clock menu more-arrow no yes
Image via Phil Mackenzie

Filed under:

Feature: Working undercover for the UFC

All over the US there are undercover pirate-hunters helping the UFC crack down on illegal screenings of pay-per-view events. This is one of their stories.

(Editor’s Note: This longform by Tim Bissell has been re-featured on the front page for October 16th, 2016.)

A man, for the purpose of this story we'll call him Tony, has a story he wants to tell. "Last thing I want is a lawsuit from Zuffa," he said by way of introduction, asking that his name be withheld. It’s that kind of story.

It's a story about the UFC and one of the many ways they go out of their way to tackle pay-per-view piracy. Tony was one of a number of men, working with the world's largest MMA promotion to shut down pirates. The nights have all started running together in his memory, but they often started something like this...

Tony turned off the highway and onto a poorly lit back-country road. He was covering an east coast beat and he’d been driving out to this latest assignment for at least an hour, glancing over at hand written directions to the middle of God knows where. He checked the clock. 9:48PM. “Damn,” he thought. “Where the heck is this place?” After a few turns he passed a gas station, some houses, and then, in the distance, he saw what he was looking for. Bright pink letters, written in chalk, poked out from between a group of sleeveless smoking men. ‘UFC 117 HERE!’

If it wasn’t UFC 117 exactly, that was almost always how it went.

As he got closer Tony spotted posters across the bar’s front windows. In this case it would have been a wall of Anderson Silvas. Behind them he could see the bar filling up. And as he passed - with his window down on a warm August evening - he made out music, of some sort. He checked the clock again. Almost ten. Tony circled the bar and found a lot facing the backdoor. He parked, stepped out of the car, and drew his Blackberry. On tip toes, he looked towards the bar’s roof, but couldn’t quite see what he was after. He walked up the street, looking for a better view of a satellite dish perched atop the building. He made sure his phone’s camera had the flash turned off, and then he snapped a few shots of the dish.

Again, maybe this time he wasn't on tip toes. Maybe the music wasn't quite so loud, maybe it was April. But it was always some variation of the bar and the satellite and the posters and the music.

As the hour struck ten, Tony strolled around to the front doors and slipped inside, past yet more posters of Anderson Silva. The place was packed and the music was loud, but it wasn’t anything he recognized; they weren’t singing in English. Tony looked to the walls; flags and soccer jerseys. It was a Brazilian bar. Everyone inside was Brazilian. Tony did not look Brazilian.

“I thought, I’m gonna stick out like a sore thumb!” said Tony as he recalled one of his many ZUFFA-mandated undercover missions from the summer of 2010. After working in law enforcement down south, and contracting out in the Middle East, Tony returned home; he was looking to become a private eye. Little did he know where it would lead.

☠ ⋅ ⚖ ⋅ ♟

Not long after getting certified, he received a curious message online. It was from Joe Hand Promotions. They were looking for guys like him.

It is illegal, under US federal law, to exhibit a pay-per-view event in a commercial venue without a corresponding commercial license for that event. Pennsylvania-based Joe Hand Promotions has been distributing UFC pay-per-view commercial licenses since 2001. On June 28th, 2016 the UFC announced that they had renewed their agreement with Joe Hand Promotions with a multi-year-deal that will ensure that the company remains the UFC’s exclusive commercial distributor of pay-per-view events for the foreseeable future.

As recently as this year, a commercial license to screen a single UFC pay-per-view event could run as much as $1,680.* But some establishments balk at ponying up more than a grand for a UFC PPV, especially when they can get the home version for $50-60. Rig up a cable box - or a laptop with a UFC.tv account - to their big screen TV and who's going to know the difference? That's why Joe Hand Promotions has been hiring a lot of guys like Tony.

According to him, Joe Hand Promotions runs a network of fight watching flatfoots who go to bars across the United States looking to dig up evidence that one of these businesses is showing a UFC pay-per-view without paying the right price. Along with receipts to prove he was on the premises for an illegal screening, Tony had a to-do-list for getting the goods on a given establishment:

  • Pictures displaying how the establishment was promoting the event, including pictures of posters or flyers.
  • Pictures of a satellite dish and/or cable box used to screen the pay-per-view.
  • Video recording of the event actually playing, preferably with commercials to help identify a location specific pirated feed.

Tony said Joe Hand Promotions provided him with lists of suspect bars, gained through internet tipsters among other sources. They would pay him $500 per bar he successfully caught committing an act of piracy, and he had license to investigate as many sites as he wanted on any given night. He was even encouraged to find other targets himself, if he could. “My best night ever was three bars,” remembered Tony. “It was in [a major metropolitan city], I went in early and hit the first bar, one Joe Hand had sent me. Then I looked around and found two more bars, all within fifteen minutes of each other. I think it was a GSP event.”

He did this work sporadically for around a year and a half, stopping mostly because the money wasn’t good enough. If he could knock out two or three joints a night, on the regular, he might have stuck with it. But, most places were too far apart; add in the time he spent on the road, searching forums for leads on other illegal screenings, and paying his own cover, and he was glad to move on. Tony had asked for more money, plus expenses, a few times, but was met with deaf ears.

“At the end of the day, it burned a Saturday night, but I did get paid to watch the UFC,” mused Tony, who calls himself a “huge fan” of MMA and remembers watching the first ever UFC event on pay-per-view. “Every single fight was distracting to the job,” he laughed. “Usually, I’d try and get everything done right away so I can just enjoy the fights, but at the beginning of the night it felt like everyone was looking at you.”

He claimed the best time for him to photograph the cable box or get video of the actual event was during either the co-main or main event. “Everyone is glued to it. Everyone’s drinking, but it was still hard to do.” It wasn’t hard just because Tony had to use a clunky old Blackberry, but because of how anxious he would get while he was out on assignment. That anxiety had nothing to do with being undercover, though. “I would be shaking from adrenaline because I was getting excited for the fights!”

Bringing someone else along always made the gig easier and more fun. “It’s way easier when you have friends there to back you up,” said Tony. “You know, you’d get them squaring off in front of the posters and take pictures that way, or they would act drunk and I get videos of them acting wild with the TV on in the background.” It got to the point that his friends had such a good time on his assignments that they began bugging him; asking when they could go out again, asking if they could be the one to pose for pictures next time.

♟ ⋅ ☠ ⋅ ⚖

But, Tony didn’t have friends for back-up in that Brazilian bar for UFC 117. “Everyone was speaking Portuguese, but I could tell, they were looking at me like - ‘Who the frick is this guy in our bar?’” Hoping to ease the tension he started talking to the man behind the bar. He told him he was driving through town when he saw the posters, and he just had to stop in; that he was a hardcore UFC fan, and couldn't miss this fight. “It all seemed okay, a couple of guys did come up to me though,” Tony remembered. “They were acting skeptical and I thought for a moment that they might snatch my phone and look at it. If they did, I thought I was going to get dragged out back and tuned up.”

The patrons backed off, though, and Tony was able to enjoy Junior dos Santos outlasting Roy Nelson, Clay Guida smashing Rafael dos Anjos’ jaw, Matt Hughes bullying Ricardo Almeida, and Jon Fitch grabbing a decision from Thiago Alves. He was enjoying the fights, but he wasn’t finding his job very easy to do. Too many Brazilians were losing, some of them awfully. There was less attention being paid to the big screen and more left over to catch a guy like him snooping. Tony felt exposed. Too much to get a quick shot of the cable set-up behind the bar.

Then Chael Sonnen changed everything. For the best part of five rounds the audience was rapt, the impossible was about to happen - ‘The Spider’ Anderson Silva was going to lose.

The sustained beating Sonnen put on the almost mythical Silva was so enthralling that even Tony forgot what he was doing. The time ticked away. The fifth round came, with Sonnen in top position, battering the Brazilian icon. As if from nowhere, Silva locked in a preposterous triangle choke forcing ‘the American Gangster’ to tap. The bar erupted. And in that joyous afterglow, Tony had all the distraction he needed to complete his check-list.

Tony has never been sure about what happened after he filed his report on a bar. He sent in his receipts, complete with picture and video attachments, and a check came back. Once or twice he asked Joseph Hand Jr., President of Joe Hand Promotions, what would happen to these bars? But he never got many details. “All I know is that ZUFFA wanted to fine them so hard they had to borrow money or go into bankruptcy,” said Tony. “Dana White spearheaded the program. He wanted their licenses. He wanted to shut them down.” Occasionally Tony would drive by bars he had previously investigated. “They were open, but they weren’t showing the UFC.”

Joe Hand Promotions has earned a reputation for aggressive litigation toward establishments illegally screening UFC pay-per-views. Court papers reveal dozens of lawsuits brought forth against bar owners over the last decade. They typically sue an establishment for damages totaling up to $170,000 - as well as attorney fees - arguing that these bar owners are guilty of violating Title 47 in the US Penal Code aka Unauthorized Reception of Cable Service. From the corresponding lawsuit documents readily available, it seems when Joe Hand goes after someone, they tend to be successful. But never quite to the tune of $170,000.

In August of 2015, Ali Ayub Al-Arshad of Taxi’s Hamburger Restaurant in Modesto, California was ordered to pay Joe Hand Promotions $3,250 for screening UFC 165, back in 2013.

In February, 2015 Rodney Lawson and RLPR Management, LLC of ‘N’ Cahoots Sportsbar Grill in Shreveport, Louisiana was ordered to pay $7,200 to JHP for showing UFC 101 in 2009.

In January, 2012 a court awarded Joe Hand Promotions $9,672.19 from Thomas J. Sorel of 252 Lounge in Westfield, Massachusetts. He had aired UFC 96 in 2009. The list goes on.

After walking away from Joe Hand Promotions in 2011, Tony had hoped to land work inside the ZUFFA organization directly. Maybe get a spot in their security set-up. He exchanged messages with UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner, and someone in the HR department, but nothing shook out of it. Since then, his only involvement with the UFC is as a fan, who watches the fights at home.

Looking back on his undercover work for ZUFFA, as one of the the Joe Hand investigators, Tony admits to feeling a “little conflicted.” He isn’t delighted that he helped a multi-billion dollar company punish ‘the little guy.’ But there’s no argument from him: these bars and restaurants broke the law. And it wasn’t as though the work wasn’t fun. “I got a thrill out of it,” said Tony. “It’s that feeling you get when you’re doing something sneaky, but, you know, it’s really not that bad.”

As far as Tony knows, ‘the program’ is still running, with investigators across the US. So next time you’re at a bar showing the UFC, think to yourself, are they showing this legally? And if not, is there someone here - right now - working undercover for ZUFFA?

*Quoted price for a 200-person-capactiy bar, using DirecTV

UFC News

Ben Askren teases UFC return, ‘would be happy’ to be last fight on Nate Diaz’s contract

MMA News

We will ‘take steps to blur the scene’ - Warrior Spirit director backs off after Montano’s nudity complaints

MMA News

Video 52-year-old actor takes bout in mini-cage, bites opponent, gets DQ’d