Update: as we very clearly stated below, the UFC has already undone everything. We all got a good 24 hours out of it at least.
Saturday night was awesome if you’re a fight fan. You got to see one of the best cards, top to bottom, the UFC could possibly produce, a longtime fighter finally achieve his dream, and the official announcement of McGregor vs Diaz 2, and that Fedor would be fighting on UFC Fight Pass because he’ll be on some random Russian show. Oh, and BROCK LESNAR is coming back and will fight at UFC 200. The UFC even made a cool little video hyping UFC 200 and suddenly I’m thinking, “Well, it makes a bit of sense why they’d want Conor there to film for this thing because it was great.”
Then the UFC kicked Ariel Helwani out of the arena, taking away his credentials, while “banning him for life.” The reason was apparently that Ariel broke the news that Brock would be at UFC 200 before the UFC had made their own announcement. And, well, you know how Dana gets sometimes. So of course that needs to be talked about because media people love to climb up on crosses, especially crosses for other media folk. My favorite “hot take” is from Deadspin which has long been proud of its motto: “Sports News without Access, Favor, or Discretion.” They made sure to mention, with no appreciation for the irony, that they also don’t have credentials.
I should note that Brock coming back to the UFC wasn’t a huge secret. I’d first heard the talk a while ago but it wasn’t finalized and since I couldn’t get two sources to confirm I wouldn’t run with it because some poor dude might lose his job for letting the cat out of the bag. And why the hell would I do that to someone? It’s one thing to go digging and upset people, maybe risk your and someone else’s career, if it’s for something truly important (“It turns out, the UFC IS fake just better at it than WWE!”). But this is was telling people that one grown man in his underpants would be fighting another grown man in his underpants on a certain date. That’s it.
Which is not to say Ariel was in the wrong. He wasn’t. He obviously got the word that it was official and simply reported it. In the real world, two men fighting is about as important as nothing, but in the MMA world it’s a story and if I’d had his information I too would’ve tweeted it out. Hell, I purposely sent cryptic tweets about it a while back just so I could then point and say, “SEE!!!!! I told you.” (I’m petty.) Ariel did his job and did it well.
The UFC fucked up by handling it the way they did, no doubt. Instead of waiting till the show was over and just quietly pulling his credentials a day or two later, they got angry and again Dana Is Dana. And now more people are talking about a reporter than the actual news he reported. But that’s Dana White: he does a lot of things, good and bad, and they’re all part of the same package. He’ll hand a guy $50k for no reason other than he was happy with his fight and then he’ll ban Helwani “for life” over a tweet.
This all gets compounded by Ariel being a nice guy. People like him. Fighters like him, fans like him, writers like him – he’s a lovable dude. I don’t know Helwani personally. I’ve spoken to him here and there are UFCs – we even sat at the same table eating dinner once! – but I’m confident that he doesn’t want to ever be the story. Real reporters (and he is one) don’t want to be the news. When a reporter is the news then something is wrong.
Personally, I’ve only ever not been credentialed one time and that was last December for Conor v Aldo and the reason I was given was basically, “Too many outlets are covering the show.” I suspect I’ll hear the same for UFC 200. Every other time I’ve applied for credentials they’ve been granted without question. I’m at that stage where I legit don’t know how many shows I’ve been to (humble brag). Hell, I’m also at the stage where I don’t really want to go live because it isn’t nearly as fun as people might think. I have to put on my reporter’s hat, sit peacefully, go out of my way to not show emotion, and be as objective as possible. When I’m at home, I can wear sweatpants, drink, and play with my dogs while the show is on. Which one sounds like a more fun way to do your job?
I don’t see myself as a shill though. Hell, for all the hand wringing done by folks, I didn’t see them covering the weirdness that is the UFC’s PED policy (and this is after I went straight to multiple websites and said, “Hey! This is important.”). And I’ve written about the possible creation of a fighter’s union and had the HG Twitter blocked by Dana! (Legit don’t know why; suspect it was the union thing.) Reporting in MMA is like reporting in most sports: you get interviews, tell people what happened, and sometimes get word out on a fight to be made (or a trade coming down the pipe). In fact, that’s most reporting in life. Life is boring. There just aren’t tons of secret news items waiting to be dug up and exposed to the world.
(Actually, I’d like to note that Luke Thomas has been very cool about acknowledging our reporting on the UFC PED policy – and he’s part of the same website as Helwani. Quality knows quality, methinks.)
Buuuuuuuut, the spin is starting from reporters and writers that don’t like Dana on a personal level and it is half distorting things. Here’s what a credential is: a piece of plastic you wear around your neck that lets you go backstage and have a nice seat close to the cage. That’s basically it. It’s a really nice seat, don’t get me wrong, and it’s free but that’s about it. It’s not like a UFC credential is the same as a driver’s license. If you don’t have one the UFC can’t stop you from actually covering the sport. In theory, they might tell fighters to not do interviews with Ariel but they haven’t so far as I know. Josh Gross has been banned by the UFC for years and still has had UFC contracted fighters on his podcast in the past. And his being banned didn’t stop him from writing about the weirdness surrounding Belfort’s fighting Jon Jones despite odd PED stuff possibly being know by the UFC.
This happened years ago, in a way, when the UFC got pissed at a group of reporters and banned them also (that’s when Gross became Public Enemy #1). The reaction then was embarrassing: media outlets attempted to publicly refuse to cover the UFC. Which is insane. If Donald Trump said he wouldn’t talk to the New York Times do you think they’d just stop writing about him? “Well, Bob, I see that Trump shot a baby on stage today but since he doesn’t talk to us let’s run with a story about a kid in Iowa making the world’s largest ball of twine instead.” It’s not like Woodward and Bernstein got a lot of cooperation from Nixon.
The UFC is a business and they can do what they want when it comes to the press. They give the press good seats and access for one reason: they want the publicity. Make a reporter’s job easier and they’ll write about you and BOOM! free pub. This is how all sports media works. Reporters get access if the team or company like you and think you’ll help drum up interest in what they do. It’s up to the reporter to figure out how far they’ll go to be fair to the reader while not losing that access. It’s a line that sports journalists have to continually walk, but that line is for the reporter and the reporter alone to walk. Why anyone thinks a company – UFC, the NFL, Ben & Jerry’s – would go out of its way to help a reporter break news the company doesn’t want out is a mystery to me. If your neighbor was telling everyone about how you cheated on your wife would you let them use your phone to do so?
But “The Media” tend to be very self righteous and overly defensive. Probably has something to do with not making a lot of money and having a job where half the readers don’t like you and half the people you cover don’t like you either. It’s a noble profession, an important one – maybe the most important – but that doesn’t mean it’s without flaws. If you’re a reporter and can’t take Dana White calling you a name, or think you’re entitled to as much access as you want at all times, then maybe it’s time to grow up a bit. Which, and I want to stress this, is NOT my impression of Helwani’s response to all this.
I don’t think Ariel expected the blow back to be this severe but he’s had ups and downs with the company in the past and will in the future. He’ll probably end up getting his credential back too. And if anything he’s now a bigger name, and will have a bigger audience, because of everything. Ultimately, he’ll keep doing good work and that’s all anyone should actually care about. A good seat to watch fights is nice but breaking a story is far nicer.