensions whatsoever. The International Boxing Club of New York also offered another possible example of what that injunctive relief could look like, as the Federal Courts voided their current exclusive contracts and forbade them from entering into any exclusive contracts with boxers for the next five years. Such changes would completely overturn the UFC’s current business model.

Court finds UFC used ‘anticompetitive conduct’

Several of the court’s findings on the case from the years of litigation are also noteworthy.

First, is how the Court found themselves in agreement with the plaintiffs that the Ultimate Fighting Championship “willfully engaged in anticompetitive conduct to maintain or increase their market power” in the industry.

”This was mainly accomplished in three ways: first, through the enforcement of exclusionary contracts, which kept fighters “locked up” in an anticompetitive manner; second, through extracontractual methods to make fighter contracts effectively perpetual; and third, through acquisition and shutting down of rivals.”

“Court finds that Plaintiffs have established that these forms of anticompetitive conduct, both individually and collectively, along with dominant output market power, allowed Defendant to exercise substantial monopsony power over putative class members in the input market for fighter services. Ultimately, the Court finds, for the purposes of class certification, that Plaintiffs have set forth sufficient evidence that this Scheme amounted to a violation of the antitrust law.”

UFC used “variety of ruthless coercive techniques”

The Court also agreed with the plaintiffs that the UFC used a “variety of ruthless coercive techniques to prevent fighters from becoming free agents— rendering these contracts effectively perpetual.”

The Court noted how the UFC “maintained significant control over a fighter’s career” through various means.

“Because Zuffa fighters did not get paid unless they fought, this enabled Zuffa to use various strategies related to the timing, placement, number and opponents of a fighter’s bouts to coerce fighters into renewing their contracts early or extending their contracts in order to earn a paycheck.”

UFC’s ”restrictive contracts” have a “devastating effect”

The Court also detailed how the promotion uses their “restrictive contracts” that can also be extended into perpetuity control fighters and build on their already dominant market power.

”The combined effect of the contracts’ restrictive clauses created a situation where Zuffa had the sole power to control a fighter’s ability to make money for the majority of the average fighter’s career. Through these restrictive contracts, Zuffa controlled how much, where, and when fighters could earn compensation by participating in a bout.

…The Court further finds that these contracts, with their various restrictive clauses, existed throughout the class period and operated to lock up fighters with Zuffa. These contracts therefore restricted fighter mobility and allowed Zuffa to build concentrated power in the market for fighter services.”

They cite how UFC uses their power to “pressure fighters to renew contracts” and “limit a fighter’s options.” All in all, the courts describe these to have had a “devastating effect on fighters’ ability to control their careers.”

Court cites UFC acquiring and shutting down MMA promotions

Dana White infamously boasted about being the Grim Reaper that killed off other MMA promotions in the past. Now the Court has cited how UFC acquiring and shutting down potential competition as anticompetitive behavior.

“Plaintiffs credibly establish that Zuffa systematically acquired, or forced the shutdown of, rival promoters,” the document read, citing the acquisition of Strikeforce and two other organizations.

“Defendant’s horizonal acquisitions reinforced their dominance in the input market. These acquisitions consciously eliminated would-be rivals to which fighters might otherwise have switched. This conduct substantially foreclosed competition and had market wide anticompetitive effects without any recognizable procompetitive benefits.

“The Court agrees with Plaintiffs that Defendant’s willful anticompetitive conduct maintained, or increased, Defendant’s monopsony power. The Court finds that Defendant fails to present any meaningful evidence that these acquisitions were procompetitive or contributed to the development of the industry.”


Court finds UFC had “unfettered power” to suppress fighter pay

Low fighter pay has been an issue for a long time, and the Court agreed with the plaintiffs representing the fighters in finding that the UFC had “unfettered power” to suppress it.

The Court also agreed that the promotion’s various “coercive tactics” were used to “prevent fighters from even understanding their true market value,” and allow them to negotiate only with UFC for almost their entire career.

“Due to this anticompetitive, coercive conduct, fighters were trapped by Zuffa’s exclusionary contracts and their restrictive terms, creating a situation in which Zuffa had unfettered power and opportunity to suppress fighters’ compensation.”

The Court also cited former UFC matchmaker Joe Silva and other executives’ own statements admitting to these “schemes.”

UFC finances showed that while the promotion’s revenue is now well over a billion dollars a year, fighter pay has stagnated and is estimated to have dropped to just 13% of the revenue in 2022. Major sports leagues pay athletes around 50% of their revenue, while in boxing, the fighters can get 70% or even higher.

This post was written by Anton Tabuena and John S. Nash.

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John S. Nash
John S. Nash

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