Couture's issue is money, not respect

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LAS VEGAS – Circle Oct. 25, 2007 on your calendar, for it will go down in history as the date when the sport of mixed martial arts hit the mainstream.

It was the date that the sport's highest-profile star held a news conference in a ring at the gym he owns to speak about his problems with its most well-known promoter.

But though Randy Couture, the UFC's erstwhile heavyweight champion, insisted repeatedly that his resignation on Oct. 11 had nothing to do with money, he spent the better part of the news conference Thursday talking about that very topic.

History tells us that whenever athletes say it is not about money, it's about the money.

Couture, 44, disputed a Yahoo! Sports report that he is in the midst of a four-fight contract that pays him between $13 million and $15 million. He allowed the media to see unsigned bout agreements for his last two fights, wins over Tim Sylvia and Gabriel Gonzaga.

The March 3 Sylvia bout agreement he provided indicated he'd earn a guarantee of $250,000 plus pay-per-view bonuses. According to the escalators in the bout agreement that Couture showed, he would have made approximately $1.1 million in bonuses if the bout did the 520,000 pay-per-view sales he said he believes it did.

During the news conference, Couture repeatedly said the UFC would give its higher-profile fighters "off the books" bonuses after fights. He would not say during the nationally televised live news conference how much those were for, but afterward, he said he received $500,000 for the win over Sylvia.

That would put his compensation at approximately $1.8 million for the bout. He did not, he said several times, receive a bonus after defeating Gonzaga.

Couture said his dissatisfaction with Zuffa LLC, the company that owns the UFC, isn't new. He said it extends back nearly seven years to their purchase of the company in late 2000.

"Historically, I've had issues with Zuffa and the company since they bought it in 2001," Couture said. "We got off on the wrong foot over the ancillary rights in my contract, and signing away my name and image, which then led to the video game and having myself pulled out of the video game and pulled out of the ad campaign with Carmen Electra. I just wasn't willing to sign those things away like most fighters had done to date to that point."

He said he felt that decision put him at odds with UFC president Dana White and owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

Couture seemed irritated that, to use his words, White appeared to count him out after losses to Pedro Rizzo and Chuck Liddell.

And he spoke of things like not getting extra tickets and hotel rooms from the owners like was done for other fighters.

"Everybody's trying to make a big deal about the money," Couture said. "This was never a money issue. It's been a prevailing feeling of respect that wasn't being given. For 11 years of my life, I've tried to represent this sport with integrity and represent this sport in a particular way, for the owners before and the owners now. I've never felt like that was appreciated."

Couture later spoke of the way athletes in other sports are shown respect is with money.

And that's clearly what has caused this impasse.

If the UFC were paying Couture, say, $8 million a fight, do you think there's a chance he would have had a critical thing to say of White or the Fertittas?

He clearly feels others who haven't accomplished as much as he has are doing better financially, which upsets him.

And he has every right to be upset.

But it's also curious that he chose this time and this situation to make these allegations.

In 2006, I interviewed Couture for a story I was writing – one that angered White greatly – for the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the apparent low pay he and other UFC fighters were earning.

He not only didn't complain, he said he was happy with what he earned.

He has the right to change his mind, obviously, and I would support wholeheartedly any professional athlete's desire to get the best contract the market will bear. Fighters literally risk their lives whenever they go into competition and they deserve as much as they can get.

What seems fairly obvious is that someone has made Couture a multi-million dollar offer to fight Fedor Emelianenko, the ex-Pride heavyweight champion who is the top-ranked fighter in the Yahoo! Sports top 10 poll.

Emelianenko announced on Monday that he had signed with a company called M-1 and said he'd welcome a fight with Couture.

Couture was non-committal about whether he'd fight again, but said several times that a bout with Emelianenko is the only one which makes sense for him.

He's clearly at the height of his earning potential and popularity after his title-winning effort over Sylvia in March and his gritty stoppage of Gonzaga in August at UFC 74.

When you've felt you haven't been paid, respected or treated the way you should have, you don't "resign" when you're suddenly at the peak of your powers and about to be able to command more than you've ever made, unless there is a Plan B.

An Emelianenko fight is Plan B.

Though there was no lawyer was at his side, Couture clearly realized he couldn't say he'd agreed to a deal with another promoter to fight Emelianenko, or that he'd even received an offer. Admitting he'd received an offer would expose that promoter to a tortuous interference lawsuit from the UFC and Couture to a breach of contract suit.

Even by Couture's admission, at the very least he has nine months remaining on the contract he signed before he faced Sylvia, before he's free to negotiate with and sign with another promoter.

White contends Couture must fight twice more, and not simply sit out the remaining nine-month term, for the contract to be fulfilled and Couture to win his freedom.

White attempted to take the high road and initially declined comment when contacted by Yahoo! Sports after Couture's news conference. But later, White changed his mind and said Couture had not told the truth.

Couture said during the news conference that he said he asked for a signing bonus prior to signing the four-fight agreement that is in effect. He said he was flat refused and that part of his anger stemmed from the fact that he believed other fighters were receiving signing bonuses.

White, who said that by speaking about his promotional agreement and bout agreement that Couture was violating a confidentiality clause, flatly denied that.

"Randy Couture said he didn't receive a signing bonus, but not only did he receive a signing bonus, he cashed the check on Jan. 30," White said by telephone from his office. "I'm holding it in my hand right now. The check was dated Jan. 15 and he cashed it on Jan. 30.

"I'm not going to debate Randy in the media," White continued. "I understand he's not retired. So, fine. He's in the best fighting shape he's ever been in and so I'll put a fight together for him in February, because Randy is under contract with the UFC."

White said he paid Couture $120,000 for a 2001 fight with Pedro Rizzo on a card in which the UFC lost "hundreds of thousands, maybe a million." He said that less than seven years later, Couture is making more than a million per fight.

Whatever he's making, the truth is, Couture feels that because of his accomplishments, he should make more. But the simple fact is that he had the bad timing to come along at the sport's birth.

The sport is growing and the athletes who follow are going to do better financially because of the efforts of men like Couture, Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, among others.

They took the bumps and bruises to help build mixed martial arts into a growing and widely accepted sport.

But it's the way of the world that the pioneers aren't rewarded like their successors.

Willie Mays never made the kind of money that the stars in Major League Baseball are earning today, yet I haven't seen a center fielder in the majors who comes close to being the player Mays was.

Randy Couture is the Willie Mays of MMA.

But Willie Mays never made the money that the many lesser players who followed him made. And 10 years from now, the money the fighters make will dwarf anything they're making now. The problem in this mess is that Couture wants the 2017 money in 2007.

And as great as he is, Couture probably won't be fighting when he's almost 55.

More: Dave Meltzer on Brock Lesnar.