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Chicago Lawyer Highlights Steve Thompson's MMA Work

December 1, 2008

Chicago Lawyer highlighted Litigation and Sports & Entertainment Partner Steven J. Thompson's representation of mixed martial artists in the article "Lawyers enter the MMA world" in the magazine's December issue.  Steve serves as lawyer for Team Quest Management, Team Quest Fight Club, and MMA fighter Matt Lindland.  

To read the article in its original form, please see below or click the Related File.

Like a ringmaster minutes before the circus begins, the announcer dramatically proclaims to the sold-out crowd of over 15,000: “We are live.”

The crowd ignores their plastic cups of overpriced beer, and their chips with congealed nacho cheese as their cheers get louder.

Everything they’ve seen up to this point now seems like practice—the warm-up bands to the headliners. And while their cheering may rival a rock concert, they’re not seeing the Rolling Stones. In fact, the event they’re seeing earned $2.85 million in gate sales—the highest gate amount in Allstate Arena history.

Beyond this crowd are the many Pay-Per-View watchers who’ve just tuned in to the event from their homes and bars.

All are ready to see mixed martial arts fighters compete in the televised portion of an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event.

Like a modern-day clash of the gladiators, these mixed martial arts fighters combine technique and athleticism from such sports as wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and boxing. Unlike boxing, these fighters challenge each other on their feet or on the ground.

While many sports have been around for decades and even centuries, the modern-day version of mixed martial arts or MMA has only existed for about 15 years.

Those at the heart of this sport face many challenges as they work to bring credibility and respect to something that many consider barbaric.

Lawyers are entering this sport and representing promoters, fighters and gyms. They face issues involving such areas as intellectual property, transactions, and immigration as they work to maintain legitimacy and legality in a sport that didn’t exist when they were children.

Their job is often unique because not too many lawyers work in the sport yet—despite the increasing amount of money that’s switching hands, and the growing number of people who want to get into the sport in different capacities. Big names like Donald Trump and Oscar De La Hoya even want a piece of the action.

MMA is described by the UFC as “an intense and evolving combat sport in which competitors use interdisciplinary forms of fighting that include jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and others to their strategic and tactical advantage in a supervised match.”

Thirty-six states, including Illinois, have passed legislation to regulate MMA, said Michael Mersch, assistant general counsel for the UFC.

The UFC, which was started in 1993, was acquired and rejuvenated by Zuffa, LLC, in 2001. It is today the largest MMA sports organization—the established industry leader in a sea of promoters that come and go. It creates and promotes live sporting events, television productions, a reality show, sponsorship, and merchandising.

“Because it’s not just boxing,where two guys are punching each other, there are so many elements to the game. It becomes more like watching a chess match than a checkers match,” Mersch said. “There’s a lot more complexity to it, a lot more layers to it than boxing. Not that I don’t love boxing. I love boxing. I grew up with boxing.”

Getting involved
Steve Thompson, a Chicago partner at Ungaretti & Harris, jokes that his wife thinks it’s a scam that he’s always flying to Las Vegas for work.

But it’s true. As lawyer for Team Quest Management, Team Quest Fight Club, and MMA fighter Matt Lindland, he travels to fights across the country, as well as places like Russia and Japan.

Although primarily a commercial litigator, he spends around 25 percent of his time representing and managing fighters. And other lawyers in his firm also assist with legal aspects related to Team Quest, which encompasses an MMA fight team, fitness gyms, and merchandising.

He helps scout for new fighters, negotiate fight deals, review contracts, handle franchising for Team Quest gyms, and any other issues involving the fighters.

During the recent UFC event at Allstate Arena, he donned a Team Quest T-shirt and walked out with Team Quest middleweight fighter Matt Horwich. Standing behind the fenced octagon, he helped corner Horwich.

He talks to Lindland sometimes four or five times a day. His son even asked him if Lindland is his best friend.

“Sometimes I’m in a suit and tie and sitting in the stands or walking below; other times I’m in the locker room with a sponsorship T-shirt carrying buckets out to the ring,” Thompson said. “I can put an ice bag on somebody’s neck just about as well as anybody else.”

Thompson’s involvement in MMA happened by chance. He represented Lindland after the 2000 Olympic Trials, when Lindland challenged a scoring decision that cost him a spot on the U.S. Greco-Roman Wrestling Olympic Team for the Sydney Games.

In eight weeks, Matt Lindland v.United States Olympic Committee, went through a grievance committee, two separate arbitrations, five different federal district judges, three appeals to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, Thompson said.

After the first arbitration, the arbitrator ordered a rematch for Lindland and Keith Sieracki, which Lindland won. Sieracki then filed an arbitration, which Sieracki won.

All parties raced to federal court to determine which arbitration award would be enforced, with the U.S. Olympic Committee seeking to keep Sieracki on the team. A federal district judge, and then a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit both decided in Lindland’s favor.

“The case ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court and Justice Stevens denied the petition for stay pending certiorari,” Thompson said.

Lindland went to Sydney, marched in the Opening Ceremonies, and continued training for his event, while Sieracki filed a petition with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which hears disputes at the Olympic Games site. Thompson had to prepare for a hearing to take place at 3 a.m.

To thwart the hearing, Thompson’s legal team went to federal court in Chicago, and Judge William Hibbler held a hearing at 1:30 a.m. in the Dirksen building. Hibbler ruled that if Sieracki went ahead with the CAS arbitration he would be in contempt of the orders issued by the 7th Circuit.

In light of Hibbler’s order and the threat of contempt, Sieracki withdrew his CAS appeal. Lindland went on to earn a silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.

“It was very trying, and really the only thing you can do is prepare and know where you are on the issues and leave it up in God’s hands,” Lindland said about the case. “At that point it is really out of your control.”

Thompson lost track of Lindland after that case. Lindland became an MMA fighter in the UFC several months after the Olympics, and started going by the nickname, Matt “The Law” Lindland, because of the Olympic case.

About four years ago, Thompson e-mailed Lindland when he heard Lindland had been cut from the UFC after being told it was because he wore an unapproved sponsor logo during a weigh-in.

Thompson expressed his remorse, and Lindland asked him to help manage his Team Quest fighters. Thompson today helps manage about 25 fighters.

“It’s been an interesting progression because the business of mixed martial arts has become much more professionalized,” Thompson said.

“When I started it was not uncommon for a guy to be managed by a guy who is his coach or a guy who owns his gym. That’s changing and that continues to change just because it’s getting more complicated.

“It was kind of a fledgling business when we started with it. I was not a was just another client, another business.And I’ve come to really enjoy it, and also appreciate what it is becoming, in terms of popularity and revenue—a real business.”

Lindland, ranked fourth in the world in the middleweight division by, said he sees similarities between MMA fighting and being a lawyer.

“You’ve got strategies. You’ve got techniques. You’ve got to use your head.You’ve got to think. You’ve got to be two or three steps ahead of a guy,” he said. “We have that warrior spirit in us. And then you look at a guy like Steve, who’s translated that into being an attorney. It doesn’t mean he’s getting in the ring. He’s applying the same principles...” 

Among friends
When people discover that Richard Wilner represents MMA fighters, he becomes the life of the party.

“It’s amazing to me how popular it’s become, and how the demographic has changed,” said Wilner, name partner of Wilner & O’Reilly, which has offices in California.

Wilner was training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with his coach and friend, Carlos Gracie Jr., whose father founded Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

He had no intention of turning his workouts into a business venture, but when fighters learned that he’s an immigration lawyer they asked for help with their immigration needs.

In 1999, he started representing individual fighters and marital arts instructors, predominantly from Brazil. He helps them with such immigration issues as obtaining their visas.

This immigration assistance also led to him becoming immigration counsel to EliteXC, an MMA promotions company. He also represents, as their immigration lawyer, such MMA fighters as Wanderlei Silva and UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. And he works with Affliction Entertainment, another MMA promoter, in regards to immigration law.

“It’s wonderful because I’m able to represent people who do what I love,” he said. “I don’t have to choose my clients; they choose me. And I don’t have to represent undesirable people or undesirable causes to make money.

“It’s stressful because if they don’t get the visa, they don’t get to fight. And if they don’t get to fight, they don’t get paid. And if they don’t get paid their family doesn’t eat.”

Steven Bash, a name partner at Beverly Hills-based Bash & Polyachenko, jokes that it’s not unusual for him to turn into a babysitter when working in MMA.

When heavyweight fighter Fedor Emelianenko—who is ranked by many organizations as No. 1 in the world in his weight class—wanted to go to Six Flags Magic Mountain to ride a roller coaster, Bash is the one who took him and about 15 other people. It’s all part of the job, and part of their friendship.

Bash originally represented boxers, but made the switch to MMA when he was asked to represent Emelianenko, who goes by his first name in the MMA community.

As Fedor’s lawyer, he helps negotiate his contracts, deal with promotions and marketing, meet with television networks, and handle his visas. A fluent Russian speaker, Bash also sometimes acts as a translator during interviews and press conferences.

“Fedor is a very educated person. Really, all he does is train and read,” Bash said. “But regardless, this is someone who doesn’t read or write English. He definitely needs good counsel, particularly when he’s a commodity.”

Bash is also vice president of legal for M-1 Global, which represents Fedor, a partner in the company, and about 100 other fighters internationally. He’s helping expand the company into the U.S. market.

“I’ve always loved sports …,” Bash said. “[Working in MMA] is something that gets the juices flowing and brings more pleasure and enjoyment than your run-of-the-mill attorney work.”

A legal need
San Diego-based lawyer Rodney Donohoo didn’t know who MMA fighter Ken Shamrock was when he started representing him in litigation involving an altercation.

But he won the trial, and started managing him about three years ago. He also manages fighters in Lion’s Den, Shamrock’s fight team.

Donohoo is outside counsel to Ken Shamrock Entertainment, which is responsible for Lion’s Den’s fighters, training facilities, licensing and merchandising. He also counsels Ken Shamrock Productions, which puts on MMA fights.

His work in this area has grown, and now takes up between 25 and 70 percent of his practice at any given time. Donohoo said he’s found similarities between managing Shamrock and handling his regular trial work.

“It’s hard-nosed negotiation and people trying to throw their weight around,” he said. “It is nice to have lawyers in there because the amount of professionalism increases.”

Because the sport has grown, there’s a lot more money involved and bigger players are stepping into the sport, he said, but the lack of professionalism and ethics sometimes concerns him. He wishes there were more lawyers working in this area.

A lot of legal issues are surfacing, just as they did in the boxing world in the 1930s, he said. For example, some promoters are trying to control who the champions should be.

Organizations are granting their own belts, and rankings are not unified across organizations and media outlets, he said.

He’s heard of some promoters telling their fighters during a fight to perform a certain way so the fight seems more entertaining.

That’s not how it works in other sports. No one steps in during an NFL game and tells the players to change their strategy to make it a more exciting game, he said.

Donohoo questions whether it’s good for the sport to be mainly controlled by the UFC. He would like to see more competition because it would make the sport stronger.

“I’d like to see more attorneys in the hierarchy of the commissions, and as judges, as you see in the NFL, and as referees in fights,” he said. “Attorneys are trained to look objectively. … I’m concerned if this will become an entertainment show as opposed to a legitimate sport.

“As an attorney, I think that lawyers are particularly adept at recognizing the issues, and hopefully giving their clients good solid advice beyond the initial glory of getting their faces on TV.”

Regulation time
While working as a Wisconsin lawyer, some of Mersch’s law school buddies encouraged him to move to Las Vegas because there was a robust job market.

He made the move and worked for the attorney general’s office for 10 years. During much of that time he worked with the Nevada State Athletic Commission in its regulation of boxing, kickboxing, and MMA.

In March 2007, the UFC asked him to become its assistant general counsel.

Mersch handles such things as contractual issues with the fighters and sponsors, and deals with intellectual property involving the UFC brand. The typical corporate legal issues also come up as the UFC business grows.

He also works with the government and regulatory affairs side. He travels to different states to speak with legislators, work with lobbyists and address legislative committees about the regulation of the sport.

Mersch said the UFC wants states to regulate the sport.

Without regulations, some groups may host MMA fights without the proper safety precautions. UFC does not want someone getting hurt or killed at one of those events. Besides injury, it could reflect badly on the sport, as well as people may wrongly connect that event to the UFC, since it’s the industry leader, he said.

In order for the recent UFC fight to occur at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., the UFC worked with legislators about two years in advance to craft legislation.

Members of UFC’s legal team went to Springfield a number of times to testify before different legislative committees, and the UFC hired an Illinois lobbyist. The lawyers worked with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, and its Division of Professional Regulation.

“We want to be regulated,” Mersch said.

“We like to say we run toward regulation, not away from it. In order for this sport to thrive, for there to be integrity in this sport, for it not to, frankly, become professional wrestling, and for, really, the safety of the fighters most importantly, you’ve got to have an independent third-party overseer.

“That’s why we never did a show in Illinois until this law was passed. We will never go to a state that doesn’t have an athletic commission that regulates the sport of mixed martial arts.”

Today, 36 states regulate MMA. The UFC only targets those states that have athletic commissions, Mersch said. Six states do not have these commissions so there is really no way to regulate the sport. But there are eight other states that the UFC is trying to work with right now.

“Sports are going to evolve, and as the industry leader we want to be at the forefront of that,” he said. “Whenever they pass new legislation in these states, we have to be involved in that.We must make sure it doesn’t jeopardize what we are trying to do.

“The other thing that’s extremely important is to develop uniformity,” Mersch said.

“We want mixed martial arts to be like soccer. If you play soccer in Florida, or California, or Minnesota, it’s the same deal—everybody understands the rules and plays it the same way, it doesn’t matter where. We want MMA to be the same.We want to have consistency in the rules.”

A changing sport
When MMA started, it used the slogan: “Two men enter, one man leaves.”

There were no rules, no weight classes. The fighters were portrayed as barbarians.

It’s a different sport today, with rules, regulations, and increased athleticism.

The MMA rules now include requiring fighters to wear athletic commission-approved gloves, fight in weight classes, fight with time limits and rounds, and adhere to mandatory drug testing. When fighting, they cannot head-butt or kick a downed opponent; knee the head of a downed opponent; downward-point their elbow strikes; or strike the spine, the back of the head, the groin, or throat.

Mersch, from the UFC, said today’s UFC fighters are educated—more than 75 percent of the 250 fighters under UFC contract are college graduates. Most are trained in martial arts, which teaches discipline and respect for their opponents, he said.

Fighters touch gloves at the start of fights, and hug or bow at the end as a sign of respect.

“Our fighters are extremely well-educated, very disciplined, almost to the man they are contributing valuable members of society,” he said. “They are pillars of their communities. They are married and they have children. This is a job to them.”

Today’s MMA is safer than boxing, Mersch said, and traumatic brain injury doesn’t typically occur because there are so many other ways to win. MMA fighters can also lose with honor and submit or “tap out.” This usually involves tapping their hand on the opponent or the floor, and the fight ceases once the referee sees it.

“There are very few undefeated fighters in the UFC,”Mersch said. “None of our champions are undefeated. Whereas in boxing, if you lose a few times in your career, then you are done.”

Today’s MMA athlete must be good at every aspect of the sport, said Lindland, an MMA fighter.

He trains year-round, while at the same time managing his Team Quest fighters. He also recently ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in Oregon.

“I also look at this as an entertainment business,” he said. “It’s not just a sport. You have to be good on the microphone, or at least competent. And you have to entertain the crowd when you’re in the ring, not only perform successfully as an athlete, but also be an entertainer. ... Sometimes just competing isn’t entertaining for some of the fans.”

At age 38, he said he must consider when his fighting window will close. He continues to compete, but understands that he must have a long-range plan.

“You always have got to think that at any moment you could get injured,” he said. “Your career as an athlete could be over. … I don’t know how many guys fight well into their 40s. I think I’ve got to look at things beyond this, and I absolutely want to stay involved in this because I think it’s a great sport.”

As the sport becomes more popular, there are more predators out there, Lindland said. He likes working with Thompson because he knows there’s someone in his corner.

Some people say the sport is too violent or rough, said Thompson, from Ungaretti & Harris. But he suggests they watch a whole show, and not the highlights reel, because they will see that it’s an interesting sport where the injuries are less severe than boxing.

He finds it surprising how many people enjoy this sport. He fully expects males between the ages of 18 and 34 to enjoy it. But his much older clients, often CEOs and company presidents, also admit to watching it. They ask for tickets or say that they can’t wait until their wives go to bed so they can order a UFC Pay-Per-View fight.

Many young lawyers assume this area is all fun, but there is real work involved, he said.

“It’s hard and it can be contentious, and it can be difficult because you are dealing with athletes, some of whom aren’t making a lot of money when they start out and they want to fight a lot and have a lot of needs,” he said.

“One misconception is that this is just a lot of going to fights and walking around arenas, and there’s some of that. But the day-to-day work is real legal work.”

Thompson’s typically not sitting in a cushy arena seat. He instead spends a lot of time at fights in a small locker room with a fighter watching the prior fights on a television.

“It’s one of those businesses where a lot of success is just showing up,” he said. “When there is a UFC show in a particular place, that is where the business is that week. And that is where everyone involved in this will be, and you can make contacts and conduct business, and explore other options for your fighters and form relationships.”

Thompson finds it gratifying to see the fighters get recognition. In the past, wrestlers did not have an outlet to compete after college or even the Olympics. But MMA changed that, he said.
“You get to know not only the guys, but their families and their wives and kids and parents,” he said. “It’s a very heartwarming thing to be involved in because you are really working to shape somebody’s career. Watching them succeed and fail, but also watching the guys pick themselves up and move ahead in this game is really a lot of fun.”

Reprinted with permission from Chicago Lawyer, December 2008.