The has so much going for them right now by building a new mainstream audience with bigger stars and bigger events than ever before, so why do they feel the need to squelch the voices of journalists?
By the middle of , the organization was on a tremendous high, lining up a summer of huge events. They were on the verge of announcing that legendary fighter Brock Lesnar would return from a four-year absence to fight in July’s UFC 200. And they had prepared a bombshell: the long-awaited Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz rematch . Sports leagues can only dream of such a public-relations windfall in the middle of their event with so many eyeballs at their command.
Instead, the Lesnar and McGregor-Diaz news became secondary to the troubling revelation that one of the best MMA reporters, , had his credentials pulled during the fight and . The crime, according to statements made by Helwani, is that he reported Lesnar’s return and the McGregor-Diaz bout before the UFC could make their own grand announcement.
UFC officials have told news outlets that Helwani’s account is not complete, though they have not elaborated on what happened at UFC 199 for he and his colleagues, Casey Lyden and Esther Lin, to be removed. The damage, though, was done. Instead of celebrating another series of great successes, the UFC is left looking like a military dictatorship determined to suppress all voices but their own. Rather than talking about Lesnar or McGregor-Diaz the storyline this week is about one of MMA’s top journalists having his passes pulled for doing his job.
This is, to say the least, unfortunate. The UFC is too big and too good to be this petty. Like many organizations, from sports teams to Hollywood studios to presidential administrations, the UFC likes to control its messages. Doing so is increasingly hard in the modern world. Baseball teams can’t stop the leaking of free-agent signings. The NBA can’t keep writers from tweeting out draft picks before they are made. Presidents are unable to stifle the constant flow of news from the White House. The UFC won’t be able to halt scoops like a McGregor-Diaz fight from slipping out.
A big part of the UFC’s success is that they offer control in a fighting world in chaos. While boxing is mired in a sea of fractured organizations with their own titles and their own sets of flimsy rules, the UFC offer a simplicity that puts them at an advantage. The fighters belong to them. Bouts are carefully arranged. Rules are strict. Fights are promoted with well-produced marketing campaigns that give fans a great sense of who the fighters are.
But in this world of control, the UFC has had a bad habit of punishing journalists who displease them, including Josh Gross, . The stories of writers being banned the way Helwani was on Saturday, have long been a part of the UFC’s story. When the violations are as minor as Helwani reporting potential fights an hour before they are announced or Gross declining a job offer from the UFC, the organization comes off as thin-skinned.
The NFL wouldn’t pull the pass of a writer who reported a Super Bowl announcement before everyone else. The Premier League isn’t going to ban access for the best reporters covering them. As a mainstream sports organization with a massive worldwide following, the UFC has climbed to a level approaching those leagues. Why risk coming off like anything but a big, respectable sports league? Why let the leak of a big fight overshadow the good news?
The public-relations value of what Helwani and other writers do for the UFC far outweighs the annoyance of having a story break off script. The daily stories create a buzz for the organization that helps them sell tickets and pay-per-view packages. The drama created by McGregor’s fight with the UFC has generated more excitement about his pending dual with Diaz than anything the UFC could have manufactured themselves.
Sometimes you have to wonder if the UFC can see this benefit. Are they so stuck on controlling their message that they lost sight of their own success? In recent years, the UFC has done more than most sports leagues to empower female athletes, and stop the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But too often the conversation is about banned journalists.
It shouldn’t have to be like this.