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Rarely is it a good sign when those who report the news become the news. Conor McGregor on Aug. 23 appeared on ESPN for some damage control. Footage of McGregor punching a 50-year-old man in a pub in April started to make the rounds online, and as such, the former two-division Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder needed a helping hand to rehabilitate his public image. Enter ESPN’s Ariel Helwani.
Helwani is the most prominent media member in MMA and works for the biggest media brand in all of sports, so it was sensible for McGregor to seek out this platform. However, there’s more to it than just good sense. Helwani also happens to be king of the media softball league, known more for cozying up to fighters and managers than for any substantive journalistic effort. For McGregor, who in the last two and a half years has inflicted more violence outside of competition than inside of it, Helwani was the best possible sparring partner to make him look good since Paulie Malignaggi.
True to his brand, Helwani was thankful and honored to be a part of McGregor’s PR campaign, a move for which he was rightly criticized by Deadspin’s Chris Thompson. Showtime’s Luke Thomas also addressed the issue, and while he did not single out his former colleague by name, it was pretty clear what -- or who -- prompted the video. The problem to which both criticisms speak is fundamentally with planned interviews: They are almost always empty. For the most part, if you’re looking for actual substance or an insight into a fighter’s psyche, you’ll rarely get it in a sit-down interview. A small part of that lies with the interviewer. If you follow the run-of-the-mill question script, then there isn’t a whole lot with which to work: How’s training camp going? How are you preparing for your opponent’s strengths? How do you see yourself winning?
There’s a scene from the surf documentary “Blue Horizon” in which the late surfing champion Andy Irons was interviewed shortly after an early elimination from a contest. “I know you just lost, but how do you feel?” the interviewer asks. “I lost. How do you think I feel? Not good,” Irons replies. Once the reporter leaves, Irons turns to the documentary camera: “I hate that. How do you think I feel? It’s so [expletive] stupid. ‘How do you feel? I feel killer. I wish I’d lose every contest in my first heat. Isn’t that what everyone comes to enter a contest for?’”
Most sit-down interviews are essentially small talk spit-shined with professional sheen. When someone asks you “How’s it going?” you probably won’t say “I’m going through a really rough time right now” even if that’s how you actually feel. Most MMA interviews are a lengthier version of “I’m fine. How about you?”
Even if a fighter is thoughtlessly honest, it’s in his or her best interest to defer to the canonical answers: “It’s been my best camp ever.” “I’m bringing in sparring partners to mimic their strengths.” “I see myself winning by knockout or submission, but I’m ready to go to war.” No one is going to say their knee has been aching lately so they’ve been taking it easy or that they hope their opponent comes to the fight out of shape and out of sorts. Part of that stems from the necessary delusions fighters must cultivate in order to compete in such an insane sport, but much of it is simply the nature of the format. Honesty is almost always admission against interest.
Which leads to the main question, so large that it feels bovine and dumb: Why do we interview fighters? What are we hoping to gain? Based on the types of questions and the types of answers we usually get, I’m honestly not sure. Is it just to let fighters talk and promote themselves and their personality brand? Perhaps it is as simple as dotting the Is and crossing the Ts to make sure we don’t miss the one percent of the time someone says something interesting, which would explain why so many of them feel so transactional and obligatory. However, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who doesn’t care about the other 99 percent of fighter interviews out there.
There are exceptions, though, and when they happen, they tend to be in the immediate aftermath of a fight, when exhaustion and adrenaline override the part of the brain that remembers to thank the sponsors and avoids the gamble of vulnerability: that in order to be loved or respected or understood, you have to let yourself be known. I know what I want from those interviews -- to catch a glimpse at the humanity that underpins the call to violence. I want to see the multitude of ways in which fighters, all uniformly focused, process the aftermath of a fight. After watching people in circumstances so outrageous they may as well be alien, I want to see the part of fighters that looks like me.
Interviewing people live is hard. It takes a set of talents with which most are unaware, let alone possess. As Thomas pointed out, there are plenty of good and smart reasons for playing it safe. The medium is malleable; saying more could be done with it is not saying we should do away with it. The least we can do in the meantime is model what we want in interview subjects and be honest about what we’re trying to get from them.
Eric is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.