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Congressman: UFC tried to influence witness list, threatened to walk if Couture speaks

Randy Couture is set to represent fighters on a panel before congress Thursday. Upon hearing the news, Representative Markwayne Mullin says the UFC threatened not to participate.

'The Expendables 3' Premiere - The 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Representative Markwayne Mullin, the former mixed martial artist turned congressman, sponsoring the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act, says the UFC tried to influence a congressional committee to blackball former UFC champ Randy Couture from speaking at a hearing this Thursday.

“They had threatened to walk because they didn’t want us to have Randy Couture on the panel,” Mullin said. “We want them to participate but they can’t be dictating who we can and cannot have on the panel. This isn’t an ‘I gotchu hearing,’ this is giving perspectives across the board.”

Mullin is referring to an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing scheduled for this Thursday on Capitol Hill before the subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. The congressman from Oklahoma was instrumental in organizing the hearing to educate committee members ahead of a House vote on the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act.

“A lot of people up here know the UFC, but they don’t know how it works. They just kinda assume that it works like any other individual sport out there,” Mullin said. “So we wanted to use this time in the hearing just to inform those up there on the committee so they would understand what the sport is all about.”

The witness list is supposed to remain confidential up to 48 hours prior to the hearing. It is scheduled to officially be released Tuesday morning. But Mullin said the UFC found out that Couture was scheduled to speak and allegedly began employing threats to the organizing committee.

“We are very receptive to having them have whoever they want to come in there and sit down,” he said. “They were the only ones trying to dictate who we could and couldn’t have on the panel and that’s not their place to do that.”

According to Mullin, the UFC later backed down.

The UFC would not officially comment on the allegations but a UFC source, told Bloody Elbow that what Mullin said is not true and that the UFC will be represented at the hearing to discuss how it protects its athletes and all MMA fighters. Several sources confirm that it will be sending Jeff Novitzky, its Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance, to testify on the panel.

Monday, Couture confirmed that he will be speaking Thursday. He had planned on attending but just got a formal invitation to speak two days ago. So far, Couture is the only fighter set to speak.

“I’m still trying to formulate what my statement is gonna be,” Couture said. “I’m representing the group now instead of everyone getting a chance to say their piece about why the Ali act needs to be amended. So it’s just me.”

When asked whether he was surprised over the allegation that the UFC resisted to his presence, Couture laughed.

“Are you surprised by that?” he asked. “Obviously there’s no love lost from me, certainly with regard to the president of the company and obviously the landscape for the entire sport would change if we are successful. They’ve been trying to derail this hearing and not have it happen at all. So I’m not surprised that they are gonna pull out all the stops.”

“I’m happy to hear that the Congress pushed back and isn’t willing to be pushed around or bullied,” he said. “Frankly whether they showed up or not, doesn’t affect the message that we have. Our message stays the same.”

Years ago, Couture had very public and bitter, verbal exchanges with UFC President Dana White and a lengthy legal battle with Zuffa over a contract dispute. He plans to draw attention to the issue of coercive contracts at Thursday’s hearing.

“I have 14 years history dealing with the company and dealing with the contracts, as their heavyweight champion at the time,” he said. “So I’m living proof and a living example of exactly why the Ali Act needs to be amended.”

A group of at least six other fighters from the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association plan to be on Capitol Hill as early as Wednesday. They will take a tour and meet privately with elected officials to garner support for the bill. MMA and boxing trainer Juanito Ibarra and attorney and MMAFA spokesman Rob Maysey plan to attend, along with Couture’s long-time manager Samuel Spira.

The Muhammad Ali Expansion Act was introduced on May 26, 2016, on the 20th anniversary of the original act. If passed, the Ali Act would be expanded to cover all combat sports, thereby outlawing coercive contracts lasting more than a year, returning promotional rights back to fighters after a year, providing avenues for fighters to sue promoters and creating an independent rank and title system, among other provisions.

“The sanctioning body and the promoter can’t be one and the same,” Couture said. “It’s too much power that’s being abused and misused for the best deal for the promoter and not for the fighter.”

According to public documents, the UFC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act.

“They don’t wanna lose control,” Couture said. “They wanna keep the monopoly and the iron fist that they have over the sport right now.”

Representative Mullin said the UFC initially sent their lawyer, Lawrence Epstein, to speak with him when he was first considering introducing the bill.

“Lawrence said to me it’s not a championship belt,” he said. “They are bestowing an award on the best fighter for the night. That’s what they think about the ranking system and as a professional athlete. That’s insulting but that was their mentality back then and that is their mentality going forward.”

It wasn’t the first time the two had met. Mullin, a former mixed martial artist, was in talks with the UFC in 2007, around the time it was launching a season of the Ultimate Fighter show.

“I couldn’t believe what they were wanting me to do,” he said, claiming the UFC wanted him to give up certain promotional rights that he wasn’t comfortable with and have no contact with his family for six weeks during filming. “Luckily it wasn’t my livelihood, it was just a hobby of mine, so I could walk away.”

According to Mullin, he did not have a good personal experience with Epstein and remembers the whole contentious conversation but didn’t want to recount it.

“Lawrence, when he was in here, he didn’t remember talking to me until I reminded him of it,” he said.

He says the UFC hasn’t sent anyone back to his office since.

“They’ve been spending all of their money going to other members,” Mullin said. “They’ve approached just about everybody on the committee at one time or another trying to get to them. I know they reached out to everybody that’s a co-sponsor of the bill and some of them have taken a meeting with them, some of them haven’t.

“If they are really interested in taking care of the fighters, I don’t know why they are spending the hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against it. I wish they would use this money to pay their fighters rather than lobbying against the fighters.”

But Mullin said, he doesn’t believe the UFC’s lobbying efforts will be successful due to his political clout on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve got a good rapport with my colleagues up here. They know I’m pretty passionate about this,” Mullin said. “While they are talking to them, my colleagues turn around and say ‘hey what’s this all about?’ and I explain it and they say, ‘Oh okay. I understand it. Well you understand the issue better than I do, so I’ll follow your lead.’ That’s usually how the conversation goes.”

Mullin said he has already begun building bipartisan support and even reaching out to senators, in the event the bill heads to the Senate for a vote.

“We’ve already had several senators reach out and say ‘we are supportive of it’,” he said. “We are not having a lot of pushback. I have the outgoing chairman who has been verbally supportive of it and the ranking member, who has been verbally supportive of it.”

Due to his personal experience as a fighter, Mullin, who was sworn into office in 2013, had been wanting to introduce MMA legislation for a while but didn’t want to “step ahead” of the fighters. When Cung Le visited him earlier this year, he says, it was the visit he had been waiting for.

He organized Thursday’s hearing to educate committee members about the sport, the business tactics and contracts employed by the UFC, which Mullins says are “unfair and predatory.” He plans to supply committee members with a copy of a UFC/fighter contract to look over for themselves.

“By the time this meeting is over, they will have one in their hand,” he said. “The [UFC] says that their fighters are independent contractors but the way the contracts are written up, they’re absolutely not. They are limited on who they can use as a sponsor. Who they are, as far as their image, is owned by the UFC. It’s a ‘take it or leave it’ mentality. We keep losing great talent in the UFC because it’s my way or the highway.”

Mullin insists he’s not trying to paint the UFC as the “big, bad wolf.”

“They’ve exposed MMA to the world and made it a very respected sport, but they’ve left the fighters here in the back,” Mullin said. “This isn’t trying to take down an organization. This is trying to sustain the sport and make sure everyone is treated fairly.”

Thursday’s hearing will broadcast live on C-Span. Afterward, the bill will need to move through the committee process, which means markups and a review by the rules committee. It could take months before the bill goes to the House floor for a vote. If it passes, it heads to the Senate and if it goes through, it would be signed into law by President-elect Trump.

Mullin says it’s unlikely the bill will pass through committees until after the first one hundred days of the new administration, given the incoming agenda. He hopes it will pass sometime next year but encourages more fighters to lobby on Capitol Hill to speed up the process.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease up here,” he said. “If we wanna get this thing done, they are gonna have to be coming up here on a regular basis. I’m talking about every month. I’d like to have somebody up here every week, going door to door, constantly staying active in it. The more we are active, the more attention it’ll get and people will be like ‘okay, we get it, we are tired of it, let’s get this thing done and move on.’”