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Couture and The UFC: A Dispute Between Friends?

We knew it was coming. Like tax day or Armageddon, it has loomed on the horizon for some time now, but that didn’t make it any better when I heard the news this morning. The UFC is suing Randy Couture, and not just for breach of contract. They’re suing him for damages, for “intentional torts”. They’re asking for “in excess of $10,000”, claiming he has caused the company “irreparable damage”.

In other words, the UFC wants to stick it to Couture, who is not without blame for this mess. He did walk away in the middle of a contract. But torts? Damages? It pains Dana White to have to do it, apparently, and yet somehow he soldiers on.

“What’s really tough for me, to be honest, is we have been friends for a very long time,” White told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “The hard part is that he is not living up to his obligations. Captain America is not keeping his word.”

How’s that for pathos? Never let it be said that White is afraid to bring out the comic book imagery when making his case in the press.

This is a sad, but inevitable day for mixed martial arts. Despite the fact that there’s more money than ever before in this sport, there suddenly isn’t enough to go around. The word you’re looking for here is greed.

Dana White would have you believe that he and Couture are friends who’ve come upon a disagreement over money. So what do friends do? They sue for damages. They allege “irreparable harm”. So much for my plan to friend Dana White on MySpace.

Whether he’ll say it or not, what White is really doing right now is sending a message to the rest of the UFC’s fighters. He’s essentially trying to hound Couture into retirement, making it impossible for him to compete as a fighter or use his own name for promotional purposes with any other organization.

White knows that Couture doesn’t have a decade to wait this out. Time hasn’t ravaged him the way it has other fighters, but nobody goes on forever. He’s trying to put Couture out of business. And he’s hoping everyone else in the stable gets the message.

It’s not hard to see what the UFC is afraid of. If they allow a champion to “resign” from his contract and wait out the duration, they’ll soon find that every title-holder and top contender has his hand out for more money. This is about setting a precedent.

But at the same time, what is the cost of victory for the UFC? Best case scenario, they’re awarded some cash for whatever “irreparable harm” Couture has done them (maybe enough to cover damages for the TUF house after next season?), and “The Natural” is forced into a kind of MMA exile.

That doesn’t mean the UFC, as a company, is really any better off. They’re still without Couture, and there isn’t a single, viable competitor that’s going to fold up shop just because they can’t get him.

As for the other fighters? They’ll get the message. How could they not, it’s vitriolic enough. But all it will do is convince them to wait until their contract is up before they demand more money, which they will surely do. The UFC gains only the resentment of the multitude of fighters and fans who look up to Couture, and that’s hardly worth it.

The UFC is, as of this moment, the biggest and most successful MMA organization in the world. And here they are taking one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors to court just so nobody else can have him. These are the politics of children. It’s just plain sad.

When “friends” fight like this, nobody wins but the lawyers. Irreparable damage, indeed.

Ben Fowlkes is the publisher of The Fighting Life, as well as the editor of and a contributor to CBS Sports.

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