The plaintiffs in the long-running antitrust lawsuit against the UFC have earned a victory.
Judge Richard Boulware of the United States District Court in Nevada granted the plaintiffs class certification on a status conference call Thursday, opening the door for nearly 1,200 fighters to be included in what will now be considered a class-action suit.
The plaintiffs, who include former UFC fighters Cung Le and Jon Fitch, are claiming the UFC is an illegal monopoly, crushing competition from other MMA promoters in an effort to drive down wages for fighters.
"This is an enormous win for all UFC fighters, past, present and future," Le said in a statement provided by the MMA Fighters Association, which backs the lawsuit. "For too long, the UFC has taken advantage of fighters by monopolizing the industry, and cheated fighters out of millions of dollars each year. Today's decision by Judge Boulware means our case can proceed for all UFC fighters that are part of the class."
The UFC is expected to appeal Boulware's decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Boulware said he expects his order to grant certification to be published Monday. The lawsuit was first filed in 2014. The plaintiffs are seeking between $800 million and $1.6 billion in damages from the UFC.
Boulware's decision was a win for the plaintiffs, though not a surprise as he had previously intimated he would grant class certification in September. Had he chosen not to grant class certification, the lawsuit likely would have been dead in the water.
Boulware did not grant certification for the "identity class" part of the suit where fighters claimed the UFC suppressed licensing fees associated with identity rights. The case is nowhere near the end, though. It is expected to go several more years.
A class-action suit means current and former fighters can sue the UFC collectively in this single case, rather than individually. The class period encompasses any fighter who competed in the UFC from Dec. 16, 2010 through June 30, 2017. If the plaintiffs win the case or the UFC settles, any fighter who fought for the promotion during that time would be entitled to money unless he or she opts out of the class.
The plaintiffs have argued that the UFC has actively worked to eliminate competition in the MMA space, buying up other big promotions such as Pride, WEC and Strikeforce, so it can control the vast majority of the market share and keep fighter wages down. The plaintiffs have estimated that 19.5% of the UFC's revenues go to the athletes, compared to closer to a 50-50 split in other major sports leagues.
Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, has countered that there remain several healthy MMA competitors in the marketplace, like Bellator, PFL and ONE Championship, and what the UFC has is not an illegal monopoly. Zuffa attorneys have argued that the UFC pays more than any other MMA promotion, attracts the best talent because it is the most successful organization and fighters are paid more than ever before due to the UFC's presence.
Regarding wage share, the Zuffa lawyers claim that argument holds no water because percentage of revenue is not a legitimate way of determining how much fighters get paid and it's difficult to compare the UFC to other sports, which have unions representing athletes in collective bargaining agreements.
A UFC spokesperson said the Zuffa legal team needs to review Boulware's full order before commenting any further.