If there were any remaining hope as to whether or not the UFC could ever rise above the primordial ooze it emerged from in the early 90’s to become one of the biggest, most respected sports leagues in the world, this past weekend served as your reminder.
The answer, if you haven’t figured it out for yourself over the last half decade, is a resounding no. As in never, nope, nada, and any other amalgamation of the notion of impossibility.
As it has made a troubling habit of doing, the UFC got in its own way again last Saturday. It happened before Michael Bisping managed to enjoy the greatest story of redemption and hard work since Rudy made it on to the field in South Bend, and it happened far from the gaze of onlookers.
Remember that scene in The Godfather when James Caan smashes a reporter’s camera outside the family wedding? It was a lot like that, only there were no concealed weapons involved, at least that we know of.
If you don’t live in the MMA-centric bubble that is UFC fandom then you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.
Last Saturday or, by the time it actually happened, early Sunday morning, six-time MMA journalist of the year award winner Ariel Helwani was physically removed from UFC 199 in Inglewood for reporting some late-breaking news. What’s more? His photographer Esther Lin, and another co-worker E. Casey Leydon, Helwani’s videographer, were also removed.
Surely Helwani and his cronies must have committed some great sin, some massive affront to the powers-that-be at Zuffa HQ to deserve such heavy-handed admonishment. Right?
Turns out Helwani was just doing his job. Shortly before the UFC planned to confirm several juicy tid-bits of information to the fans in attendance at UFC 199, Helwani broke the news first. Namely that a rematch between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz had finally been set, and, more importantly, that former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar was returning to the sport at UFC 200.
No calls for fighters to unionize, no gossip on the Culinary Union’s very public spat with Zuffa. Helwani’s great crime? Simply reporting the facts. For that offense Helwani and his cohorts, the A-team that makes up MMAFighting.com’s event staff, received a lifetime ban from all UFC events and was even told backstage that Zuffa would take every step possible to ensure Helwani’s career ends.
That’s not where it stops. On Monday’s edition of the MMA Hour, Helwani’s weekly flagship show, the reporter released a glut of damning information on how the UFC has treated himself and others over the years.
But of all the revelatory facts, and there were many, the worst might be Helwani’s telling of an instance in which UFC staff “got physical” with him regarding his coverage of an event. How this is not mainstream news by now is alarming. A decorated, respected member of the sports journalism community was physically accosted by toughs in suits in regards to the work he’s doing covering the event itself.
The UFC has made it a habit up to this point of abusing those they deem replaceable or disposable; we need look no further than the recent firing of Jacob “Stitch” Duran to see how petty the UFC can be.
Banning Ariel Helwani and his entire event staff is a precipitous new low. Zuffa had a “surprise” spoiled by a man whose literal job is to report news as soon as he knows it to be factually reliable and they reacted like an 8-year-old who wasn’t allowed to tell their favorite story.
This is truly a black mark on the face of mixed martial arts, and it deserves to be. The UFC has hurt this sport in so many different ways that the scariest part of it all is wondering what they’ll do next.
What’s worse is this wouldn’t have even been an issue had the UFC not created one. Helwani’s job is to report on the sport he knows and loves which, in turn, means increased viewership and profitability for the UFC. In any other instance they would have created an enemy after treating Helwani the way they have. Instead, and as a testament to Helwani’s character, the journalist has already admitted he would love to be taken back into the fold at Zuffa.
Dana White’s response? “Buy a ticket.”
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