The announcement of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association last week was met with plenty of interest and enthusiasm from both fans and fighters. It was also met with some skepticism. Most of this was concerning the presence of controversial former Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney as an advisor to the group, but there were also eyebrows raised by the potential involvement of Creative Artist Agency. The talent agency is a well known rival of the UFC’s new owners, WME-IMG, and represents four of the five fighters that make up the MMAAA’s board.
Bloody Elbow has obtained a letter dated December 6, 2016 and addressed to Bjorn Rebney, with Mike Fonseca of CAA and attorney James Quinn CC'ed, from the counsel in the UFC Class Action antitrust suit. In it Eric Cramer and Michael Dell'Angelo of Berger & Montague, Benjamin Brown and Richard Koffman of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, and Joseph Saveri raise questions over the true intent of the MMAAA.
The counsel expresses concern over certain statements and actions taken by Rebney that they worry could harm MMA fighters by undermining the class action suit.
[S]pecifically, you said that one of the goals of the MMAAA is to seek a “settlement” on behalf of current and former UFC fighters to compensate for lost income due to prior alleged wrongdoing by the UFC. As you are aware, the federal court presiding over the UFC Class Action has appointed us, as Co-Lead Counsel, to pursue such claims in the UFC Class Action. Given that appointment, we—along with the six named plaintiff fighters in the case—have made substantial strides on behalf of all UFC fighters over these past two years— strides that your recent actions and statements threaten to undo.
The letter claims that Rebney’s actions have denigrated the UFC Class Action and are an attempted to divide the fighters into warring groups. It also voices concern that he could be orchestrating a “reverse auction” where Zuffa, instead of paying out the largest damages possible, would have the luxury of being able to choose the lowest bidder instead.
As you must be aware, establishing a rival group that attempts to recover for identical alleged past harms would only benefit Zuffa, presenting it with the option of paying the lowest bidder to resolve fighters’ claims. Your actions could also damage our efforts, through the UFC Class Action, to seek a binding court order putting an end to certain of Zuffa’s alleged anticompetitive misconduct in furtherance of the goal of creating a more competitive landscape for the sport, benefitting MMA fighters and fans alike. As you must be aware, the fighters are better off united than divided, and thus your attempts to sow division operate to no one’s advantage but Zuffa’s.
Most interestingly, the letter claims that the counsel in the class action lawsuit had a meeting with Rebney and representatives of CAA a year ago. It was arranged by MMA manager Ken Pavia, and was held at CAA’s offices in New York, during which Rebney and his associates sought to be included in the prosecution of the class action and a share of the rewards.
Worse, as we both know—but which you have failed to disclose publicly—you, your investors, and your legal team had previously sought to be included in our efforts to prosecute the UFC Class Action—as long as you and your investors could share in any recovery. Indeed, well after the UFC Class Action was underway, at the invitation of Ken Pavia, Class Counsel agreed to attend an October 15, 2015, meeting with you (as the former CEO of Bellator), representatives of Creative Artists Agency (“CAA”), Mr. Pavia and your lawyers at the offices of CAA in New York.
According to the letter, Rebney and his representatives said at the meeting that they had already formed the MMAAA, that it was supported by “hundreds” of current and former MMA Fighters, and that they were contemplating starting their own antitrust action if the plaintiffs attorneys did not meet certain demands.
According to the MMAAA’s website, membership is open to both current and former UFC fighters, the groups that would make up the class for any antitrust suit against the UFC.
The idea that the MMAAA had already been formed at that time seems contradicted by the fact that shortly after the initial meeting, Rebney registered the “Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association”. The letter also suggests the possibility that other domain names registered by Rebney could be intended for use by planned MMA promotions.
According to the letter, ten days after the meeting, Rebney’s attorneys presented the UFC Class Action counsel with his demands.
You proposed that we, as Co-Lead Counsel, promise to devote a certain percentage of any class-wide recovery in the Class Action to the MMAAA, which monies you told us would be used for compensating unnamed “investors” for unspecified expenses incurred in establishing the organization, among other things. You further demanded that your representatives should be allowed full participation in any settlement negotiations that might occur in the Class Action. As you know, we rejected your demands.
The letter finishes with the strong suggestion to Rebney, Fonseca, and Quinn that they "reconsider your recent efforts to divide the fighters, and thereby harm those whose interests you claim to represent."
Bloody Elbow did reach out to Bjorn Rebney who informed us that he had yet to see the letter and therefore could not comment.
According to Steven Marrocco of MMA Junkie Rebney’s PR agency released a statement:
He’d like to, but since these multiple law firms, who are in this for a 1/3rd cut of the fighters’ money, have actually threatened to sue the Association and Bjorn, the Associations’ lawyers, (Jim and Eric) have advised him not to.
Attorneys, Jim Quinn and Eric Hochstadt, outside counsel for the Mixed Martial Arts Association released the following statement.
As Georges St-Pierre, Donald Cerrone, T.J. Dillashaw, Tim Kennedy, and Cain Velasquez made clear in the official public announcement last week, the Mixed Martial Arts Athlete Association (“MMAAA”) is all about looking out for the fighters and their well-being long-term.
Yesterday, the MMAAA received a “cease and desist” letter from a group of lawyers seeking to stop the MMAAA from signing up fighters and sticking up for their rights against the UFC and its owners WME-IMG. The MMAAA will do no such thing. Those lawyers – who represent only a few fighters – are focused on getting some money out of one case, of which they seek a significant portion for themselves. Those lawyers do not speak for anyone else, and certainly not the MMAAA and all the fighters the organization represents now and will quickly grow to represent in the sport.
Over a year ago, those same lawyers reached out to the MMAAA to join forces with us. We had a meeting and made clear that the MMAAA’s primary focus would be on achieving three core goals: 1) substantially increasing UFC fighter pay to 50%; 2) securing all-encompassing long term benefits for UFC fighters; and 3) a settlement to compensate past and current UFC fighters for all of the UFC’s wrongs. To achieve these goals for the benefit of the fighters, we also made clear the MMAAA needed to receive a percentage of a monetary settlement to cover the costs to fund the MMAAA for staffing and attorneys both for past work getting to this point and the long fight ahead. The lawyers made clear that they did not share the MMAAA’s vision. They are focused on a short-term monetary recovery, of which they will seek 33%, and then they are gone from this sport. We parted ways at that point.
The MMAAA is all about the fighters benefitting when the UFC is finally forced to take a powerful group of the fighters seriously. The MMAAA will be executing on that plan and will not be stopped in this effort on behalf of fighters.
The original letter: