Is there a greater duty to protect MMA fighters against harm from doping fighters? Mark Hunt v UFC

Published 26 July 2017 By: Saurabh Mishra, Udit Misra

Fighter wrapping red bandage

The consequences of doping arguably hold greater significance in combat sports, where competitors are paid to inflict direct damage upon each other.  Not only is there an elevated risk of serious physical (and mental) injury, but mandatory medical suspensions due to injuries also limit a competitor’s ability to compete and thus earn a living.

It is within this context that Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter, Mark Hunt (a competitotor from New Zealand who regularly competes in the UFC’s heavyweight division) has filed a US law suit against one of his prior competitors, Brock Lesnar, and the UFC. 

This article examines the facts and accusations of Hunt’s complaint.  Specifically, it looks at:

  • Facts and causes of action;

  • The allegations of:
    • racketeering
    • fraud
    • battery
    • breach of contract
    • unjust enrichment

  • Hunt’s previous experiences fighting doping competitors

  • Comment and potential effects of the case for the UFC and MMA

 

Facts and causes of action

  • The suit was filed in the aftermath of Hunt’s bout against Brock Lesnar at the UFC 200 pay-per-view event in July 2016[1].

  • The event itself was commercially successful as both Hunt’s and Lesnar’s being popular figures in the sport.

  • Lesnar, a former UFC heavyweight champion, was returning to MMA[2] after previously having retired in 2011[3] following a severe case of diverticulitis.

  • Since his retirement, Lesnar had remained active as an extremely popular superstar with the World Wrestling Entertainment, a globally successful pro-wrestling brand.

  • Lesnar’s reported payout of $2.5 Million at UFC 200 remains one of the highest purses earned by any competitor within the UFC[4].

  • Shortly after the event, the UFC was acquired by WME IMG for a reported $4.2 Billion, which is the largest sports-franchise sale in history[5].

The fight between Hunt and Lesnar was scheduled for three five-minute rounds, at the end of which Lesnar was declared the winner by unanimous decision[6]. The decision however was later overturned and declared a “no-contest”, when it was revealed that Lesnar had tested positive for banned substances clomiphene and its metabolite,  4-hydroxyclomiphene[7]. In addition to a one-year ban, the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) imposed a $250,000 fine on Lesnar after samples collected both in and out of competition confirmed the presence of the anti-estrogenic agents.[8] [9]

However, the NAC’s punishment has not stopping Hunt filing his own law suit Lesnar and the UFC.  In an extensively detailed complaint[10] filed with a District Court in Nevada, he makes accusations of: [11]

  1. Racketeering

  2. Breach of contract

  3. Fraud and battery

  4. Unjust enrichment

Hunt’s claim is primarily for compensatory and statutory damages, but he has also requested punitive damages of an amount “sufficient to deter illegal doping in the sport of mixed martial arts[12]”.

In June 2017, the lawsuit survived a motion for dismissal filed by Lesnar and the UFC[13], after which Hunt was granted leave to file an amended complaint. A subsequent motion, filed by the Defendants, to dismiss the amended complaint was opposed by Hunt earlier this month (July 2017)[14]. Therein, Hunt and his attorneys have supplemented their attempts to adequately establish the above causes of actions against the Defendants (with the primary objective being to secure the opportunity to conduct discovery – the process in litigation in which the parties are entitled to know of all documents relevent to the case that the opposing party holds, and to request copies of documents that aren’t subject to privilege)[15].

The following sections discuss what the authors’ regard as the key points of Hunt’s complaint, with emphasis on the physical welfare of athletes in combat sports, and the respnsibiltities of an organisers and promotors to safeguard fighters, in relation to performance enhancing drugs.

 

Alleged RICO violation (Against UFC, DANA White and Lesnar)

Alleged collusion between Lesnar and the UFC

Hunt has sought to implicate the UFC and its officials due to their purported failure to protect a contracted performer’s interests.

According to Hunt,

...UFC conspired and caused Lesnar, a doping fighter, to fight Hunt, a clean fighter, despite the fact that Lesnar used substances banned by UFC, USADA and WADA…Hunt lost the UFC 200 bout to Lesnar and suffered severe physical injury, as well as economic and non-economic damages...[16]

Prior to their fight, UFC 200 was in danger of becoming an underwhelming event owing to high-profile absentees. Conor McGregor, due to fight Nate Diaz after his surprise loss at UFC 196, was removed from the card after refusing to fulfil his marketing obligations for the event[17]. Additionally, the light heavyweight championship bout between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier was cancelled due to a doping violation by Jones, similar to that of Lesnar[18].

As a result, Lesnar’s return against Mark Hunt was moved up to the co-main event slot[19]. Given that the event was held at a time when the UFC’s acquisition was in its final stages, it is Hunt’s allegation that the organization concealed facts and manipulated circumstances in order to protect the brand, to the sole detriment of Hunt:

…UFC President, White, was a nine (9) percent owner of UFC prior to its sale to new ownership for approximately $4,200,000,000.00. White will remain as president of UFC and will retain a partial ownership interest. White had a strong monetary motive (of approximately $360,000,000.00) to ensure the “success” of the landmark UFC 200 event, which occurred immediately prior to finalizing the sale of UFC…[20]

Testing period waived for Lesnar

The UFC have an anti-doping policy[21] that is modeled on the World Anti-Doping Code. The policy includes a specific provision for athletes who wish to compete again in the UFC after previously having tendered a notice of retirement:

An Athlete who gives notice of retirement to UFC, or has otherwise ceased to have a contractual relationship with UFC due to Athlete-Initiated Inactivity, may not resume competing in UFC Bouts until he/she has given UFC written notice of his/her intent to resume competing and has made him/herself available for Testing for a period of six months before returning to competition. UFC may grant an exemption to the six-month written notice rule in exceptional circumstances or where the strict application of that rule would be manifestly unfair to an Athlete.[22] (Article 5.7.3)

At the time of UFC 200, the stipulated testing period under Article 5.7.3 was four months (but has latterly been increased to six months by way of an amendment[23]). Notably however, UFC still has discretion to waive this requirement under exceptional circumstances. By way of such waiver, Brock Lesnar did not have to make himself available for the testing period prior to his fight against Hunt[24], who claims that a “one-off” arrangement was put in place by the UFC to make sure that Lesnar wouldn’t be disqualified from competing beforehand.

UFC wrongfully abused its discretion to grant Lesnar’s drug testing exemption via USADA, as all Defendants had actual knowledge of Lesnar’s participation in UFC 200 more than four months prior to the event… UFC, White and Lesnar conspired and caused Lesnar to evade USADA drug testing with actual knowledge or reckless disregard of Lesnar’s use of prohibited substances…[25]

Hunt alleges that despite having knowledge, all parties conspired to cause him harm which could have been avoided had facts not been concealed[26].

According to Hunt’s counsel, conduct as was exhibited in this instance is routinely resorted to in order to pit a “clean” fighter against a doping fighter, to the monetary benefit of the UFC as well as the doping fighter[27].  

…promoters, including UFC, wrongfully obtain the benefit of bouts featuring steroid-enhanced fighters that are bigger, faster, and stronger, notwithstanding any unfair competitive disadvantage to clean fighters. Permitting doping fighters to participate in bouts preserves the high name recognition and celebrity of many known doping fighters to wrongfully maximize fight attendance and pay-per-view subscriptions. Improper drug testing exemptions and failure to fully enforce doping penalties further wrongfully benefits promoters, including UFC, by minimizing doping fighter suspensions to preserve their availability to compete and profit from future fight cards, including UFC bouts.” (Paragraph 133)

As such, Hunt claims that the Defendants were engaging in activites that constitute racketeering under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) Act.[28]

Hunt has claimed that the Defendants, along with numerous other parties, have been operating as an “Enterprise” within the meaning of Section 1961 (4) of the RICO Act[29], in order to carry out the aforementioned activity. The Activity itself has been made out to be racketeering activity as per Section 1961(1) of the RICO Act[30].

To do this, Hunt has relied on Section 1343 of the RICO Act, which relates to Wire Fraud:

Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both…”.[31]

Hunt has claimed that the Defendants, all the while communicating through wire and radio communications, furthered their “scheme to acquire money and fighter labor and services by fraud and false pretenses”. Further, Hunt has relied on multiple instances of doping within the UFC[32] to demonstrate the presence of a ‘pattern’ of racketeering activity, under Section 1961 (5).[33]

In addition to Federal RICO violations, Hunt states that the Defendants were in violation of Section 207.360 of the Nevada Revised Statutes. The provision in concern lists the crimes related to racketeering in the state of Nevada. Out of the violations listed under Section 207.360, Hunt has alleged the commission of and/or a conspiracy to commit the following crimes[34]:

(4) Battery which is punished as a felony[35];

(9) Taking property from another under circumstances not amounting to robbery[36];

(26) Obtaining possession of money or property valued at $650 or more, or obtaining a signature by means of false pretenses[37];

(33) Any violation of NRS 205.377[38]

Chapter 205 of the Nevada State Regulations relates to Crimes against Property, and Section 205.377 relates to multiple transactions involving fraud or deceit in course of enterprise or occupation[39]. By reading the same with NRS 207.360(33), Hunt has claimed that the Defendants led him to act on false pretenses, with an intent to defraud which ultimately caused damage to Hunt[40].

 

Allegation of Fraud (Against Lesnar, White and the UFC) and Battery (Against Lesnar)

Misrepresentation and suppression of material information

Hunt has alleged misrepresentation as well as suppression of material information by the UFC, including the identity of his scheduled opponent[41]. Hunt, on numerous occasions, voiced his concern regarding doping with respect to Brock Lesnar once their bout was confirmed to take place[42]. According to Hunt, he relied on the representation made by the UFC to ensure a clean fight, and consequently agreed to fight Lesnar[43].

Results from final out of competition tests should have been made available

Brock Lesnar was tested multiple times before UFC 200, but only tested positive twice.[44] Once, on his last out of competition test before the event, and the second time on his in-competition test.

Hunt argues that it fell upon the UFC, in the interest of fairness and equity, to ensure that the results from the last out of competition test were available prior to the actual event taking place[45]. This could have been ensured by expediting the samples for a nominal fee in order to receive results within three days, however the UFC chose not to exercise this option.[46]

It is Hunt’s claim that this conduct of the UFC stemmed from a strong profit motive and the UFCs particular commercial interest in the success of UFC 200, because of the upcoming acquisition - and constitutes fraud - among other offences listed above.

 

Lack of consent and Battery

While Hunt agreed to fight Lesnar, he claims that he did so on the basis of false representations made by the Defendants[47]. It is his contention that there existed no valid contract, as he did not agree to a fight against a doping competitor[48].

Defendants appreciated and accepted the benefits, including HUNT’s services at UFC 200. HUNT’s services rendered, fighting a doping competitor (whose doping was known to all Defendants but not HUNT), exceeded the scope of services HUNT agreed to provide by contract[49].”

As such, Hunt claims that his fight at UFC 200 amounted to Battery – committed by Lesnar, and abetted by Dana White and the UFC. The numerous strikes landed by Lesnar have been labeled as “harmful and offensive contact”, in order to establish the cause of action[50].

 

Breach of Contract (against the UFC)

Hunt alleges that the UFC was in breach of its Bout Agreement with Hunt. He claims that Section 3.1 of the Agreement states that “ZUFFA (UFC’s parent company) shall comply with and be bound by the rules and regulations of the Athletic Commission.” The relevant athletic commission in this case would be the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC).

Hunt claims that supposed collusion between in Lesnar and the UFC, whereby the UFC knew that Lesnar was knowingly using banned substances before the bout[51], failed to comply with the rules and regulations of the NAC, which state

If a promoter is approached with a request or suggestion that a contest not be conducted honestly, that person must immediately report that to the Commission”.[52]

He further claims that the UFC violated NAC rules, by violating the laws of Nevada[53], as set forth in the RICO portion of his complaint.[54]

 

Unjust Enrichment (Against Lesnar, White and the UFC)

As discussed above, Hunt claims that the services rendered in the course of his fight at UFC 200 far exceeded the scope of his contract. According to Hunt, the UFC at the same time entered into an arrangement with Lesnar which resulted in him getting paid far more than the fine eventually imposed on him[55].

Stating that the scope of agreed services did not include fighting a competitor with a significant physical advantage, Hunt claims that he has not yet been paid for his performance at UFC 200[56]. Additionally, he states that the Defendants have accepted the benefits derived from Hunt’s services, the retention of which amounts to unjust enrichment[57].

These benefits include but are not limited to the profits wrongfully retained by LESNAR and UFC from UFC 200 at the expense of HUNT who competed in that event without the use of prohibited substances. Equity demands LESNAR surrender his fight purse and all pay per view proceeds to HUNT and that UFC surrender a proportionate share of its UFC 200 profits in an amount to be proven at trial as justice requires pursuant to laws of equity[58].”

As such, Hunt is seeking equitable damages reflecting a “reasonable value of services”, taking into account the heightened risk of injury or death, arising from combat against a doping opponent[59].

 

Hunt’s previous experiences against doping fighters

It is worth noting this is not the first fight in which Mark Hunt has faced a competitor who was later found to be doping[60].

Frank Mir, who Hunt fought in March last year, is currently undergoing a period of suspension for having tested positive for dehydrochloromethyltestosterone[61] (DHCMT). The sample in question was collected on the day of Mir’s bout against Hunt.

Previously, in 2013, Hunt suffered a compound fracture of his arm during a fight against Antonio Silva, who tested positive for abnormally high testosterone[62]. While Silva was fined and suspended, he managed to return to competition before Hunt owing to the latter undergoing surgery as a result of his injuries. In an interview following the lawsuit, Hunt talked about how he had fought a number of “juicers” and that the repercussions of doping in MMA ought to be much harsher as compared to other sports[63].

"…I realized I can actually lose an eye or something and not be able to compete again. I know fighting is kind of hard and all, but…taking steroids it makes it even worse…Any other sport is pretty harsh on steroids, but the difference in those sports is they aren't trying to hurt someone like you are in mixed martial arts. They are affecting time or other people, but with MMA you are hurting others."

Explaining the extraordinary physical and financial risk posed by a doping fighter, Hunt has asked for a deterrent to be put in place by ensuring that the fighters in violation of the anti-doping code are made to forfeit their winnings in favour of the clean fighters[64].

 

Comment

The Defendants’ initial motion to dismiss Hunt’s suit, and to stay discovery in this case was dismissed by the US District Court in the district of Nevada in early June, 2017. Following this dismissal, the Defendants have filed another motion for dismissal as a response to Hunt’s amended complaint. As mentioned above, a brief opposing said dismissal has already been filed by Hunt’s attorneys[65], and it remains to be seen whether the Court decides to proceed to discovery in relation to the claims raised by Hunt.

This suit could conceivably have a tremendous impact on the world of MMA, and on the functioning of the UFC. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds, particularly if it is not settled out of court and goes to trial. Possible fallout from this case could, in the authors’ view, be as follows:

  • Several related issues, primarily as a result of the RICO charges, could come to the fore in the trial process. Chief among these would be discovery of documentation from MMA’s TRT era, as well as from the opaque and dubious in-house therapeutic use exemptions granted to several fighters during this time[66]. These are revelations that carry the potential to cause irreversible harm to the sport, as well as the promotion’s reputation - at a time when it is finally starting to be taken seriously
  • After his bout with Lesnar, Mark Hunt returned to the octagon against Alistair Overeem at UFC 209[67]. Hunt reportedly refused to fight without a clause in his contract to secure the financial gains made by his opponent if his opponent is latterly caught cheating[68]. Such clauses may become standard practice in the future to help deter competitors from doping. This would be of relevance in a time where there is significant debate about extending the provisions of boxing’s “Ali Act[69]” to MMA, in order to standardize provisions in fighter contracts, and protect fighters from situations just like this one.
  • The UFC’s internal practices and decision-making on drug testing could be opened to scrutiny. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but could be a problematic proposition for the promotions commercial interests, should Hunt’s allegations be proven true.

The fallout from this case promises to have a significant impact on both the UFC, as well as the sport of MMA. Should Hunt succeed in his motions; the promoter-fighter dynamic could be considerably altered, not only in the UFC, but across all MMA promotions. We look forward to following the proceedings.

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Author

Saurabh Mishra

Saurabh Mishra

Saurabh is a lawyer working as counsel for Star India Pvt. Ltd. He is also associated with the Football Players Association of India (FPAI). He received his B.A./LLB from The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, and was a recipient of the Graduate Scholar Award at the Fifth International Conference on Sport and Society in July 2014. He has previously worked with organisations such as Adidas and Atletico de Kolkata, a franchise in the Hero Indian Super League.

 

@ThSaurabhMishra

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Udit Misra

Udit Misra

Although a qualified lawyer, Udit works at the intersection of business, media and technology at Saavn Media Pvt. Ltd. He has also been associated with Pro Sport Development in India in an advisory capacity. He received his B.A./LL.B. from the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata in 2016. Udit has previously also worked with Luthra & Luthra Law Offices in New Delhi.


@uditmisra