Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC on ESPN+ live on your computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
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.
Over the years Dana White has operated as president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he has had his ups and downs in terms of public perception. His detractors often underestimate the appeal his blunt, outspoken style has to a huge swath of UFC fans. What many consider his negatives in fact function as positives for him a significant amount of the time. On the other hand, his supporters frequently underappreciate the negative impression he has left at times on fans and potential fans of the sport. The last seven-plus days were a strong reminder of those negatives, as White had one of his worst weeks in years in the way he handled Cristiane Justino’s departure from the UFC.
One of White’s strengths has always been that he gives off the air of authenticity, even when he’s being dishonest. He doesn’t feel rehearsed and focus group-tested the way that other sports’ commissioners often do. That’s what made his disingenuous handling of “Cyborg” particularly striking. It felt like he was trying to put one over on fans, and in a way, that wasn’t particularly hard to see through.
There’s nothing wrong with the UFC or any sports league trying to get out its message in the most convincing manner. The issue with the conversation the UFC disseminated between White and Laura Sanko was that it was pretending to be something that it wasn’t. It was someone hired by the UFC to ask a series of questions White wanted asked who would then nod along at everything he said and occasionally interject to verbally agree or attempt to bolster what he was saying. Yet it was framed as an interview and began and ended with Sanko thanking White for his time, as if he were doing her the favor of granting media availability. It wasn’t journalism, but it didn’t even have to be. The problem was that it was non-journalism masked as journalism and figured that viewers wouldn’t be savvy enough to notice the difference.
The problems with White’s response to “Cyborg” continued from there. White had come under fire for the way that he talked about Justino at a 2014 press conference. White said that “Cyborg” looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and then pantomimed her walking around in a mocking way. White defended this angrily by blaming the media and claiming it was taken out of context. White correctly noted that his mocking words directed at “Cyborg” came during a period in which he was promoting Ronda Rousey and that Rousey had very negative things to say about Justino because of her past steroid use and drug test failure. Rousey-“Cyborg” was the big fight at the time, and both sides were blaming the other for that match not getting made. White naturally took the side of his star fighter. He does have a fair point when he notes that his remarks related to performance-enhancing drugs. If a fighter takes drugs and those drugs change his or her physical features, it’s fair play for others to bring up those changes. The problem, then and now, was White’s tone.
The remarks White made at a UFC 172 press conference were certainly not the only time he had negative things to say about “Cyborg” and PEDs. The reason people seized on that instance in particular was the way White made the point. It was a mocking and mean-spirited suggestion that a woman looked like a man and was designed to ridicule “Cyborg” for her appearance. It was understandable people would be bothered by that regardless of context.
White would have been better off just saying he didn’t mean to hurt Justino’s feelings or question her gender identity and that he was sorry she felt that way, all while explaining he was focused on steroid usage in what he said. It would have been a lot more effective than launching a counteroffensive against the media and pretending there was nothing about his remarks that could have been taken wrong.
Where things really went off the rails for White was the way he handled a proposed “Cyborg”-Amanda Nunes rematch. It was clear that it was going to be difficult for “Cyborg” and the UFC to reach an agreement on a new contract. There were harsh feelings both ways, and Justino’s suggestion that she return on a one-fight contract to take on Nunes was something to which the UFC would obviously never agree. However, in spite of both sides’ different interests, it’s hard to buy into the notion that “Cyborg” was ducking a Nunes rematch. She had repeatedly talked up the fight and even wore a T-shirt promoting the fight. Someone as experienced and successful as “Cyborg” isn’t going to be scared to take on an opponent.
White clearly wanted to get out the narrative that “Cyborg” was ducking Nunes. However, this conflicted with another desire to wipe his hands of Justino and hurt her financial leverage with other companies by making it clear the UFC wouldn’t be bidding. Rather than choosing one or the other, he tried to do both, which made little sense. He unilaterally announced he would no longer discuss a contract with “Cyborg” and simultaneously said that she was looking to fight easier opponents and duck Nunes. It doesn’t make much sense to prevent someone from doing something, only to claim that they were scared to do the thing that you yourself prevented them from doing. Clearly, the attempt was to frame “Cyborg” as unserious about a Nunes fight, but you could find that out through contract negotiations with no harm done rather than breaking off things on your own a mere week after Justino’s last UFC fight.
The UFC’s decision to cut ties with Cyborg is understandable. She has aggressively gone after the company in the media, and the UFC isn’t the only company that wouldn’t want to deal with that. It elected not to provide her with potential leverage in contract negotiations with other companies, and that’s fine, too, even if it’s obviously a combative play. What was a bit rich was White’s attempt to frame this as magnanimous, that he’d generously promise not to match any offers she got, as if that was what she was seeking. It again assumed a low level of sophistication from the viewer in an “interview” that was a pretty persistent assault on the viewer’s intelligence.
A commissioner in any sport is at times going to have to defend positions that are unpopular with fans. The key is that they are able to do the best job they can in selling those positions to the public. Dealing honestly and transparently goes a long way towards that goal. Doing right by athletes and acknowledging when you can do better are helpful positions, as well. In the way he handled the “Cyborg” situation, White’s reaction left a lot to be desired.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.