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UFC paid PRIDE CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara $10 million to leave MMA for 7 years

Documents produced in the UFC antitrust case show parent company Zuffa paid big to make sure PRIDE really die.


After years of slowly winding its way through a glacial pre-trial process, an antitrust lawsuit filed by fighters Jon Fitch, Cung Le, and Nate Quarry against the UFC finally found itself in front of a judge and open courtroom. The promotion’s former ‘private contractors’ argued that the UFC engaged in anti-competitive conduct that created a monopsony -- not quite a monopoly, but close enough that a company can warp an entire market. The UFC used that position, they argue, to stiff fighters out of millions in pay. The UFC denies the charges.

There’s no sign of how things will turn out thus far, but having followed the sport for over a decade I can remember several dozen moments where the UFC certainly pulled a flex on individuals or teams or other promotions. Dana White’s infamous tombstone of promotions he’d crushed certainly didn’t age well (and neither did emails of brass cheap-skating some of their top names), but I have no idea how much weight anything carries in a final decision.

For the moment we just have to sit back and enjoy all the previously hidden information and numbers coming out. For example, it’s now a statistical fact that UFC fighters have been getting paid around 20% of UFC revenue per year from 2008 to 2013. An internal company document cited fighter pay as ‘a critical cost that we must actively manage. We believe our long-term 20% of revenue assumption is reasonable.’ NBA, NFL, and MLB players earn roughly 50% of league revenues.

One way you keep fighter pay down is by strangling any potential competition, and there’s certainly evidence the UFC did a good job at that. Good enough to be illegal? Again, no idea. But the latest revelation from court documents shows that when they bought one-time serious rival PRIDE FC, they also paid the promotion’s CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara $10 million US to sign a 7-year non-compete contract that took him out of the Japanese MMA game. A year and a half after it expired, Sakakibara returned and started RIZIN Fighting Federation using a rolodex full of former PRIDE fighters and staff.

The death of PRIDE signaled the end of Japan’s golden age of MMA. Was the Yakuza scandal that lost the company its TV deal the main culprit? Or was it the UFC’s previously unknown payment to remove the country’s biggest and best connected fight promoter from the landscape? Devastating an entire country’s fight industry half a world a way to maintain your iron grip on things in America certainly seems like something a monopsony would do, but what do I know.

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