UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre ()
James Quinn, a veteran Weil, Gotshal & Manges litigator and longtime legal advocate for professional athletes, is representing a group of Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters forming a trade association in order to negotiate better terms with management of the top mixed martial arts promotion company. UFC, which sees participants face off inside an octagon-shaped ring, was sold in a $4 billion deal last summer.
Last week one of Quinn’s clients, three-time UFC welterweight champion Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, spoke on a conference call with four other fighters and Bjorn Rebney, a California lawyer and former top executive at UFC rival Bellator, in which they described their plans to create the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA). The organization, which will initially operate as a trade association, said in a statement that it will fight for the rights of MMA fighters and force UFC’s ownership to “dramatically alter the company’s decade plus outrageous treatment of its athletes.”
In a phone conversation Tuesday, Quinn said he began representing UFC fighters more than a year ago. His role for St-Pierre, who retired in 2013, emerged in October when the Canadian mixed martial arts (MMA) star sought to make a comeback but under new contractual terms with UFC. After months of failed negotiations on a new fight deal, Quinn likened UFC’s contractual restrictions to “something out of the 1940s” and terminated his client’s old contract with the Las Vegas-based company. That led St-Pierre to publicly call himself a “free agent,” although UFC vehemently disagreed with that assessment.
Quinn, who is working with Weil litigation partner Eric Hochstadt in advising the MMAAA, is no stranger to combat sports and high-stakes litigation. Over the years his other sporting clients have included the National Basketball Players Association, the National Football League Players Association and the National Hockey League Players’ Association. Quinn also advised NBA and NFL players in antitrust cases against their respective leagues that helped them gain free agency.
The formation of the MMAAA, Quinn said, should give fighters “significant mass” and more “clout” in their negotiations with the UFC. The new body is seeking several concessions from the company and its new owners, such as an out-of-court financial settlement for current and former fighters, a 50 percent share of company revenue for fighters and health care and retirement benefits. (UFC fighters are currently considered independent contractors, not employees, which has led some fighters to criticize the company.)
The MMAAA, however, will not initially be organized as a labor union, instead choosing to become a trade association. Quinn noted that while his clients want a collective bargaining agreement with UFC, the process of forming a union would likely trigger a prolonged legal fight with the company, likely delaying the changes his clients are currently seeking. UFC and its lawyers from Boies Schiller & Flexner are already battling an antitrust suit filed by former fighters in December 2014. The MMAAA sees a potential carrot for the UFC in dealing with the new trade association. Quinn noted that if the UFC hopes to get an antitrust exemption from being declared an illegal monopoly, those exceptions are only granted to entities that deal with certified unions.
In July, eight Am Law 100 firms landed roles on the $4 billion sale of UFC to a consortium led by Los Angeles-based talent agency William Morris Endeavor Entertainment LLC and private equity firms Silver Lake Partners LP, KKR & Co. LP, MSD Capital LP and MSD Partners LP. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer advised the latter two entities, which are controlled by personal computer magnate Michael Dell, while Kirkland & Ellis, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison counseled KKR, Silver Lake and WME, respectively.
Weil’s Quinn said he has yet to hear from any lawyers representing the UFC, which turned to Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Dickinson Wright and Davis Polk & Wardwell to advise on its sale to the WME-led group. Thomas McGuire Jr., head of business affairs and general counsel at WME, did not return a request for comment about Quinn’s work organizing UFC fighters. Nor did UFC general counsel Ike Lawrence Epstein, a former partner at Am Law 200 firm Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie. The company said last week that it respects its athletes’ efforts to improve the sport of MMA but declined to comment about the formation of the MMAAA.
Records on file with the U.S. Senate show that UFC has paid $240,000 through the first three quarters of this year to Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which is advising the company on the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act, a bill before Congress that seeks to expand a previous law named after the late boxer. The legislation, proposed earlier this year, would give MMA fighters access to protections enjoyed by boxers and create more transparency in the fight promotion process, such as making public the compensation agreements for certain bouts and establishing an independent ranking and title system.
UFC has opposed expanding the legislation, with Epstein telling ESPN.com last summer that “we continue to believe the federal government would have no productive role in regulating MMA promotions or competitions.” At the time, Epstein also noted that states already have a regulatory role for UFC fights by making sure that fighters are compensated and treated fairly. In recent months the UFC has increased the number of lobbyists on its payroll. On Tuesday, a leading MMA website reported that the company and its advisers had sought to prevent retired UFC star Randy Couture from speaking to a U.S. House of Representatives committee about expanding the Ali Act.
The fight over the Ali Act has been called a battle over UFC’s future, one that could now include a looming labor battle with the MMAAA. Weil’s Quinn and the new organization have some competition in their bid to represent UFC fighters. The Professional Fighters Association (PFA) announced its formation in August, although that organization’s bid to represent UFC athletes and other MMA fighters has recently seen some turnover in its executive ranks.
Lucas Middlebrook, a lawyer known for representing MMA fighters who works for White Plains, New York-based Seham, Seham, Meltz & Petersen, confirmed via email Tuesday his resignation as general counsel for the PFA. Middlebrook said that he has not yet had any contact with the MMAAA.