I wrote the first in what I anticipate will be at least 3-4 part series on structural/cultural problems in MMA, starting with how fighters legitimise the UFC's power structure. https://t.co/9lz9gAbcHh— Jacob Debets (@jacob_debets) April 18, 2020
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC 250 live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
I started this series in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it looked like fights might be on hiatus indefinitely and the lifeblood of the media—fight announcements, live coverage and pre- and post-fight analysis—had stopped flowing. I reasoned that, with a windfall of free time, now was the ideal time to engage in sober reflection regarding the structural and cultural problems in the MMA industry.
The first entry to the series discussed how fighters on the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster legitimize the promotion’s exploitative business practices, underscoring their collective deference to authority and total lack of labor consciousness. The second put MMA managers under the microscope, criticizing the lack of barriers to entry to the vocation and the rife conflicts of interest involving the industry’s biggest players.
This entry will focus on the native MMA media and the precipitous lack of independent reporting which defines the industry and how this reinforces UFC hegemony and shields the industry’s most powerful individuals from accountability.
The MMA media has existed almost as long as the sport. Way back in 1997, in the midst of the “dark ages,” the “newspaper-of-record” was Full Contact Fighter, owned and operated by Joe Gold, a former boxer who became infatuated with the world of No Holds Barred. Later, websites like Sherdog.com and MMAWeekly.com emerged, offering news coverage and critical analysis of the bourgeoning UFC promotion and its international counterparts.
The ethicality and independence of the MMA media was put under strain early and often by the UFC in the 2000s. As told by Jonathan Snowden’s “MMA Encyclopedia,” Sherdog.com “went to war with UFC President Dana White, who was furious when Sherdog covered Japanese promotions K-1 and Pride as if they were equals of the UFC. White demanded that the site keep the focus on the UFC, even sending Sherdog founder Jeff Sherwood obscene text messages when the site covered one of K-1’s failed American adventures.”
The UFC also flexed its muscle in 2005, when it denied FCF, Sherdog, MMAWeekly and other websites credentials to cover UFC 55; the move was perceived at the time as reprisal for less than fawning coverage of the promotion. This sent a message, which echoes 15 years later, that the UFC expects the industry press to act as an appendage of its promotional arm, rather than as independent bodies in their own right.
Since 2005, MMA has reached unprecedented heights, attracting consistent coverage from mainstream broadcasters such as ESPN, CBS Sports and Fox and broadsheets like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. However, the promotion’s influence on the news cycle and the individuals responsible for producing it remains pervasive, which serves to compound and amplify the structural problems inherent to modern media, in general, and sports media, in particular.
One of the biggest and most intractable issues with the MMA media is the fact that its principals, almost without exception, came to the industry as combat sports enthusiasts, with knowledge of and a predisposition towards the individuals and entities they cover. To a degree, this much is to be expected. It would be an odd choice for someone who dislikes combat sports to pursue a career in combat sports journalism. However, it does create a built-in risk to independence, with reporters being reluctant to ask difficult questions for fear of perturbing their subjects or compromising future access.
Regrettably, many “reporters” display a marked lack of professionalism when performing press duties in a given fight week. It is not uncommon to see reporters posing for photos online with individuals who they are meant to cover, blurring the line between journalist/subject and fan/celebrity. Others are prone to writing effusive social media posts thanking high-profile fighters for giving them an interview, positioning journalism as something that is conducted at the behest of the subject rather than in the public interest.
One of the most glaring examples of the fanboyism-as-craft is provided by Robbie Fox of Bar Stool Sports, “a sports and pop culture blog.” Fox rose to prominence as a Conor McGregor “super fan” who staged a one-man-protest at the Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn, New York, where the Irishman was being charged with assault and criminal mischief in relation to the UFC 223 bus incident. He is now a member of the credentialed press at UFC events and routinely conducts exclusive interviews with UFC President Dana White. Unsurprisingly, these interviews are not of the hard-hitting variety and are replete with cringy exchanges.
Fixation on Credentials
A second, longstanding obstacle to frank and fearless MMA media coverage is the omnipresent risk that critical reporting will precipitate a removal of press credentials, which leads many a journalist to self-censor for the sake of preserving their rights-of-entry.
As the examples at the beginning of this article demonstrate, this is not necessarily an irrational fear. Historically, a number of reporters, including former Sherdog.com writers Josh Gross and Loretta Hunt, Bleacher Report’s Snowden and the aforementioned Gold, have been subject to lifelong bans as a result of writing things the UFC didn’t like. Others, like ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, formerly of MMAFighting, have been the subject of temporary bans, while sites known for their critical coverage—think SB Nation’s Bloody Elbow—are routinely denied credentials, even though they have never been formally, and by that I mean publicly, added to the blacklist.
This style of direct and indirect censorship has vastly limited the role that credentialed media play in covering UFC events. Pre- and post-fight press conferences are typified by inoffensive questions lined up for White and the fighters who are high-profile enough to share the stage with him. More challenging questions—about issues such as drug-testing, revenue share, domestic violence, Ramzan Kadyrov and the class-action lawsuit—are almost never asked directly, and when they are, they are deftly evaded and rarely followed up. This highly deferential style of “journalism” led then-Bleacher Report editor Jeremy Botter to write an internal memo in 2013 which expressly forbade the site’s reporters from “delving too deep into Zuffa’s financials” or asking about “controversial topic[s] in the middle of a press event designed to promote a certain fight card.” Those directives would not be out of place seven years later.
As Showtime’s Luke Thomas has observed, a more accurate label for pre-fight press conferences events would be as pep rallies. Their primary purpose isn’t to impart information but to hype fights and capture soundbites and staredown footage—pieces of media which are equally essential to the UFC and the click-heavy websites in attendance.
This shared interest and the associated understanding from fans that attending these functions will be an extension of the live-fight experience see “serious” questions literally shouted down for compromising the sports-as-escapism vibe. Such tribalism was on full display at the UFC 246 pre-fight presser in January, when reporter Morgan Campbell was relentlessly booed and jeered for asking McGregor about the status of two ongoing sexual assault investigations in Ireland. A similar thing happened in March, when ESPN’s Marc Raimondi presciently asked White whether COVID-19 could thwart the Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson main event at UFC 249, leaving a bewildered Raimondi to memorably retort “it’s a legitimate question.”
That UFC press conferences are more highly commercialized echo-chambers than sites for truth-telling paved the way for the extraordinary events of last month, when media in attendance for UFC 249 and successive events in Jacksonville, Florida, were requested to sign “event participation agreements” prohibiting them from “suggest[ing] or communicat[ing] to any person or entity” that the events “have been or will be held without appropriate health, safety or other precautions, whether relating to COVID-19 or otherwise.”
This agreement is an explicit encroachment on press freedoms at a time when transparency and public-interest reporting have never been more important. It is properly viewed as the logical next step in an ecosystem where media had already forfeited a significant degree of their independence as a result of buying into the credentials system.
Conflicts of Interest
A further obstacle to independent MMA journalism, which complements and aggravates those discussed above, is the clear conflicts of interests involving some of the major media entities and the subjects of their coverage. The most obvious present-day culprit in this regard is ESPN, which signed a five year, multi-billion dollar broadcasting and streaming deal with the UFC in May 2018, around about the same time that it brought on a number of the more popular reporters into its “news” arm, including the aforementioned Helwani and Raimondi and long-time Sports Illustrated and Washington Post fixture Jeff Wagenheim.
Unsurprisingly, since this time, ESPN’s coverage has become significantly more comprehensive and significantly less critical—a modus operandi which the network has historically adopted in respect to other prominent sports leagues like the NFL and the NBA, with which it has also signed broadcasting deals. At the same time, its reporters—principally Helwani and long-time network employee Brett Okamoto—have been deployed to undertake carefully stage-managed interviews on controversial subjects, which are subsequently used by the promotion as proof that these issues have been addressed and don’t warrant further scrutiny from non-broadcast-partner-employed-journalists.
Two recent examples of this stand out: Helwani’s interview of Conor McGregor in the buildup to UFC 246, where the former-champion was tepidly asked about and permitted to equivocate on some “legal issues”—meaning multiple sexual assault allegations—before the interview swiftly moved along; and the string of White interviews conducted by Okamoto in the leadup and aftermath of the ultimately nixed UFC 249 card, which was to be held on tribal lands in California.
In both cases, what should have been straightforward questions— “Did you commit the sexual assaults you are accused of?” and “Isn’t it reckless to be pushing ahead with a live event when you can’t even confirm whether fighters will be tested for the coronavirus?”—were buttressed with questions designed to present the subjects in a favorable light. It was public relations cosplaying as journalistic accountability.
As Deadspin columnist Laura Wagner opined in an article last year, these occurrences are indicative of a broader dilution and appropriation of journalism for corporate ends:
Because sports media is under pressure—athletes and teams don’t need journalists to get their messages out, people are getting rid of cable and media as a whole is being consolidated—organizations and reporters have had to adjust in order to maintain access to players and teams. This usually means friendlier, less aggressive coverage. As they adjust, the lines between what’s journalism and what’s business or sponcon or straight-up advertisements are being blurred. And as more and more reporters and media companies compromise themselves in order to get more access, and therefore a supposed edge, actual reporting and analysis are going to be diluted to the point of being meaningless.
A further and highly visible shortcoming of the MMA media has been the proclivity for websites to uncritically amplify and therefore legitimize attention-grabbing statements from this sport’s principals, even where these statements bear little relationship to reality and do nothing to inform readers.
MMA fighters calling out boxers, untested-prospects calling out established champions and every McGregor tweet ever are consistently treated as appropriate, headline-worthy “stories,” often dominating the media cycle with asinine narratives and diluting informed discourse for the sake of driving traffic. Such behavior has no doubt contributed to the rise of trolls like Dillon Danis and figures like Colby Covington, whose modus operandi has been to make highly controversial and at times brazenly hateful and jingoistic statements about his opponents and others in the sports ecosystems more broadly.
At a time when the business model of the media is under more strain than ever and a prerequisite to advertising revenue is a captive audience, it will take imagination and courage for the MMA media to buck this trend for the sake of the industry.
Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.