Money Matters

By Josh Gross Oct 27, 2007
From the moment Randy Couture (Pictures) tendered a faxed letter of resignation to the offices of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, both sides have waged a war of words more notable for parsing than vitriol.

With the "resigned" vs. "retired" debate cleared up for anyone willing to listen, a new argument has arisen in the wake of Couture's news conference Thursday at his gym in Las Vegas.

Among the litany of issues the lame duck heavyweight spoke on during his first extended session with media since his UFC departure, money, whether the 44-year-old Couture liked it or not, remains at the forefront.

Walking a linguistic tightrope, the for-now UFC champion attempted to convey that from his perspective the decision to return the belt and shed all affiliations with the sport's dominant organization was not simply a matter of how many zeros were on his paychecks.

Yet those zeros appear to be a significant component in his definition of "respect," which Couture says is at the crux of his problem with UFC management.

"I don't think anybody is going to feel sorry for me making the kind of money I've made in this sport," Couture said. "I've made more money in this sport than I've ever made doing anything else, so I'm not bitching. But how do you show an athlete that you respect his marketability and what he brings to the table, in the NFL or any other sport? By what you pay him. That's the bottom line."

That contradiction, while muddling Couture's motivations for stepping down as the UFC's grandest champion, has helped shine a bright light on how and how much the UFC pays its mixed martial artists.

Couture expressed his discontent six weeks ago over breakfast with the company's owner, Lorenzo Fertitta, and president, Dana White.

"It wasn't like I was sitting at that breakfast when I had my letter of resignation, saying, ‘I want to renegotiate my contract, you f------- guys aren't paying me enough,'" Couture told Friday. "I never asked for more money. I'm not asking for more money now. It's a prevailing feeling of being disrespected and not appreciated for what I've done and brought to this."

Couture said he told Fertitta and White he felt "overlooked." He expressed his disappointment in not being able to fight Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures), the consensus No. 1 heavyweight in the sport. And he asked why an "off the books" bonus wasn't offered following a three-round war against Gabriel Gonzaga (Pictures) during which Couture had his arm broken blocking a high kick.

Such bonuses are a regular UFC practice to disperse non-guaranteed money to fighters at the promotion's discretion. Though "off the books" implies tax free, Couture clarified that the bonuses are declared money.

So instrumental are these bonuses, which have been as high as $1 million, that after Sean Sherk (Pictures) and Hermes Franca (Pictures) tested positive for steroids in July, White said future bonuses would be withheld until drug results were received; any fighter positive for drugs would forfeit his right to one.

"For some of the athletes it's standard practice," said Couture, who revealed he was given a $500,000 bonus for the third Liddell contest in February 2006 as well as for the Sylvia fight in March of this year. "You come to expect that. A lot of the marquee guys that are selling pay-per-views and putting butts in the seats get those bonus checks. Certainly we're happy to get the extra money, but it's at their discretion. … It makes a big difference in my pay."

Last month in Anaheim, Calif., Couture followed up on his first meeting with White and Fertitta.

"I had my letter of resignation at that meeting face to face," he said. "I could have tendered it right there, but I wanted to give them the opportunity to respond to the things that I stated as issues for me. I got no response. And so I tendered my letter of resignation after that, two and a half weeks later."

Concerned about airing his financial laundry in public, Couture remained mostly silent while he was in South Africa filming his seventh motion picture. That changed Thursday.

Seated at a desk positioned in the center of a boxing ring inside his spacious Xtreme Couture training facility, Couture recalled having asked White and Fertitta for a "signing bonus" on the contract that would save him from retirement and eventually return the only multi-divisional champion in UFC history back to king status.

Couture said he was told by the UFC* "No, we can't give you a signing bonus."

"I didn't understand why I wasn't really worthy of one, but it didn't really matter," Couture said. "What ultimately I wanted to do was fight, so I accepted the contract then. Moved on. Fought."

Thursday evening, Kevin Iole of Yahoo! Sports published a report that included a statement from White that challenged Couture's assertion he was denied a signing bonus.

"Randy Couture (Pictures) said he didn't receive a signing bonus, but not only did he receive a signing bonus, he cashed the check on Jan. 30," the UFC president told Iole. "I'm holding it in my hand right now. The check was dated Jan. 15 and he cashed it on Jan. 30."

Contacted Friday to clarify his comments, Couture told that the check White referred to was $250,000 he had cashed at the signing of the deal, though he explained it was an advance on a $500,000 post-fight "off the book" bonus that, according to him, the UFC had promised.

"I'm giving you the same shower room ‘off the book' bonus that I gave you after the Chuck fight, which was the same amount. I'll give you half of that money up front and the other half after the fight," Couture said Fertitta* told him during negotiations.

"I remember clearly the conversation with Lorenzo (Fertitta) about the signing bonus and all that," Couture said. "If they've gone ahead and somehow made that a signing bonus then I guess, technically, I misspoke myself. But I'm not sure if that's the case. I only know what I discussed with Lorenzo and what I know the facts were as far as I know."

The UFC declined to comment to whether the money paid to Couture was part of a guaranteed signing bonus or an advance on a promised post-fight check, leaving both parties playing a deteriorating game of semantics.

All told, Couture stated the Sylvia fight produced 520,000 pay-per-view subscriptions, resulting in roughly $892,500 in additional monies for the popular veteran. Combined with his guaranteed purse and the split $500,000 bonus, Couture made -- based on numbers from an unsigned bout agreement he released in an attempt to refute a Yahoo! Sports' report that listed his four-fight contract paying him in the range of $13-15 million** -- upward of $1.6 million for his UFC championship-winning performance in Columbus, Ohio.

Pay-per-view numbers for the Gonzaga fight, which followed the same pay structure as the Sylvia contest -- $1 for every pay-per-view between 100,000-175,000; $1.50 from 175,000-300,000; $2 from 300,000-330,000; and $3 from 330,000 buys and up -- have not been released, but Couture placed estimates in the Sylvia range. To verify the numbers, he enacted an audit but has yet to find someone qualified to oversee the operation.

Money? Respect? Competition? There appear to be no clear answers in this fight.

"This is the last statement I'm going to make," Couture told "Those guys know the truth. Dana knows in his heart of hearts what's gone on. I'm not gonna sit and debate every time they want to spin something their way. It's not about money. They could offer me $5 million -- I'm gone. I know how I feel. I know what's what. I'm tired of it."

* attributed the quote to UFC president Dana White based on a statement from Couture. Couture clarified that UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta informed him there would be no signing bonus.

** incorrectly attributed a per-fight purse figure of $3.25-3.75 million to the Yahoo! Sports' report. Yahoo! published a report saying Couture would be paid $13-15 million over the course of his four-fight deal.
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