Couture's dispute with UFC lay foundation for insurance policy
When he finally decided that a legal battle with the UFC would cost him more in time and resources than he could afford, Randy Couture came to the negotiating table.
It was 2008. Thirteen months after he'd resigned from the promotion. And Couture was ready to address the grievances that had prompted his departure.
Not all of his bargaining chips were self-motivated, however.
There was the money stuff: a signing bonus he said he'd never received and off-the-books bonuses paid to other stars. There were promises unkept and a lack of respect -- rooted in his insistence early in his relationship with UFC parent company Zuffa LLC that he retain the rights to his likeness at a time when other fighters didn't -- that prompted him to speak out and negotiate his services elsewhere, a decision that led Zuffa to haul him into court.
There was a meeting with Fedor Emelianenko, whom he felt to be the only challenge left after a decade of winning and losing titles and shattering expectations of possibility at 45 years of age.
When the two sides sat down, it was largely about bringing Couture back into the fold. But Couture had another concession in mind -- one that had little to do with him and more to do with the hundreds of fighters under contract with the UFC.
He wanted the UFC to explore the possibility of obtaining health insurance for them.
An endless replay of blown knees, cut foreheads and broken hands informed his plea.
There had been plenty of bumps and bruises for "The Natural" since he started fighting in 1997, and even before that as a three-time Olympic alternate in wrestling. However, his association with the national governing body of that sport, USA Wrestling, provided him a small measure of coverage as he honed his skills. Others he encountered over the years had not been so lucky. As he grew to one of the most revered figures in the sport, and fighters flocked to the team he helped create, Team Quest, he became an expert with ice, gauze, tape and enemy No. 1 for lacerations: superglue. To rely on the emergency room was to see them go untreated.
"None of those guys had insurance," Couture told SI.com.
Years later when he moved to Las Vegas and started his own gym, Xtreme Couture, he set up a corporation and obtained health insurance for a small staff of employees, including himself. As for most small businesses, it wasn't a walk in the park to get the policy, and you can bet his other gig wasn't anywhere on the application.
"They start asking about your occupation and those sort of things, and then it becomes an issue because most people see us as being a high-risk group," Couture said. "I don't know if that's necessarily true or fair. Maybe a few more superficial dings and cuts, but they're really just that. But perception is everything, and certainly when you're dealing with businesses."
As his new gym evolved into a mecca for young talent, Couture cultivated relationships with doctors who trained there. He sent them hobbled fighters for off-the-books care. For a cut, a sprain or a staph infection, it could keep a fighter from a bigger stack of medical bills, or maybe being news that the injury wasn't that bad.
It wasn't nearly enough, of course, but it was one small way to plug the gap.
"We've seen where guys were injured in camp leading up to fights that precluded them from being able to compete," Couture said. "Not only do they have to come up with their own medical expenses for those injuries, but they don't get a chance to get paid for that competition on top of it. So it's kind of a double-edged sword."
In September 2008, Couture struck a deal to return to the UFC and defend his heavyweight title against Brock Lesnar at UFC 91. He was not successful in getting health insurance for fighters under contract with Zuffa, nor was he in keeping his belt. But he continued to raise the issue over the years as his career inexplicably stretched on, through his (re-)re-invention as a light heavyweight, through his rise as a film actor, and through his realization that, at 46, the time had come for him to quit fighting.
A week after his retirement was sealed at UFC 129 with a crane kick to the jaw by Lyoto Machida, Couture received word from UFC executive Lorenzo Fertitta that the UFC had found an insurance provider, Houston Casualty Company, to underwrite an accident-insurance policy. It would cover Zuffa fighters up to $50,000 annually in the event of an injury inside or outside the gym.
When the UFC announced the news to great fanfare shortly thereafter, Fertitta said the process of obtaining the policy had taken between two and three years, though he and UFC president Dana White said it had always been a goal of the company.
Although it took longer than expected, Couture said the new policy is news that's better late than never.
"This is a huge step for all the fighters that are with the UFC, and I'm excited that we're headed in that direction," Couture said. "There are still issues -- regular health insurance and retirement. But it shows me that they're listening.
"Certainly it's something that got brought up several times, and it's taken them a long time. Finding a carrier that's willing to even carry this kind of insurance on a bunch of mixed-martial-arts fighters is not an easy thing to do."
The new policy, which goes into effect on June 1, could all but stamp out a practice common among fighters under the Zuffa banner: using competition as a catalyst for injury care. Will it make healthier fighters, though?
"They certainly have the option now," Couture said. "It depends on the injury and an individual choice. But at least they have the option to fix it when it occurs rather than suck it up and get through the camp and go through the competition and say, 'Well, I did it in competition.'
"Very, very few fighters walk into a fight without something bothering them. The training process is just too difficult. But more serious things -- knee injuries where they need knee surgery or things like that -- I think you'll see those things being addressed when they happen and not be pushed through until after competition."
Of course, there are still thousands of up-and-coming fighters who continue to rely on day jobs, their spouses or a doctor-friend for medical care while in pursuit of big-show dreams. For those who continue to stream through his doors, Couture still sends them to his local allies when bumps and bruises occur. The new policy is a step in the right direction, though.
"This helps us a ton," he said. "There's still a lot of things that occur that don't fall under the purview of this coverage. Guys still get sick; guys still have all the normal things. And a lot of the guys still have families that aren't covered. There's always room for improvement and ways to grow and get better coverage for guys and their families."
It wouldn't come as much of a surprise if Couture took some credit for the new development. Just about everybody leverages good news for political gain these days (and some believe the UFC may do just that in New York). But it's not a victory he's in a rush to put on his resume.
"I hope all that 13 months of chasing around wasn't for [nothing]," Couture said. "I don't think it was for nothing. Obviously, they were listening, and they've been working diligently to come up with some of these solutions. I'm the last guy that's going to take responsibility for anything. I'm just glad that it's happened."