End of an Era: Fighter-Manager Handshake Deals Die as MMA Grows

Handshake Deals

By Mike Harris Jan 13, 2009
Widely regarded as the dean of MMA managers, Monte Cox has always relied on handshake deals with his fighters.

That just might change in the near future.

As MMA continues to grow, so does the money in the sport, attracting a new breed of fighter representatives -- agents, as opposed to managers -- from outside the game. These agents attempt to jump on the MMA gravy train, Cox and others contend, by poaching fighters from their existing managers with inflated promises of bigger paydays.

Cox, a 13-year MMA veteran who boasts the biggest stable of name fighters in the game, of late has lost a couple of those handshake clients to other managers or agents.

And thus, he said he is seriously considering switching to written contracts.

“It’s becoming more of a business than a sport,” said the Bettendorf, Iowa-based Cox, whose 60 some fighters include Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, Rich Franklin, Jens Pulver and Robbie Lawler.

“I’m an odd character in that I don’t do contracts,” he said. “For 13 years, I’ve gone on a handshake. But now, it’s become a little different in that you take somebody that you’ve developed and you’ve built and they’re making a lot of money and then they jump to somebody else. And it leaves you holding the bag.

“So now I’m definitely thinking about going with written contracts,” said Cox, who is also a veteran promoter with Extreme Challenge, which he owns, and other promotions.

While Cox does not believe that the few fighters he lost, most notably Roger Huerta, were actually poached, he said he hears poaching horror stories from smaller managers all the time.

“All the smaller guys tell me how bad it is,” he said.

Chad Bergmeier, based in Waterloo, Iowa, is one of them. Like Cox, he too has lost some fighters, including Kevin Burns, with whom he had handshake deals. Bergmeier said he also is going to start instituting written contracts with his fighters.

“It’s so strange,” said Bergmeier, who manages about 30 fighters -- including Rob Kimmons, Ryan Thomas and Travis Fulton -- though none with quite the star power of Cox’s A-listers. “I’ve been involved in this sport for about 11 years now and it definitely has changed a lot, gotten bigger. And naturally, as that happens, you do have more of the poacher-type people showing up.”

Another smaller fighter rep is Mike Camp of F1 Management in Akron, Ohio, whose biggest name client is Dave Herman.

“I’d like to do all my business with a handshake,” Camp said. “But in this climate, you just can’t do that. The sport has changed where you gotta be more guarded with your clients.

“Now you have guys out there who I call ambulance chasers. They don’t know what it’s like to drive a guy 10-12 hours to fight for $300, $400 bucks. There’s something to be said for paying your dues.”

None of the people interviewed for this article were willing to identify any of the purported poachers by name on the record.

“Years ago, it was a bunch of managers,” said Cox. “Now it’s a bunch of agents. I just think that as our sport grows and as the money becomes better, you’re gonna get more of the bad element in it.

“And you got to watch your back,” he added. “When I first got into mixed martial arts, it was really refreshing that this was such a new sport. There wasn’t a lot of money so everyone was really into it for the sport. But these agents simply see a commodity that they can make money off of. For them, it’s strictly business.”
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