Former UFC and Strikeforce fighter Zach Light filed a wrongful termination lawsuit on Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court against Bellator MMA and its parent company Viacom, "due to [Light] having protested certain illegal practices jeopardizing the health and safety of professional fighters and mixed martial artists all for defendants' profit and financial gain."
According to the complaint, after concluding his fight career in 2011, Light became Bellator's Talent Development Director under founder and former CEO Bjorn Rebney, receiving "the highest rankings on his annual reviews."
But Bellator's management practices allegedly changed when Scott Coker replaced Rebney as CEO in June of 2014. According to Light, "Gone were the regular and recurring mandates from prior management to obey and exceed the high standards of adherence to state and national rules and regulations governing mixed martial arts events."
In particular, Light claims he learned from a reliable source that Ryan Martinez's blood and eye medicals submitted to Arizona officials for Bellator 126 "were admittedly forged." At Bellator 131 in San Diego, Light claims he learned "a number of fighters on the card had submitted California state-required medicals by one Adam Rendon, who was not a licensed physician, in violation of Business and Professions Code, §§ 18711 and 17500."
According to the complaint, Light's reports of these medical issues were rebuffed by Coker and Bellator's VP of Talent, Rich Chou.
"Approximately 48 hours prior to Martinez's scheduled fight at Bellator 126, [Light] promptly reported what he had learned to Rich Chou, defendant BELLATOR's Vice President of Talent. Chou assured [Light] that he would follow up and that [Light] should focus on his job. When [Light] heard nothing further from Chou, he approached Coker regarding Martinez' impending fight based on forged medicals, in violation of Arizona law. Coker told [Light] to ‘do what Chou told you to do,' without addressing these issues. Thereafter, [Light] again brought the subject up to Chou. Chou threatened [Light] with termination if he kept pushing the issue. [Light] later learned that after losing his bout, Martinez never resumed his mixed martial arts career.
"Prior to the Bellator 131 event, [Light] told Coker that fighters had been suspended for using Rendon to sign their medicals because Rendon was not a licensed physician. Coker told [Light], ‘a lot of people at Bellator are going to lose their jobs next week. Do you want to keep yours?' Coker added, ‘then stay in your lane and stop making waves!' Fearful of losing his job, [Light] said nothing further regarding the falsified medical reports."
Light further claims he was pressured by Coker to promote what are described as "collusive fights" related to MMA manager Anthony McGann, whom Light claims Coker referred to as a "fucking terrorist."
According to the complaint, Coker instructed Light to use his friendship with Cheick Kongo to convince the fighter to fire McGann and "sign a bout agreement which was not consistent with his promotional agreement." While the pay was allegedly much less than that stated in Kongo's promotional agreement, Light claims Chou later agreed to pay Kongo additional sums for his next bout.
But the story doesn't end there as Light claims Coker became "enraged" with McGann when Quinton "Rampage" Jackson signed with the UFC while still under contract with Bellator.
"Coker told [Light] to ‘get the terrorist's fighters beaten and beaten badly,' thereby allowing Coker to cut ties between defendant BELLATOR and McCann [sic]. [Light] was required to arrange fights between McGann's fighters and opponents who would convincingly defeat them. Such outcomes would then enable Coker to have a convenient pretext to terminate McGann's fighters' promotional contracts with defendant BELLATOR. Such collusive matches were tantamount to fight fixing and constituted a fraud on ticket buyers, fight patrons, television viewers, advertisers, and the public at large, as well as McGann and the professional fighters he managed."
A lot has been made lately of conflicts of interest between MMA managers and promoters, and Light makes a similar claim against former, and possibly current, manager Mike Kogan that contradicts a Bellator spokesperson's statement recently reported by Bleacher Report.
"In late 2014 and early 2015, a close friend of Coker, Mike Kogan, was hired by defendant BELLATOR in an executive capacity. [Light] knew that Kogan represented numerous mixed martial arts fighters, many of whom were under professional agreements with defendant BELLATOR. [Light] is informed and believes and thereon alleges that Kogan was paid management commissions for fighters he represented in bouts that occurred with defendant BELLATOR. This was a serious conflict of interest in violation of California Business and Professions Code, §§ 18878, 18897.27, and 18897.47, as well as California Code of Regulations, Title 4, § 243. [Light], aware of and concerned about the glaring conflict of interest that existed when an executive of defendant BELLATOR also managed fighters competing for defendant BELLATOR, expressed his strong concerns regarding these conflicts to Chou. Chou responded, ‘leave it alone, he's on our team.'"
Light further alleges that a Bellator employee continued to transport fighters, managers, and commission officials in the company van even though his driver's license was suspended from a DUI. After bringing the issue to Coker, Light claims he was told to "stop making waves" and "just do your job."
Following Bellator 136 on Apr. 10, 2015, Light claims he suffered an anxiety attack and was subsequently diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety, leading to an extended medical leave through Mar. 10, 2016. Light claims he was terminated on Mar. 17th.
The lawsuit alleges wrongful termination and seeks economic, general, and punitive damages and recovery of costs to be determined later.
Like all complaints, this is only one side of the story. It's possible Light is a disgruntled former employee making frivolous claims following his termination. But, if true, these allegations are potentially explosive and could possibly put Bellator's promoter license in jeopardy as ensuring fighter health and safety through proper and accurate medical examinations is one of the key regulatory objectives of state athletic commissions.
Bloody Elbow reached out to Bellator which had the following comment, "Company policy is that we don't make comments on ongoing legal issues." Readers will be kept up-to-date as the story progresses.
Paul is Bloody Elbow's business and analytics writer. Follow him @MMAanalytics.