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Couture saga brings owner out of shadows

Yahoo Sports

It took the company being called out in public over money issues by one of its most popular fighters to bring Lorenzo Fertitta, the co-owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to a press conference Tuesday.

There, instead of evading financial and contract questions as is usually company policy, money was almost all that was talked about. Specifically, UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture’s money.

Both Fertitta and company president Dana White said they were stunned it has come to this.

"I don't know how we got here," White said. "I don't know what I did wrong. I just can't believe it."

The two met with Couture about a month ago, when Couture said he expressed unhappiness over not getting a bonus for his August match against Gabriel Gonzaga.

But, after Couture quit the company, then showed his individual, unsigned bout agreements in a press conference last week, they felt the champion misrepresented what he really earned.

According to documents displayed and referenced in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Couture is on line to earn approximately $3 million from the UFC in 2007. This is broken down into a $500,000 bonus, which is the subject of current semantic dispute; $250,000 guaranteed for each of his two fights this year; $936,000 in a pay-per-view bonus for the March 3 fight with Tim Sylvia where he won the heavyweight title; $787,000 in a pay-per-view bonus for the August 25 fight with Gonzaga; $35,000 in a best fight bonus for the Gonzaga fight; and $200,000 in another contract he had with the company which would cover television appearances, announcing and other promotional work.

(Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports reported Couture is slated to earn between $13 million and $15 million, including potential bonuses, over the course of his deal. Yahoo! Sports did not make any claim about the specific amount of money Couture would receive for any one individual fight.)

Technically he will only receive $160,000 of that $200,000 because the contract had several months left and they took the resignation letter as meaning he was asking out of that contract.

The existence of that second contract was really the only major new detail given in the press conference, which also included chief financial officer John Mulkey.

UFC honchos said the Couture vs. Sylvia fight did 534,000 buys and the Couture vs. Gonzaga fight at this point has been confirmed as having sold 485,000 orders. The nature of the pay-per-view business is that on a big fight, the money doesn't come in all at once, and final numbers can rise anywhere from five to 15% when the rest of the money slowly comes in.

They said they were expecting to receive the first major payment for the Gonzaga fight in the next week or so, and Couture would get his $787,000 check within 10 days of the company receipt of payment.

Most of this information was already revealed by Couture on Thursday, although not in quite as much detail. UFC claimed Couture violated a nondisclosure clause by showing the press his bout agreements. Couture complained about not getting a signing bonus, and claimed he got a $500,000 bonus for the Sylvia fight in an envelope from Dana White after the show, above-and-beyond what was in his contract. He was also unhappy about not getting a similar bonus for the Gonzaga fight.

White and Fertitta, the Station Casinos magnate who co-owns UFC with brother Frank Fertitta III, claimed the $500,000 payment was an agreed-upon signing bonus, saying they couldn't understand Couture saying he was refused a signing bonus. They noted they paid him $250,000 of it when he signed on January 12, which Couture cashed on January 30. The other $250,000 they said they agreed to pay him after he finished his first fight, just in case he suffered an injury in training and was never able to fight.

Fertitta indicated they weren't planning on taking legal action for violation of the confidentiality clause, but both he and White indicated a legal fight was expected if Couture intends on fighting in another organization. They said they had no idea what Couture's future fight plans were, but that they still consider him their heavyweight champion and hope he'll reconsider and defend the championship.

White said they were going to try to sign Couture to a title defense against someone, with White mentioning Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira by name as the probable opponent, for a match in early 2008. He refused to discuss what would happen to the championship if the dispute wasn't resolved.

They refused to get into specifics about the nature of whether the contract had a clause that would freeze the document’s 18-month duration in the event Couture refused to fight. Such a clause, believed to be standard in many UFC contracts but never confirmed to exist in this one, would extend the period Couture couldn't fight elsewhere.

White defended the company's policy of not releasing all pay information, such as many of the post-show bonuses, or the pay-per-view bonuses that a few top fighters have in their contracts, saying the fighters themselves don't want it out what they are really making.

Fertitta, making his first press appearance since a Japanese press conference when the company purchased the Pride Fighting Championships in the spring, said he was there to refute what Couture said this past Thursday.

"He called me the day before," said Fertitta. "We had a good conversation. . . I was surprised that the facts (at his press conference) were grossly inaccurate. We don't want to do this."

"We're the only promoters who pay fighters more than we are contracted," said White, who said he knew from watching that Couture was mad at him, but said he still couldn't figure out why.

White said Couture may have mentioned wanting them to get back to him on some points in two weeks during a breakfast meeting the three had in late September. White said that on the hectic schedule he was on, two weeks sometimes goes by like two hours.

The UFC president claimed when he, Couture and Fertitta had their meeting, he thought most of it wasn't even about fighting, as Couture was complaining about what he was paid for his appearance on the Spike TV show "Pros vs. Joes." Both White and Fertitta said Couture did mention that the only person he wanted to fight at this stage of the game was Fedor Emelianenko, the former Pride heavyweight champion, who signed with the upstart Mix-1 Fight promotion this month. But Fertitta said when the meeting was over, he didn't think Couture was going to retire, as he expressed he was in great shape.

White said that no matter what the contract stated, there was no way he wasn't going to pay Couture more money than Fedor Emelianenko if that fight had ever happened. The fight fell apart when Emelianenko signed with the new M-1 promotion, and Couture faxed in a letter of resignation the next day.

"I wasn't going to pay Fedor more than Randy Couture," said White, who noted Couture complained to them about how much they were offering the Russian, who hasn't lost since 2000 and is ranked in most polls as the top heavyweight in the world. In the most recent Yahoo! Sports poll, Emelianenko was ranked No. 1 pound-for-pound in the world.

"I don't think Fedor is one of the top five heavyweights in the world," said White. "Randy Couture is No. 1. I always felt Randy Couture would beat Fedor."

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