“Did fans really not know that UFC has long used the threat of a lifetime ban to keep entrenched media in line? It’s a decade old policy.”
–Jonathan Snowden (@JESnowden)
I’ve been watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship since UFC 1: The Beginning, back in 1993. It didn’t even pretend to be a legitimate sport, and John McCain’s famous “human cockfighting” description was quite apt. There were no weight classes, no one was well-rounded, and punching your opponent repeatedly in the balls was a viable, legal strategy. The whole idea was to put fighters from different disciplines against each other, to allegedly see which discipline was superior (based on UFC 1, that would be Brazilian jiu-jitsu). It was the same idea that led to the famous Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki bout in 1976, to see who would win in a fight, a boxer or a wrestler (based on this match, that would be a wrestler).
The sport and the company have come a long way since then. Credit must be given where it is due, which is to Dana White’s vision and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta’s money. I’ve always been big fans of all three man, as without them we wouldn’t have the sport of MMA, at least not in any sort of mainstream sense. Dana takes a ton of flack from people, but I almost always agree with him and his decisions. I’ve always really liked the guy.
However, everything changed for me on June 4, 2016, when Dana had beloved Canadian scribe Ariel Helwani forcibly removed from the building at UFC 199. Helwani was told he was banned for life from covering the UFC as a credentialled reporter. What had the six-time MMA journalist of the year done to deserve such drastic treatment?
He was too good at his job.
Earlier in the night, he had broken two huge stories before the UFC could officially announce them. Brock Lesnar was ending his five-year retirement for one night only, and would be loaned from the WWE in order to fight Mark Hunt at UFC 200. Additionally, Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 2 will be the main event at UFC 202.
So, Dana had his surprises spoiled. He would later say that he was mad because Ariel ruined the announcement for the fans. How? What difference does it make? I’m looking forward to seeing Brock fight one more time just as much having heard it from Ariel as if I’d heard it on the UFC promo. It was a UFC surprise, regardless of where I heard it. That doesn’t sound like it’s about the fans, it sounds like it’s about Dana. Dana said Ariel went “beyond journalism” and did something “dirty.” What he meant was Ariel didn’t try to confirm the story with him, which prevented Dana from wiping his own ass with the First Amendment.
Can you imagine Adam Schefter being removed from an NFL game because he reported a retired player was coming back? Can you picture Bob McKenzie being accosted by the NHL for releasing draft rankings the league didn’t agree with? This is bush-league garbage that wouldn’t fly with the serious sports leagues, all of which have writers’ associations.
The likeable Helwani did the circuit of mainstream sports talk programs, calmly recounting the unfortunate events which led to the rift with the UFC. It was clear that every host he talked to was responding to the situation by taking at least one step back from their precarious acceptance of MMA as a mainstream sport, an acceptance that hadn’t been questioned in a decade. To have those old schisms appear was too much for Dana and Lorenzo, and they were forced to rescind Ariel’s life sentence after just 48 hours.
In that 48 hours was Ariel’s weekly Monday show The MMA Hour. Instead of the usual guests, listeners were treated to a soul-baring soliloquy, where Ariel became emotional multiple times. Dana would later call the episode “a pity party” and would ridicule Helwani for “crying.” So, to be clear, in Dana’s world, being sad about potentially losing your livelihood is a pity party, but getting cranky because someone else told your secret, isn’t.
I hope Dana’s kids see him cry at some point, and I hope they appreciate the authenticity and honesty that represents. I hope they’re not infected with the machismo fetish he suffers from.
Vince McMahon, Dana’s WWE equivalent, has demonstrated a similar career trajectory. They’re builders; they both took laughingstock companies and turned them into billion-dollar mainstream global enterprises. That kind of vision requires iconoclasm and persistence, and must be respected. Few humans other than Vince McMahon, Jr., could have singlehandedly demolished the territorial system of wrestling companies, assimilating everything in his path like some sort of carnival-barking Borg. But in 2016, Vince is an out-of-touch embarrassment, an anachronism from an era of ham actors and simple audiences, surrounded by sycophants and yes-men. He has outlived his usefulness and overstayed his welcome.
Dana’s decline is different, but equally present. Unlike Vince, Dana has his finger on the pulse of his industry, he can still enjoy matches as a fan, and I think he legitimately wants to give his fans what they want. On the other hand, like Vince, Dana is a megalomaniac control freak who dreams of honest reporters being replaced with lapdog shills, preferring advertising and propaganda over journalism and criticism. There is no MMA, only UFC; no professional wrestling, only WWE; no tissues, only Kleenex. You can have any colour as long as it’s White.
It’s time for White’s reign to fade to black.