- THE INSIDE SCOOP ON COUTURE’S UFC RETURN

September 5, 2008
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by Tom Hamlin – MMAWeekly.com
12:57 p.m. – September 2nd, 2008: Randy Couture makes a new three-fight deal that will keep him in the UFC for three more fights, starting with Brock Lesnar on Nov. 15 at UFC 91. The legal battle between Couture and Zuffa, LLC is finished. The dark clouds hanging over his head have disappeared. Now, he can do what he loves best… fight.

Up until 12:56, however, there wasn’t a final deal. Couture and his lawyers still had objections to the proposed UFC contract. A teleconference of hungry journalists was pushed back an hour. Within the last few minutes before the actual beginning of the press conference, Couture remained outside the UFC offices (he had gone out to take a walk and to talk more freely with his lawyers). A series of phone calls between Couture’s and the UFC’s lawyers played out. The UFC, eager to get their star back into the fold, and Couture, eager to get back into the Octagon, collectively resolved the remaining sticking points, and the deal was done.

As he later stated on the press call, “There were some compromises made on both sides.”

MMAWeekly.com spoke to several sources that told portions of the story of how Couture’s new UFC deal came to be and what those compromises may have been. The parties closest to the matter remain pretty tight-lipped. When contacted for comment, Couture’s lawyers, Samuel Spira and Christopher Rudd at Venable LLP, merely confirmed the settlement and stated that they were confident that going forward the parties would have a much more productive relationship.

In one of the biggest turnaround stories in UFC history, “The Natural” went from pariah to champion in a little over three weeks.

A Texas court set the wheels of negotiation in motion. Lawyers for Mark Cuban’s HDNet Fights filed suit against the UFC in February, asking for a declaratory ruling on Couture’s UFC contract. After an initial ruling in May allowing a summary judgment hearing to be put on calendar, lawyers for Zuffa succeeded in obtaining a temporary stay on the ruling. Then, on Aug. 1, Zuffa was granted a permanent stay, which effectively shelved the Texas suit until arbitration proceedings in Nevada – a requirement of Couture’s contract – were complete.

As weeks passed following the ruling, Couture realized that he had two options. He could continue to fight in court – his lawyers had already readied for a new offensive against Zuffa after the stay was granted – and hope to be free for an upcoming fight. Or, he could fight in the Octagon, resolve his misgivings about the UFC, and pursue a fight with Emelianenko from inside the organization.

But before he did all that, he needed to try to encourage the UFC to communicate with Emelianenko’s representatives.

UFC president Dana White had negotiated with Emelianenko’s management shortly after the UFC’s purchase of the Pride Fighting Championships in March of 2007, and had quickly reached an impasse over concessions they wanted for signing the Russian to the UFC.

Instead of taking the front door approach, Couture’s lawyers arranged a full day of meetings and photo shoots with Emelianenko and his management team on Aug. 11 in Los Angeles. The day ended with a large dinner for the group at the trendy STK Steakhouse in West Hollywood, hosted by Couture and his lawyers. The meetings were well documented by the media; in a press luncheon the next day, Emelianenko said the parties had met to discuss “mutual business interests.”

By the end of that week, text messages were flying between Couture and Dana White and the UFC was communicating with Emelianenko’s representatives, but this time, it was his American representatives at Blue Entertainment Sports Television, the firm tasked with branding Fedor in the U.S.

In the middle of all of this, an unlikely angel appeared to assist Couture. Despite seemingly working against his own interest, Mark Cuban provided advice and counsel to Couture in an attempt to bridge the gap between the parties. Affliction wanted to loan out Emelianenko for one fight, an idea that was not quite what the UFC had in mind.

Communications between Emelianenko’s American representatives and the UFC are ongoing. White said he is unwilling to “co-promote” a fight with Emelianenko’s managers – one of the concessions that halted the original negotiations – but still wanted to sign the Russian. “We’re going to offer him a fair deal,” he said. Now, White believes the obstacle is Emelianenko’s contract, which binds him to Affliction for two more fights.

“Fedor’s under contract with somebody else right now,” he continued. “Everybody knows how hard we are (in) protecting our contracts, so that’s another obstacle in this whole deal. We would never interfere with someone else’s contract.”

White’s assertion is incorrect, though. Emelianenko’s Affliction contract contains a clause that allows him to fight for another promotion during the term of his contract. In addition to that, his Affliction deal is exclusive only to the U.S. Even if the UFC decides not to provoke any more legal issues by attempting to utilize that clause, they could promote an Emelianenko/Couture fight in the U.K.

Speculation that Couture would get a fight with Emelianenko after the Lesnar fight, sometime in early 2009, continues to mount, although White has said that the winner of the Couture/Lesnar bout would face the winner of Nogueira/Mir.

After the final details was agreed to, at 1:05 p.m., White and Couture sat in the Zuffa offices, ready to tell their story to the World. There was a lot more to it than they revealed, but in the end, it was as much a win-win situation as possible. Couture could go back to shattering expectations of what’s possible for athletes in their mid-forties, and White could promote what he expects to be the biggest pay-per-view in the company’s 15-year history.

“I think we’ve cleared the air,” Couture said. “We’ve addressed a lot of those issues, we’re both in a different place and both the company and myself are trying to move forward.”

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