Three former UFC fighters filed a class-action lawsuit against Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the UFC, that claims the company has a monopoly on mixed martial arts and that it restricts fighters' earnings.
Cung Le, Jon Fitch and Nate Quarry filed the federal antitrust suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District in San Jose, California. The suit allows for more fighters to join the plaintiffs. Law firms for the plaintiffs include Joseph Saveri Law Firm, Inc. -- which in April secured a settlement in an antitrust case against Google, Apple, Adobe and Intel -- and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, PLLC, which was involved in a $1.2 billion antitrust case against Dow Chemical Company.
The suit alleges the UFC used its position as "the only game in town" to pay its fighters less than what they would be worth on the competitive market. The suit also claims that fighter likenesses appearing in various UFC video games, action figures, trading cards, fight posters and additional memorabilia were "expropriated" and compensation was "artificially suppressed."
It also alleges that the UFC holds the rights to fighters' names and likenesses in perpetuity, thereby preventing athletes from earning additional money after their UFC contracts expire.
"The UFC is aware of the action filed today but has not been served, nor has it had the opportunity to review the document," Zuffa said in a statement. "The UFC will vigorously defend itself and its business practices."
Discovery could take a year or longer, and a trial may not happen for at least three years, said Benjamin D. Brown, an attorney for the plaintiffs from Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll.
UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta and president Dana White often have compared the UFC to the NFL. The suit references a Forbes article from April 2008 in which Fertitta was quoted as saying "We are like football and the NFL. The sport of mixed martial arts is known by one name: UFC."
The suit differentiates the NFL from the UFC in that the football league has 32 teams competing for a player's services, whereas the UFC has no "league" within to establish competition for services.
"Through a series of anticompetitive, illicit and exclusionary acts, the UFC has illegally acquired, enhanced and maintained dominant positions in the markets" for MMA events and fighters, the lawsuit claims.
Since 2006, Zuffa has purchased several MMA promotions, including World Extreme Cagefighting, World Fighting Alliance, Strikeforce, Pride, EliteXC, International Fight League and Affliction.
"Because of the UFC's coercive practices, competitive market forces have been strangled, future earnings power of the athletes is stripped away, and purses to the fighters are artificially depressed," Le said in a statement.
The suit refers to existing MMA promotions such as Bellator MMA and Titan Fighting Championships as the "minor leagues" of MMA. Bellator is owned by Viacom and airs on Spike TV. Titan FC has a TV deal with CBS Sports Network, and World Series of Fighting, which was not mentioned in the lawsuit, can be seen on NBC Sports Network. One of its fight cards also aired its main-card bouts on NBC Sports.
Le had four fights in the UFC and eight in Strikeforce before it was purchased by Zuffa. Fitch went 14-3-1 in the UFC before he was released in 2013 shortly after a decision loss to Demian Maia on Feb. 2. Quarry, who was a contestant on the first season of the UFC's "The Ultimate Fighter," fought 10 times under the Zuffa banner from April 2005-March 2010.
Le lost his last bout in August against Michael Bisping, tested positive for elevated levels of human growth hormone and was suspended for a year. Two weeks later, Le's suspension was overturned amid testing irregularities with the lab used by the UFC for the fight in Macau, China.
The suit also states that the UFC "forces" its major venues for fight cards to "supply their services to the UFC exclusively."
"UFC's threats are taken seriously by fighters because they know that a UFC ban will substantially diminish, if not end, their ability to earn a living at their chosen profession," said plaintiffs' attorney Joseph Saveri of Saveri Law Firm, Inc., in a statement. "These MMA professionals deserve the right to take back their careers."