MMA contracts are famous for their restrictions, but ONE Championship has seemingly taken it to a different level.
With the industry leader, the UFC, having set the standard for years, fighters who sign to compete multiple times with seemingly any organization around the world often find themselves locked into non-compete clauses, automatic extensions, and other restrictive stipulations on things like image rights and sponsorship associations.
MMA advertises itself as a world of “independent contractors,” fighters who essentially operate their own businesses and partner with promoters for short term deals, bringing their talents to fans hungry for combat sports. The reality, however, can be much different.
Recently, Bloody Elbow’s John Nash gave a rare look at a contract from one of Asia’s largest MMA promotions, ONE Championship. What we found might just be the most restrictive agreement among the major mixed martial arts promotions.
ONE Championship owns image rights, even after death
Years ago, fight fans learned about the battle over “image rights” from Randy Couture. The “Natural” had several notable legal run-ins with the UFC. In the mid 2000s, he fought for ancillary rights, including fighters’ likenesses for products like video games, t-shirts, etc. Couture and the UFC settled their differences, but it was a lesson the fighter says the promotion learned a lot from.
“In 05-06, I stood up for myself and took them to task over ancillary rights in their contracts and the crappy nature of those contracts,” Couture recalled in a 2023 interview. “The upside to that is I’m one of the few that owns my own ancillary rights. The downside is they closed all those loopholes I highlighted in the contract, so the next guy was going to have to sign an even worse contract, which was certainly not my intention.”
Those lessons became clear just a couple years later, in 2008, when Jon Fitch declined to sign an agreement giving his image rights to the UFC in perpetuity, for use in an upcoming video game. As a result, the promotion threatened to sever ties with all the talent training out of Fitch’s gym, AKA. That included fighters like title contender Josh Koscheck, and future champion Cain Velasquez. Fitch and the rest of AKA ended up signing on the dotted line.
If the UFC were bullish on securing fighter image rights, however, it seems that ONE Championship has taken things a step further.
This contract gives the promotion the “worldwide right to manufacture, distribute or sell goods and services depicted or decorated with the athlete’s profile, including without limitation brochures, posters, toys, games, computer video games, electronic games, or other interactive software novelties,” and on and on and on. Basically, this is the merchandise rights, which is incorporated with the promotional rights— which is a little unique from the other promotions.
Because the UFC will have these auxiliary rights, but they don’t include it as part of the fighter’s promotional rights. In fact, the promotional rights for Bellator is, they have the right to disseminate your image to make posters and all that stuff.
This ONE Championship contract instantly gives them the rights to your “merchandise.” What’s also interesting, these auxiliary rights and merchant rights, granted in favor of the company, “shall for the avoidance of doubt, survive the death of the athlete, and shall be binding upon successors, heirs and personal representatives.”
In other words, they’re perpetual even beyond the death of the athlete.
When you sign away your rights with ONE Championship, under this contract it gives them the right to use your image on fabrics, apparel, food, merchandise, anything they want — forever.
The contract includes no compensation for the auxiliary and merchandising rights which are granted in favor of the company in perpetuity.
In comparison, with UFC’s standard agreement, the fighters are paid a (small) royalty payment for all merchandise sold bearing the fighters’ image (outside of event merchandise, in which they receive no payment) and the UFC’s rights to their image ends two years after the termination of the contract.
ONE Championship could therefore, theoretically, continue distributing or selling the merchandising rights long after the fighter had left for another promotion.
Under the current UFC standard agreement, they can re-use the footage of a fight in a commercial or on some merchandise, but they can’t use the fighter’s image in new ways if the fighter’s merchandising agreement has expired.
ONE Championship on the other hand, they can use the fight footage, but based on the language in the contract, if they chose to they could use a fighters image for a toy or collectible, for example, long after the fighter had left the promotion.
ONE’s longer Champion’s Clause
One of the most notable discussions in the world of MMA contracts and their predatory nature are tolling provisions, or clauses that can extend a fighter’s agreement with a promotion automatically under certain conditions. Things as simple as a canceled fight or event can see a fighter’s agreement with a promotion pushed out an extra few months. Perhaps the most notorious of these is the “Champion’s Clause,” which prevents fighters from being able to walk away from a promotion at the height of their drawing power.
That kind of legal wrangling seems to have come about largely due to the competition provided by the Japanese MMA boom in the early days of the ZUFFA ownership of the UFC. Champions Murilo Bustamante, BJ Penn, Jens Pulver and Randy Couture (back before ZUFFA) all exited the UFC shortly after winning title belts, only to make the leap across the Pacific and end up fighting in Japan.
More recently, Francis Ngannou took advantage of his contract’s “sunset clause,” allowing him to become a free agent after 5 years from signing his deal, even though he was still the champion and under a 3-fight extension due to the Champion’s Clause in his contract.
ONE Championship agreements, like those of most other MMA promoters, does not contain a ‘sunset clause’ that would limit the amount of extension time that could be added to the agreement.
Adriano Moraes’s contract, which was for four fights or 24 months, also contained a Champion’s Clause. Unlike the one we see in UFC and Bellator which are for 3-fights or 12 months and triggered if the fighter holds the belt when his contract is up, ONE’s Champion Clause would extend the agreement by four fights and 24 months as soon as you win the title.
Thus, a fighter under this four-fight agreement, who won the title on his 2nd bout but then lost it on his third, would still have five fights remaining. Extensions like these are intended to prevent fighters, who have increased their profiles and values by winning a title from being able to test the market.
We’ve seen something like this in boxing. Where, if a boxer wins the title, it extends the contract. But it’s less of a problem in boxing because—and this gets complex—in boxing, the promotion doesn’t own the title. And so there’s a leverage the fighter has because he owns the title himself—and he can hold that over the promoter.
In this case, if a fighter won the championship and then decided to hold the title hostage until he got a new or better deal, since the promotion and not the fighter owns their title, they could strip him while still keeping the contract extensions in place.
No Sunset Clauses, ONE contracts can extend in perpetuity
Outside of the champion’s clause, there are other ways and reasons ONE Championship can extend their deal with a fighter already bound up with the promotion.
The terms don’t expire early, due to death or incapacity, just like the old UFC contracts. The other interesting note is the auxiliary rights and merchandise rights continue after the termination.
The other thing they can do is, they can extend the contract if you refuse to participate in a match. Other promotions have that; we’ve seen that basically for all of MMA.
Some boxing contracts have it that “we have to make a good faith offer,” or “we have to offer you a couple fights and then you get to choose which one you want.” In ONE Championship, like most MMA promotions, they offer you a fight, and if you refuse it, they can extend the contract.
In ONE, it’s either the longer, of getting you a new date, or 120 days. In the UFC, it’s six months.
Just like the UFC and Bellator, in ONE Championship they can extend the contract for as long as the fighter is injured. If a fighter refuses to take a fight, ONE can extend the contract. So there’s basically all the provisions that the other promotions have.
But there’s no “sunset” such as that we’ve seen in the UFC recently. There’s no hard end date, beyond which the promoter can not extend the term, even if the fighter declines a fight. There’s also no maximum number of declinations — or declining a fight.
For a brief time, the UFC had a maximum of 18 months they could extend your contract if you kept turning down fights, but they have apparently returned to as many until the sunset period is reached. ONE Championship can apparently keep extending the contract if you turn down fights as well, but they have no sunset in their contracts.
As with most other MMA promotions, and with older UFC contracts, fighters who retire from ONE can have their contracts frozen in perpetuity. This is once again a throwback to the UFC’s old way of doing business, which is essentially to say that there’s no way a fighter can sit out the ONE Championship deal by not fighting. Currently in the UFC, fighters who retire have a built in sunset clause, that their contract with the promotion will expire after a set number of years.
As for fighters in ONE who actually do make it to free agency, they’ll find themselves at the mercy of another longtime MMA contract staple, in the form of a 60-day exclusive negotiation period as well as a year of matching rights.
Can’t say anything negative about ONE, even after leaving
Unsurprisingly, given everything that’s already been laid out here, ONE Championship also appears to be pretty restrictive about what fighters are allowed to say to the media. In fact, if their contracts are to be believed, fighters can’t do any media appearances without prior approval from ONE Championship.
As for what they’re allowed to say in those appearances? Not only are they not allowed to talk about their contracts, but they must also “take all reasonable steps to minimize the risk of disclosure of confidential information.” If an athlete fights for ONE Championship, not only does their media game have to be on lock, but so does the rest of their teams’.
The fighter cannot “disparage, disrupt, damage, impair or otherwise interfere with the business interest or reputation of the company or its affiliates, to the ONE brand or any current or proposed sponsored advertising agency, network, or broadcaster.”
They cannot “commission, publish, disseminate or otherwise involve with any advertising or publicity material which may contain inaccurate, obscene, indecent, threatening, offensive, defamatory, torturous, or illegal languages or material, or which will infringe on the any intellectual property of any third party” per Moraes’ ONE Championship contract.
In Bellator and UFC, the disparagement clause limits the fighter’s ability to say anything that damages the relationship with the sponsor. In other words, you can’t do anything to interrupt their money, but it doesn’t have a disparagement clause.
It says in section 14.1: “The athlete shall be treated as confidentially, not disclosed to any information that relates to the existence and provisions of this agreement, and any agreement entered into pursuant to this agreement, the negotiations related to this agreement, and each of the companies and the companies’ affiliates’ proprietary information.”
So we have a confidentiality clause somewhat in the UFC and Bellator that forbids fighters from discussing the contract. But ONE’s language is slightly stronger, slightly clearer and covers a wider range.
What’s interesting about the UFC, though, is they have that in their contract, but Dana White has said multiple times on record that fighters are free to talk about their contracts or money which would overrule the contract. But I can’t recall any ONE Championship executive ever saying that.
There’s also a section that says, “The athlete shall take all reasonable steps to minimize the risk of disclosure of confidential information by ensuring that only those of the athlete’s affiliates whose duties will require them to possess any such information, shall have access thereto, and that they shall be instructed to treat them as confidential.”
Much like ONE Championship’s image rights, the promotion’s contracts also include language that extends their disparagement clause well beyond the time an athlete is actually fighting for ONE. If someone has ever competed under ONE Championship’s banner, it seems they’re contractually bound from disparaging or revealing any of the company’s business for the rest of their lives.
More restrictions and several strange clauses
ONE Championship’s contracts also include a bunch of strange language and clauses…
This article was written by Zane Simon, Tim Bissell and John S. Nash.
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