On the Inside Track

Seven Vanderbilt Law alumni who have served or are serving as their company's general counsel discuss the challenges of bearing the ultimate responsibility for how their company's legal matters are handled, advising senior executives and boards of directors, and dealing with matters as mundane as 401(k) loans, as serious as a government investigation, and as exhilarating as an initial public offering.

Ike Lawrence Epstein '92 (BA'89)
General Counsel, The Ultimate Fighting Championship

By David L. Hudson Jr. Ike Lawrence Epstein

Ever wonder who in the Vanderbilt law school community has the most entertaining job? What about a lawyer who oversees the most profitable and successful mixed martial arts company in the world, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Randy "the Natural" Couture, Chuck "the Iceman" Liddell and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson? Imagine building this company from the verge of collapse into the lodestar for the fastest growing sport in the world.

This is not a dream but a reality for Ike Lawrence Epstein, who is executive vice president and general counsel for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as the UFC. Mixed martial arts arguably is the king of all combat sports, as competitors must learn many different combat styles, including boxing, wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu and kickboxing, among others. It has taken the sports world by storm since Zuffa, the company owned by brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, purchased the UFC in 2001 and turned the company into a billion-dollar entertainment entity. "It definitely is an exciting job because it's such an interesting intersection of politics, the media world and the excitement of combat sports," Espstein said. "It is a unique mix."

As UFC's general counsel, Epstein deals with four major types of legal issues: fighter relationships, intellectual property, regulatory and political work, and transactional work. He oversees a team of four lawyers who deal with fighter contracts, promotional agreements, protection of logos and trademarks, an active lobbying campaign, and television contracts in 135 different countries and territories.

While exciting, the job has its share of challenges. Foremost of these is convincing legislators around the world of the safety of the sport. Founded in 1993, the UFC in its early days branded itself as a no-holds barred spectacle of brutality. Senator John McCain famously derided the sport as "human cockfighting." However, after the Fertitta brothers acquired the UFC, Epstein and others made sure that the sport developed a set of rules that would bring it greater legitimacy and respect.

Epstein's leadership has led nearly all states and numerous countries around the world to approve mixed martial arts as a licensed sport. "The effort to regulate the sport of MMA has been my biggest challenge," he said. "When the company purchased the UFC in 2001, only New Jersey regulated the sport. We saw it as our job to legitimize the sport by bringing safety to the forefront."

Now, 45 states actively regulate mixed martial arts. "This is the direct result of me and my team literally walking the halls of state legislatures and educating legislators and their staffs," Epstein said. "Once people take the time to learn about and understand the sport, it's a no-brainer. We've done shows across the United States, in several Canadian provinces and in numerous foreign countries. We had our first event in Brazil in August."

The job of educating and promoting the sport is not without its frustrations. For example, Epstein has yet to convince the powers that be in the New York legislature to legalize mixed martial arts. But he has also scored some important successes, including a lucrative new broadcast deal for the UFC with FOX television.

Many UFC events take place in Epstein's hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. His father, who was and still is in the casino business, sent Epstein to the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover for high school. When Epstein began to look at colleges, he thought about experiencing the South and Vanderbilt quickly became his first choice. "It was an instant connection when I visited Vanderbilt's campus and Nashville," he said. He loved his undergraduate years at Vanderbilt and the city of Nashville—its people, the music and general vibe. He started Vanderbilt Law School right after earning his undergraduate degree in 1989. "It was the best law school I got into and I absolutely loved Vanderbilt," he said. "I had to love it to spend seven years of my life there."

During his time at Vanderbilt, Epstein enjoyed playing pick-up basketball. On the court, he bonded with a fellow hoopster, law professor Nick Zeppos, who became his mentor. "I played ball with this fellow with crazy curly black hair," he recalled. "We were equally average on the basketball court." Zeppos taught Epstein civil procedure as well as classes in administrative law and legislative process. "He is a friend, mentor and just a great human being," Epstein said.

After earning his law degree, Epstein clerked for a Nevada state judge before joining the law firm Beckley Singleton in Las Vegas. There he represented casinos and a sports company, Top Rank Boxing, whose chairman, Bob Arum, was a Harvard-educated attorney considered one of the greatest promoters in boxing history. Epstein developed an expertise in the fight business from his years of representing Arum and Top Rank Boxing. Another major client was Station Casinos, operated by the Fertitta family, and when Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased the UFC, they consulted Epstein, who worked as outside counsel on numerous matters for the UFC through the years.

In 2006, Beckley Singleton merged with a larger law firm, Lewis & Roca. Epstein discussed the merger with his major clients, including the Fertittas, to make sure they were comfortable. "They supported the idea, but asked if I wanted to join UFC on a full-time basis," he said. "It seemed like a unique opportunity to build the sport and do something really special."

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