Petty Cash

By Jake Rossen Oct 15, 2007
Does Sean Gregory know something Dana White doesn't?

In a July profile of the rapid ascension of mixed martial arts to the top of pop culture, the Time magazine journalist pegged the Ultimate Fighting Championship's worth at north of $1 billion.

It's little wonder. Live events routinely break revenue and attendance records. Twelve UFC pay-per-view events in 2007 could -- assuming an average buy rate of 500,000 and a 50-percent stake after the cable companies take their cut -- be counted on for more than $100 million in gross revenue. White himself has bragged of living in a Las Vegas mansion worth millions and owning a fleet of cars.

None of this is meant to incriminate White, who is reaping the benefits of long hours and impassioned speeches to dubious investors. These primitive financial records become alarming only when you consider that Randy Couture (Pictures) -- aged 44, making a successful defense of the most prestigious title in the combat sports, defeating a man 15 years his junior with a broken arm -- netted $250,000 plus a portion of pay-per-view proceeds for what appears to be his last fight with the UFC.

Two hundred fifty thousand dollars. After taxes, Couture may have wound up earning less for the most stellar sports performance of the year than Floyd Mayweather made in one tenth of one round in his stolid victory over Oscar De La Hoya in May.

To mangle a quote from "The Outer Limits": Something is very wrong with my television set.

One can imagine White's retort to this skewed profiteering: We took the risk, pal. We sunk multi-millions into this thing when it was the sports equivalent of an STD. Couture didn't pour $44 mil into it.

All true.

And besides all that, Couture is the one who agreed to the deal. If he didn't like it, he shouldn't have signed it.

Can't argue that.

So what's the problem?

The problem is simple. Common sense reigns over the fine print of a contract. While Couture may not have been legally entitled to a bonus, it's his narrative (old guy kicks ass long past his expected expiration date) that's stirred the public consciousness and provided an emotional outlet for fans rocked by the sudden atrophy of Chuck Liddell (Pictures).

In his resignation from the UFC, Couture reminded fans that he wasn't simply an athlete but a goodwill ambassador for the UFC, an instant antidote to foaming pundits who bemoaned the sport as barbaric. In an industry full of tattooed, trash-talking clones, he stood out as a gentleman with a solid work ethic who defied convention.

And it's impossible to argue he doesn't deserve to be rewarded for it.

I can conceive of no premise where the UFC's bottom-line situation is so dire that they cannot provide financial security for one of their all-time greats, or a contract so emotionlessly abstract that White and his lawyers can't see that goodwill extends far past legalese.

Pay should be commensurate with performance. When James Gandolfini signed on for "The Sopranos" in 1999, he was paid a salary that was in line with a debuting HBO show with a shaky future and a premise that had just been played for laughs in "Analyze This." Several years later, the show was a phenomenon and Gandolfini had won an Emmy. He was, in short, not the same actor hired in 1999 -- yet HBO insisted on paying him as though he were, brandishing an antique contract as though it superceded logical thinking.

This is yellow management, the kind of literal, tweedy insistence that you find in the outbox of Ebenezer Scrooge. The Couture who agreed to terms in early 2007 was not yet a defending heavyweight champion, had not yet recaptured the public's imagination. After his umpteenth career evolution, the man deserved renegotiation, not a hard-line tact that huffs at amendments.

Couture's departure from the promotion has sent a strong message to others looking to crawl their way out of preliminary bouts: Sweat and bleed for the company all you like, but don't expect to be rewarded when you get to the top. Ounce for ounce, the Red Cross might be paying more for blood donations than the Ultimate.

(Grasping my devil's advocate pitchfork, I'd argue that Couture received benefits that may not have tangible value but will undoubtedly pay off for him in the long run. As a UFC personality, he's been granted sponsorships, endorsement deals and film/television roles. It's highly unlikely any of this would have been presented if not for his fight career. Gravy, but hardly a main course.)

In responding to Couture's faxed notice, White said he hoped the two would remain "friends." It's the ugliest, most unnecessary word in fight vernacular.

White, like any businessman not suffering from severe head trauma, wants to produce maximum profits with minimum expenditures; Couture wants to suck every last dollar out of Zuffa that he can. Two men with such disparate goals have no business being "friends."

I lament Couture's decision for purely selfish reasons. Sitting out for nine months could be topped with courtroom wrangling as both sides try to figure out what the other can or cannot do. That's a near-eternity for those looking for closure in the heavyweight division.

White, who is fond of marketing the UFC's brand over all, will plow on, convinced that the logo is the biggest star on his roster.

In September word leaked of an advertising deal with marketing firm R&R Partners that would bleed coffers to the tune of $20 million.

The goal? To make UFC as ubiquitous with MMA as Kleenex is to facial tissue, with athletes just as disposable.

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