Cuban enters Couture tug-of-war

Yahoo Sports

The likely promoter of a potential Randy Couture vs. Fedor Emelianenko match was revealed last week when Mark Cuban's HDNet Fights filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Dallas against Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The suit is an attempt to get a court ruling on when Couture's contract expires and when he can fight for Cuban, who is best known as the billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, or another non-UFC promoter.

The suit comes on the heels of Zuffa’s attempt through the Nevada courts to get an injunction to bar Couture from appearing on rival MMA shows, citing a non-compete clause in Couture's employment contract. Couture’s employment contract is separate from the fighting contract, which is the basis for Cuban’s suit.

"Obviously we're going to address the lawsuit that was filed in Dallas, Texas, in a timely and very direct fashion," said Zuffa attorney Don Campbell. "Our point is that Couture is still obligated to the requirements of the terms of the contract, which are unambiguous."

Cuban’s HDNet, a television station available in only a small percentage of U.S. homes, has heavily focused on building around MMA programming. Cuban previously made headlines by engaging in talks with Floyd Mayweather Jr., the pound-for-pound boxing king, about potential participation in MMA.

A Couture-Emelianenko match would likely have more business potential on pay-per-view than any MMA fight not promoted by the UFC. Not only would it possibly put another promotion on the map as a genuine, significant rival to UFC, something many groups have tried to be but none have really succeeded at, but it would answer probably the most important question regarding the future of the sport:

Is MMA popular, or just the UFC?

UFC has run numerous pay-per-view cards that have drawn from 600,000-1.05 million buys. No non-UFC promotion has ever done more than 75,000 buys.

Emelianenko, in particular, has been a pay-per-view flop in North America as a headliner for Pride and Bodog Fight. The Russian fighter, who was long considered the world’s pound-for-pound best, did an anemic 13,000 buys for his lone 2007 match, against Matt Lindland.

Couture topped 500,000 buys on both of his 2007 UFC matches. A match with Emelianenko will likely show the upper limits of what the best fight possible, without UFC backing, could draw on pay-per-view.

The 44-year old Couture signed a four-fight, 18-month contract, on January 19, 2007, with UFC. This included a $500,000 signing bonus, half of which was paid upon the signing of the contract and the other half upon the completion of the first fight, the March 2 match where he defeated Tim Sylvia to win the UFC heavyweight title in Columbus, Ohio.

Between all monies, which included guarantees and a sliding percentage of pay-per-view revenue, as well as a second employment contract, Couture earned about $3 million in his two fights during 2007, along with some other outside work with the company. This includes money from a secondary contract as a company employee, paying him $200,000 per year, which included a one-year non-compete provision.

On the second contract, it appears both sides agree that when Couture quit the company on Oct. 11, he couldn't work for a rival promotion until that date this year.

But the fight contract is what is under dispute in the lawsuit filed by Cuban's company. Couture is claiming when the 18-month period expires on July 19, the contract is over, although he has done interviews in the past stating he'll honor the non-compete from the employment contract and feels he can fight again in October.

Zuffa is claiming that Couture didn't fulfill his contract, and that he owes them two more fights. There is a specific clause in the contract that stated in the event Couture retired, the 18-month time frame is frozen in that he's still bound to the company to fulfill the time frame if he decides to fight again. Couture has never used the term retirement, but used the term resignation. UFC president Dana White has stated that he believes you can't just resign in the middle of a valid contract, and has publicly offered him title defenses.

Couture is the currently recognized UFC heavyweight champion, although he personally claims he has not been champion since he quit the company. Zuffa has since created an interim heavyweight championship, which Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira won on Feb. 2 in Las Vegas in a match with Sylvia. Immediately after the match, White talked of trying to get Couture back for a match with Nogueira. Couture has been adamant that he is done with UFC unless UFC agrees to do a co-promotion with the M-1 Global promotion, which owns Emelianenko's contract.

White last year attempted to sign Emelianenko, an offer which included a seven-figure signing bonus and $1.5 million per fight, but the Russian's management turned it down, claiming it was too restrictive. Couture then announced he was leaving UFC, citing his goal was to fight Emelianenko to determine who was the top heavyweight in the world. Ironically, Couture felt disrespected by those terms, because Emelianenko's offered UFC guarantee was much higher than his, and Couture helped build the company and was, at the time of his resignation, the company's most popular fighter.

Couture was on Cuban's Inside MMA TV show on HDNet on Friday night, where both the lawsuit filed by HDNet Fights and UFC's attempt to file an injunction against Couture appearing for rival groups were discussed.

He said the fight with Emelianenko was the one the public wants to see and that the sport has to evolve to where the top fighters face each other, regardless of promotional affiliation. He noted that in boxing the rival promotions work together to promote major fights.

Emelianenko, who is 27-1, is generally considered the best heavyweight MMA fighter. Until recently, he was ranked No. 1 pound-for-pound in the Yahoo! Sports rankings, a ranking he would likely have retained if he had fought even one match against top heavyweight competition in 2007.

He was the champion of the Pride organization when it was sold to Zuffa last year, and then subsequently was folded. But to some, his stock as the true king and best fighter has dropped because he hasn't faced a legitimate top contender since an August 28, 2005, match in Japan against Mirko Cro Cop. Cro Cop, who was just dropped from his contract by UFC after consecutive losses to Gabriel Gonzaga and Cheick Kongo, is being talked about in Japan as an opponent for Emelianenko in a proposed summer match.

Zuffa sued Couture and then filed an injunction against him, claiming he has violated the non-compete clause by appearing on rival promotion's television shows to do interviews, in specific shows on Cuban's HDNet.

They also are claiming it's a violation because the International Fight League has a new team for the 2008 season called Team Xtreme Couture, featuring fighters from his Las Vegas gym. Couture's argument is that the gym, which bears his name, is separate from himself, and that he is not the coach of the team.

However, the IFL did put a photo of Couture on its web site, briefly, to promote its Feb. 29 show in Las Vegas where Team Xtreme Couture debuts.

The photo was quickly taken down, but Zuffa lawyers captured a screen image and then filed for an injunction to ban Couture from having anything to do with any rival shows.

The request for an injunction, filed in Las Vegas, stated, "If Couture is permitted to terminate his employment and promptly take his well-known name and likeness during the restricted period to one, or more, of Zuffa's competitors so that it can be used to promote upcoming events in other MMA leagues, the harm to Zuffa's business goodwill cannot be calculated."

It has been common knowledge and never a source of conflict in the past when fighters under contract to one organization corner fighters on different shows. Couture has seconded fighters from his gym on shows all over the world, both during his tenure with Zuffa and since his resignation. He was planning on seconding the fighters from his gym at the IFL show, which the injunction is attempting to prevent.