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Zuffa LLC, the parent company to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting, filed suit against prominent fighter agent Ken Pavia and Bellator Fighting Championships last Wednesday in Clark County District Court in Nevada.
In the complaint, which was first brought to light by Yahoo Sports on Thursday, Zuffa accuses Pavia, Bellator, and other unnamed defendants of conspiring to and misappropriating documents and information it has deemed as “trade secrets” to the rival promotion for its own personal gain in the MMA market. Zuffa’s complaint seeks unspecified damages, as well as injunctive relief preventing all defendants from using said information moving forward.
Zuffa alleges that Pavia passed on “promotional documents, bout agreements, sponsorship forms, extension letters, injury forms, and the like” to Bellator -- all confidential documents Zuffa says Pavia was privy to as a fighter agent.
Pavia’s MMA Agents firm represents around 50 fighters, including UFC staples Anthony Johnson, Martin Kampmann and Chris Lytle, among others, and has over a dozen clients currently contracted by Bellator.
Zuffa’s complaint includes alleged email correspondence dated July 4 between Pavia and Bellator’s founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney, with a courtesy copy to Bellator employee Tim Danaher, in which Rebney stated his intention to modify and utilize the information provided in the documents.
In the email, Rebney thanked Pavia for providing him “…‘ALL’ seminal docs from the UFC so that we can re-do them and implement them for Bellator,” and asked the agent to re-send them with explanations as to how they are used by the UFC.
“Then I’m going to have our team Monday re-type them and we will sufficiently alter them such that they will appear to be ours and not theirs,” continued the email.
Zuffa’s complaint also provides a return text allegedly from Pavia’s cell phone that day under the same “UFC CONFIDENTIAL” subject title, acknowledging the request. That text is courtesy-copied to Danaher, as well as three other individuals, two of which have been identified as employees of Pavia’s MMA Agents firm, according to its Web site.
When asked how his client came into possession of the correspondence, Zuffa attorney Donald Campbell said that he was unable to comment about it at this time.
Pavia forwarded requests for comment to Bellator attorney Patrick English, and though English said he doesn’t represent the agent, the Clifton, N.J.-based litigator -- who’s specialized in combat sports’ contracts for decades -- did confirm that his client received UFC-originated documents from Pavia.
English estimated that five documents had been disseminated by Pavia to Rebney, and included “a check list” instructing the athletes on the color selection of their shorts and other event-week details, a fighter’s termination letter, and one promotional contract.
“The documents in question are non-confidential in nature,” English told Sherdog.com on Monday. English described the documents in question as forms “handed out to 45 or so people at a time” surrounding events.
English, who claimed authorship of Bellator’s original fighter contracts and bout agreements, said none of the UFC documents in question had been utilized “at all” to enhance his client’s versions. English said he was already familiar with and in possession of a copy of the UFC’s fighter agreements, after representing brothers Jim and Dan Miller in their departure from the International Fight League to the promotion in 2008.
“Both Pavia and Bjorn are attorneys,” said English. “When we draft documents, contracts, it’s good to have a glance of other’s contracts. They’re not confidential or privileged.”
English did acknowledge that Rebney’s email to Pavia “cast a poor light” on what he wrote off as standard business practice.
“I know that the caption of the email reflected confidential UFC documents. Unfortunately, the caption should have said ‘confidential -- UFC documents,’” said English. “It was a confidential email.”
However, Zuffa contends that the documents -- particularly the contracts between promoter and fighter such as “promotional and ancillary rights, bout, and merchandising agreements” -- are both confidential and privileged. In its complaint, Zuffa reserves the right to name “Doe” and “Roe” defendants at a later time -- individuals that the promotion accuses of breach of contract for improperly disclosing or allowing their representatives or agents to distribute the documents to third parties. Zuffa states that these actions are in violation of the confidentiality terms within UFC contracts signed by fighters.
As of Monday evening, English said he was awaiting a return call from Zuffa’s lawyers. English said he’d also not yet received a formal motion for injunctive relief.
“In fairness to the UFC, they don’t know what was sent and they reacted to the email,” said English. “I’m happy to go through with (Zuffa’s attorneys) what the specific documents are to allay their concerns.”
Zuffa attorney Campbell told Sherdog.com that UFC President Dana White and Lawrence Epstein, Zuffa’s lead in-house counsel, are taking this matter very seriously and wanted Campbell to quickly pursue in-depth discovery to determine everything that transpired on the defendants' end, and the identity of all the persons involved.
This type of litigation isn’t new for the Las Vegas promotion.
In 2006, Zuffa was denied injunctive relief against former employees Steve Tornabene and Keith Evans, whom the UFC also accused of disseminating “trade secrets” to their new employers, the debuting International Fight League promotion.
New Jersey Judge Valerie Adair deemed that certain documents Zuffa had earmarked as proprietary, including marketing demographics that Zuffa had collected through its own research, didn’t necessarily constitute “trade secrets.”
“We’re not talking about the secret ingredient in Pepsi here,” said Judge Adair.
However, Judge Adair did acknowledge in 2006 that certain documents containing, “any information regarding (fighter) agreements, payments… that might be privileged,” and could potentially lead to an unfair advantage.
“That’s 100 percent correct in terms of poaching,” said English of the 2006 decision. “The form contract is one thing. Individual-identifying information is another. It was never the intent of Bellator to use identifying information to poach any of the UFC fighters or to act inappropriately.”
J.R. Riddell contributed to this report. Riddell, an attorney at the global law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, is experienced in various matters related to the business of MMA. A more detailed background regarding his experience is available through his lawyer profile at www.orrick.com. This article does not provide legal advice, and any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of his law firm. Riddell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: This article was updated at 2:55 a.m. EST to denote that Campbell's comment was punctuated incorrectly and was not a direct quote.