Upping the ante in a quarrel over name and likeness rights with some of mixed martial arts' best fighters, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made its strongest statement yet Wednesday, releasing former welterweight No. 1 contender Jon Fitch and declaring several of his teammates at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., persona non grata.
The move comes after Fitch declined to sign away exclusive image rights in perpetuity for a UFC-themed video game under production by THQ.
The clash first surfaced this summer when a majority of fighters, including a number of UFC's biggest stars, ignored a wide-ranging, lifelong merchandise and ancillary rights agreement. Critics of the deal -- which circulated as the UFC announced a new licensing push that included a line of action figures -- also complained that the promoter's revenue share was disproportionately large.
After falling out of serious discussion for several months, UFC President DanaWhite approached Bob Cook, an AKA head trainer and manager under Zinkin Entertainment, with a specific document last week that centered on video game licensing. As before, the term and language was an issue.
"We thought that was kind of crazy," Fitch said. "Why would you sign anything away for your lifetime?"
When Fitch didn't deliver on the "favor" of signing, which White requested, he said he was told "either you're in if you sign this, or you're getting cut." Fitch effectively chose the latter, though he "never thought it was possible" that the UFC would actually release him. On Wednesday, Fitch, 30, received an email from the UFC notifying him that his deal was accelerated and terminated.
"To have this happen is crazy," said the No. 3-ranked welterweight, who is now a free agent with a 17-3 record. "This sport is definitely not about fighting anymore. It used to be about finding out who the best guy was, what the best style was. It's not about that anymore. It's about the top company making the most money."
In a caustic rebuke of UFC-signed mixed martial artists sharing the same opinion as Fitch -- whom White perceived to be working against his company's interests -- the UFC president told Yahoo! that fighters choosing to shun the licensing deal, including AKA's Josh Koscheck and Cain Velasquez, were no longer "partners with us. [Expletive] them. All of them, every last [expletive] one of them." Mike Swick, however, will remain with the UFC after agreeing to the deal.
"Basically, they didn't want to sign all their rights away," Cook said of his objecting fighters. "[With] Fitch, he wants to be in control of what his image is on. He doesn't want to just sign blankly away, and be endorsing a product he might not believe in. He's got his beliefs, and some of the other guys, they want to be in charge of their own deals. They don't want someone else brokering their deals for them, and then getting the crumbs of what's left."
It's like being told that "none of the work you've done previously, nothing you've put into this organization matters anymore," said Fitch.
He absorbed a tremendous amount of punishment during a competitive and exciting five-round title fight against Georges St. Pierre in August. The loss, Fitch's first in 16 fights, ended an eight-bout winning streak inside the UFC that left him tied for the record with Royce Gracie and Anderson Silva.
The former Purdue University wrestler, who agreed to fight Akihiro Gono before being cut, honed his skills over the years under the guidance of Cook and JavierMendez at AKA, an MMA factory in the Silicon Valley that continually pumps out top talent.
"I feel we've supported the UFC for a long time," said Cook, a retired fighter who was victorious in his only appearance inside the Octagon. "We tried to give them the best of our talent, and have done business [with them] for many years. I think their decision here is unreasonable just because the guys want to go, fight, work and do what they're supposed to do. And they feel like, where does this stop?
"It's definitely a big blow to our team, our management company, financially, exposure and everything else," Cook continued. "The UFC is the biggest [MMA] company in the world. But just because it's not a good situation, I can't say we have to agree with everything they want to do."
Fitch won't consider leaving AKA or Zinkin Entertainment.
"It's my home," he said. "They do a great job. There's a reason why the UFC doesn't like Zinkin Entertainment: because they are the best in the business."
Fitch's dismissal, reported first by MMAMania.com with the additional news that AKA-trained heavyweight Christian Wellisch was also released, brought trepidation and defiance as it rippled through a network of fighters, managers and promoters.
"I just think it's unfortunate," said longtime manager Monte Cox, who advised his clients not to sign the earlier merchandising deal and said he'll likely offer similar advice this time around. "This isn't part of the game. What if the UFC decides they're doing a new calendar? If a guy doesn't want to pose, do they cut him for that too? How many things does the UFC want you to do to fight for them?"
Coming off what was billed as the biggest pay-per-view event in UFC history last Saturday, the Las Vegas-based MMA operation appears perched at its most powerful point nearly eight years after Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the UFC brand and placed Dana White in charge.
Seizing on the moment when competitors appear to be dying on the vine and options for mixed martial artists are as secure as the stock market, Fitch sees the UFC trying to "scapegoat" him to "scare the rest of the fighters into signing" licensing deals.
White refused to respond.
"I just hope the other guys, the younger guys, everybody else involved, doesn't let them do this," Fitch said. "Stand up for yourself. Stand up for your rights. If you don't like an agreement or you're not comfortable with it, don't sign."
Immediately replacing Jake Shields as the highest-ranking welterweight outside the UFC, Cook is confident Fitch and other AKA products will be fine.
"If anyone is looking for fighters," Cook laughed, "give me a call."