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Fighters make final pitch to take UFC anti-trust lawsuit to trial

Plaintiffs in the UFC anti-trust lawsuit offered a last ditch rebuttal to the UFC’s call for the case to be thrown out.

A group of former UFC fighters, which includes Jon Fitch, Cung Le, and Kyle Kingsbury, submitted a final written argument to Las Vegas federal court’s Judge Richard Boulware on Friday in an attempt to force their class action anti-trust lawsuit against the UFC to a trial. That lawsuit argues that the UFC is guilty of monopolization and monopsonization of the MMA industry.

The letter is a response to the UFC’s recent motion for summary judgement. That filing from the UFC argued that no reasonable jury would ever rule in favour of the former fighters and that the lawsuit should be thrown out as a result.

The class-action lawsuit was originally filed in December 2014 by Fitch, Le, and Nate Quarry. The lawsuit argued that the UFC has an “overarching anticompetitive scheme to maintain and enhance its (a) monopoly power in the market for promotion of live Elite Professional mixed martial arts bouts, and (b) monopsony power in the market for live Elite Professional MMA Fighter services.”

The lawsuit further alleged that the UFC, “engaged in an illegal scheme to eliminate competition from would-be rival MMA Promoters by systematically preventing them from gaining access to resources critical to successful MMA Promotions, including by imposing extreme restrictions on UFC Fighters’ ability to fight for would-be rivals during and after their tenure with the UFC.”

Paul Gift of Forbes, who also writes for Bloody Elbow and co-hosts the Show Money podcast, revealed the following section of the plaintiffs’ letter to the court:

The record shows: (1) [UFC] had monopoly and monopsony power as the dominant MMA promoter—that is, [UFC] was the only promoter that could sell “major league” live MMA events broadcast in North America and the only promoter that could hire MMA fighters to compete in “major league” MMA events; (2) [UFC] willfully acquired and maintained monopoly and monopsony power through exclusionary conduct, including locking Fighters into long-term, exclusive contracts, coercing Fighters to enter and extend those Exclusive Contracts, and acquiring other MMA promoters that threatened the UFC’s dominance; and (3) [UFC] used its monopsony power to suppress the compensation it paid its Fighters below competitive levels (and its monopoly power to decrease the supply and inflate the prices of MMA events ).

Gift writes that both parties, and legal watchers, are “finally getting to the meat-and-potatoes of this case: Did the UFC maintain and enhance its economic power and put rival MMA promoters at a significant competitive disadvantage through its use of long-term, exclusive fighter contracts?”

According to Gift, the letter and the UFC’s statement before it, represent the demise of what he called the plaintiffs’ ‘weaker claim’ of the UFC preventing rivals from accessing sponsors, TV networks, and venues.

The public version of the plaintiff’s filing is heavily redacted. Noting this, Gift writes that it’s extremely hard to determine the fighters’ exact grounds for moving the lawsuit to a trial.

The filing is chock full of financial details, deposition quotes, text messages and e-mails, virtually all of which were redacted, leaving readers with a small taste of many of the plaintiffs’ arguments, but nowhere near a precise understanding. For example, in referencing the UFC’s 2014 match of restricted free agent Gilbert Melendez’s contract offer from Bellator, plaintiffs write, “[UFC’s] executives acknowledge the importance of blocking other promoters’ access to top Fighters to maintaining its dominance. In February 2014, for example, after Lorenzo Fertitta exercised a provision of [UFC’s] Exclusive Contracts to prevent top Fighter Gilbert Melendez from defecting to Bellator, Fertitta wrote to Dana White: ‘[Redacted]’.”

Judge Boulware, who is not encumbered by any redactions, must now consider the points laid out by the plaintiffs’ letter alongside the UFC’s request for a summary judgement. If he rules in favour of the UFC, he will dismiss the case. If he rules in favour of the fighters, a trial will likely be set for sometime next year.

For deeper analysis of the anti-trust lawsuit stay tuned to Gift’s column on Forbes.com. Background on this case — and many other legal/economic stories involving combat sports — can be found by watching Show Money featuring Gift, Bloody Elbow’s John Nash, and MMA Payout’s Jason Cruz.

The most recent episode of Show Money (below) from August 7th, details the anti-trust suit, DAZN’s deal with Bellator, and what the return of Conor McGregor means for the economics of the UFC.