The Risks of Trying to be Half Man, Half MMAmazing

In Light of New York’s Legalization of Mixed Martial Arts, a Look at the Legal and Regulatory Risks Involved With Alternating Between a Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts Career.

On four occasions throughout 2013, colorful former welterweight and super welterweight boxing champion Ricardo “El Matador” Mayorga had his name back in the combat sports headlines again following a two-year period of inactivity courtesy of an unsuccessful foray into the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), where he went 0-3 with one no contest. In doing so, Mayorga became neither the first, nor the last, professional boxer to seek a career revival or financial boost from their participation in the wildly popular sport of MMA. Likewise, popular MMA fighters, such as Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, have made similar forays into professional boxing to test the waters. Walking the line between the two sports, however, carries several potential risks, not just to an athlete’s wellbeing, if they ultimately show themselves to be wholly incapable of making the crossover, but also to the legal relationships with his managers, promoter, and/or licensing athletic commission. In light of New York State’s recent legalization of MMA, a quick look at the possible pitfalls of endeavoring to simultaneously participate in both professional boxing and professional MMA follows.

A Fighter’s Management

A standard form New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) manager/ boxer contract provides, in relevant part, that “[t]he Boxer agrees to faithfully fulfill any contract for the rendition of boxing services, including training, entered into on his or her behalf by the Manager during the continuance” of their agreement. While this clause unquestionably covers all professional boxing matches that the boxer participates in, what if the boxer does not wish to box any longer, but instead pursue a career in MMA during the term of the agreement with his manager? If he has a good relationship with his manager, and the manager fully supports his effort to transition into MMA, the above clause could potentially be understood as to cover MMA. However, if he knows that his manager does not approve of his interest in transitioning into MMA, but he begins participating in MMA contests without the manager’s prior knowledge or approval, things could ugly. That is because, although provisions such as those within the aforementioned clause only explicitly cover professional boxing, they also require the boxer to be physically ready and capable of participating in the professional boxing contests his manager obtains for him during the term of their agreement (if a separate clause does not explicitly state as much). This is generally reinforced by additional clauses, such as the one contained within the standard NYSAC agreement which provides that “[i]t is understood and agreed by and between the Boxer and the Manager that the services of the Boxer are extraordinary, exceptional, and unique.” In other words, getting one’s self cut, knocked out, or otherwise injured in an MMA fight on the sly, or even participating in one in the first place, could very likely constitute a material breach of contract.

A Fighter’s Promoter

A typical boxing promotional agreement includes language prohibiting a boxer from entering into an agreement that in any way would materially conflict with the promoter’s ability to promote the bouts provided for in the agreement. Like management agreements, many promotional agreements also expressly limit their services to professional boxing. However, it is almost certain that, in the absence of an express clause within the promotional agreement, or a written amendment or release from same, a sure fire way for a boxer and/or his management team to get sued is to enter him into an MMA bout during the term of a promotional agreement without the promoter’s prior consent. Think of it this way; promoters almost always have a specific reason or agenda for signing a boxer to an exclusive promotional agreement. If a boxer gets cut, knocked out, or otherwise injured in an MMA bout at an inopportune time, he may very well cost the promoter a lot of money, due to a lost television slot, championship opportunity, or chance to face an opponent who may help boost the boxer’s ranking.

A more detailed promotional agreement may also include, as many collective bargaining agreements do in team sports, prohibitions on participating in certain activities that may render a fighter unable to perform his responsibilities under the terms of the agreement. Many times, this clause may include activities such as riding motorcycles and water skiing. However, it could easily be extended to cover MMA as well, due to the risk of injury involved. In short, a boxer should be 100 percent certain to discuss his intention to participate in MMA with his promoter and work out a written agreement with him regarding his intention. Otherwise, the boxer may find himself shelved in both the boxing and MMA worlds as legal action ensues from his misguided endeavor into MMA.

A Fighter’s Home State’s Athletic Commission

There is a risk that competing in MMA in one state may put one’s boxing license at risk in another, or vice versa. Other than a general concern as to whether a participant in one truly has the requisite skill set for the other, an athletic commission may be concerned that licensing a boxer to compete in MMA may inadvertently provide the boxer a loophole in either another commission’s management agreement (such as the above referenced one that expressly covers only boxing), or in an exclusive promotional agreement. Before seeking a license as a boxer or mixed martial artist in a state other than where one is currently licensed to compete in the other, therefore, a participant would be best served to contact the involved commissions, either through his manager or counsel, and fully investigate the implications of his desired transition.

And What About the Sanctioning Bodies?

While the explicit texts of the major sanctioning bodies’ bylaws and regulations are silent on the prospect of their champions and ranked contenders competing in MMA, logic dictates that the longer one remains inactive in boxing, the less likely he would stay in the rankings of a given sanction body. Further, if one of their champions fails to defend the title within the prescribed time frame or otherwise fails to meet his obligations as a champion because of his participation in MMA bouts, the sanctioning bodies have shown that they do not wait long to either strip a champion, change his status, or permit other ranked boxers to compete for an interim title.

Can a Participant Avoid The Above Problems By Competing in Combative Sports Overseas?

The short answer is no. While there are certainly opportunities for professional boxers to compete in MMA overseas, indeed notable boxers such as Francois Botha and Eric “Butterbean” Esch were once fairly active on the international MMA scene, the fact remains that even if no one can necessarily stop a boxer from competing overseas or take action against the promoters who stage such events in their various countries, the boxer’s managers and promoters can take legal action against them in United States for breaches of their agreements if they do so without their prior approval. Promoters are especially difficult to get around by going overseas, as many times their agreements provide that they have worldwide rights to stage professional boxing contests, while some management agreements may be limited to the United States.

As can be gathered from the above noted obstacles, a transition from professional boxing to professional MMA and vice versa is not something that a fighter and his management team should take lightly. Not only could it represent a sea change in one’s career and maybe one’s earning potential, but it can also lead to a number of prospective complications that could stall a fighter’s career in both disciplines if not handled properly. Despite the temptation, therefore, a boxer’s transformation into an athlete that is half man, half MMAmazing can take appreciably more than just a couple of months or years of training in the other discipline between one’s professional boxing or MMA contests.

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