On the freedom of being an outsider.
I once wrote a really stupid memo.
You might’ve heard about it. It was a long time ago. Ancient history.
I think I had good intentions at the time. I’d just signed with Bleacher Report. I wanted to help create a strong relationship between my new employer and the UFC, but I also wanted to try and help rehabilitate Bleacher Report’s reputation as a shithole where anyone could write whatever they wanted. And there were a few good, sensible things in that memo, things I would still say if someone asked me for advice on writing and journalism.
But oh my fucking Moses, I have no words for the rest of the stuff I wrote in that thing.
Earlier today, I read it for the first time since I wrote it. I’d always avoided it, figuring if I pretended it didn’t exist, it just wouldn’t exist. It worked for Steve Jobs, kind of.
But thanks, internet, for keeping it around, and for giving me the chance to hate myself again.
It was yucky then. It’s yucky today. But that’s where my head was at. I was getting paid $35,000 a year (this felt like a fortune at the time) to write 10–12 posts a day about a sport I loved. I thought the way to protect that job was to help my new colleagues understand what made the UFC angry, so we could avoid doing those things and develop a cozy relationship.
The really cool part was when one of those colleagues I was trying to help saw the wrongness in what I was doing and responded with a polite email to point out that I was giving some pretty bad advice, and that I should maybe clarify my thoughts in a second email.
Nah, I’m just kidding. That asshole immediately leaked it to Deadspin.
What I’m saying is, I know what it’s like to walk on eggshells in order to keep your status and place.
I was the worst offender of all. I broke every journalism rule in the book. I sent managers questions before interviews, which is a big ole’ no-no in journalism. I’d hear horrible stories about athletes and executives, the kind that should have sent me scrambling to gather information and confirm as much as I could.
But I didn’t, because I knew I’d be risking my access, and my access was everything.
Nobody wants to lose their job, especially when one call from a man in Vegas can end someone’s career.
The night UFC made a stupid decision
We saw what happened two years ago with Ariel Helwani’s blacklisting after he reported the news of Brock Lesnar’s UFC return.
This, by the way, was exactly what he was supposed to be doing as a reporter. Helwani got the story, confirmed it and reported it. This is how the breaking of news works.
But UFC executives, who don’t understand that media outlets are not promotional partners (unless they are; more on that in a different story someday), were furious. They’d planned to make the announcement in a surprise video during the pay per view later that night. Helwani’s reporting ruined those plans. It was hilarious.
According to Helwani, White said the decision to pull his credential was Lorenzo Fertitta’s.
“Lorenzo put a bullet in your head,” White told Helwani. “Your career is over.”
White then directed a public relations staffer in charge of credentialing at the time to revoke Helwani’s credential, along with those of fellow MMAFighting staffers Esther Lin and E. Casey Leydon.
The trio left the arena. After Helwani tweeted the news from the arena parking lot, the mixed martial arts world erupted in fury. Later that night, I lost my mind, my self-control and my decorum during an interview that night with Submission Radio. I consider Ariel a friend and am highly defensive of him, but I felt the UFC’s treatment went far beyond despicable, and I said so on live radio. Afterwards, I thought I’d surely lost my credential, and I was fine with it.
It remains one of my finest career moments.
The ban lasted only a few days, largely because it was historically stupid to oust one of the sport’s most popular personalities for doing his job.
White took credit for changing his mind and letting Helwani back into the fold; as per usual, this was a lie.
The decision was actually taken out of White’s hands when a senior UFC executive reached out to officials at SBNation to seek a fix to the situation. Helwani, Lin and Leydon’s credentials were restored, and the UFC released a statement confirming the news. Of course, at the end of the statement, the promotion couldn’t help but throw in a little dig.
However, in our opinion, we believe the recurring tactics used by its lead reporter extended beyond the purpose of journalism. We feel confident our position has now been adequately communicated to the SB Nation editorial team.
Helwani’s “recurring tactics” are actually just the tools of journalism. He communicates with people constantly, always checking to see if there’s anything new out there that nobody else knows about, and then he calls other people until he can confirm the story. That’s as basic as journalism gets, right?
It’s just that the UFC doesn’t know what journalism is, or they don’t care. To them, media outlets provide free marketing and hype. You can’t really blame them for feeling that way; a few minutes browsing through major MMA media sources might leave you with the same impression.
Helwani’s case ended the right way, but there are still others—Josh Gross, Loretta Hunt and Jonathan Snowden being the most prominent names—who have every right to be there, if they want to be.
But they aren’t, because nobody holds a grudge like Dana White.
This is the way things are, and they likely won’t change until White’s new contract expires and Endeavor taps an actual professional to run the UFC. White will continue to be the aging, boisterous and incredibly sensitive guy he’s always been.
I think that’s why some of you have asked if I’m worried about any fallout from what I have chosen to write about here.
The answer to that is, quite simply, no.
If I never attend another live MMA event, I will be happy. I have been to over one hundred UFC events, which is approximately 91 events too many. I am done.
I was credentialed to a UFC pay per view in Dallas last fall. I drove up from Austin the night before to meet Shaun Al Shatti and Chuck Mindenhall; I had the intention of getting real drunk in order to mask my social anxiety and maybe have some fun, but I lasted about an hour before bailing.
I went to see Daniel Cormier—who has become a good friend over the years, and who still owes me a copy of Batman: Arkham City for Xbox One, which he conveniently forgot to return to me after one of his fights in Las Vegas years ago—and to catch up on what was new in his life. The new thing in his life was that he was heavyweight champion of the world. The new thing in my life was that I had nothing new.
We watched iPhone videos of his son playing football. He smiled bigger than you’ve ever seen him smile, cackling and pointing out every move his son made. Winning a title fight pales in comparison to watching his son juke a linebacker out of his cleats. We talked about Jon Jones and how he can’t get his shit together; we talked about how funny Ben Askren can be. We talked about pro wrestling.
When I left to go back to my hotel, I started considering why I’d come to Dallas, and whether or not I really wanted to be there at all.
I went to the arena the next day and grabbed my press credential. I said hello to a couple of people I knew, and got a few smiles in return. I also got a few smirks, and one reporter made a very focused attempt to pretend I did not exist. The media spread was terrible because the UFC stopped paying for good media buffets years ago, so I grabbed a coffee.
I walked out to my seat on the first row of press row. I sat down and looked around the arena. It had been two years since my last time at an event. That one was McGregor vs. Diaz 1, and I always had this feeling about it, like: that’s it. That has to be my final event, because how can you top it? But I came back anyway, and it was like I never left. And not in the good way, like in the way things are instantly familiar and comfortable despite being gone for years. This was the opposite. This was the same thing it used to be, and yet it was alien.
The flashing lights. The UFC’s terrible DJ, who mixes together songs in different keys and time signatures and still calls it music. The frankentunes were blaring at 190 decibels, which meant I didn't even have to pray for hearing loss. It would happen naturally, and I would be grateful.
For about three minutes, I looked around the arena, at the same old scene I’d lived in for a decade. And I realized suddenly that I just didn’t want to be there. Not for one more second.
I stood the fuck up, walked out of the arena, got in my car and drove home.
I threw my credential out the window somewhere near the Waco city line and smiled. It was silly, but there was a freedom to it, and also I’d probably committed a crime by littering. I made it home in time to watch those fights on my huge television, sitting next to my wife on our comfortable couch and eating a plate of hot wings.
I still turned in my post-fight column. It was just as good as anything I would’ve written from inside that arena.
This site and the things I will write here will no doubt force me outside the UFC’s bubble. I suspect they already have.
And that’s okay; it’s been a long time coming. The UFC believes in using media to market their products; I believe the media should be adversarial and shine a bright light into the areas they don’t want us to see.
Don’t worry: I’ve already noticed you UFC folks signing up for subscriptions. I thank you for your money, even though I’m well aware you’re only here because you’re going to use my words to tattle on me.
If that’s what happens, I’m fine with it. Because being on the outside is the only place where you can really tell the truth.
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