Ariel Helwani and the State of Fight Journalism
My fight journalism career began 10 years ago with Lockflow.com. From there, I wrote for Ultimate Grappling (which became Ultimate MMA), Fight! Magazine, Victory Belt Publishing, and The Escapist. At the busiest point in my career, I was writing 10 articles a week and producing a video podcast (The Lockflow Show). These days, my fight writing is limited to jiu-jitsu, and even that writing focuses almost entirely on instruction.
Here’s why: the fight world does not support actual journalism.
This piece is, of course, a reaction to the UFC banning Ariel Helwani from UFC press credentials for life for being a journalist. A source told Helwani about the Brock Lesnar signing, and Helwani broke the news before the UFC could make an official announcement. The internet will be up in arms for a whole five minutes—like they were about the firing of Stitch Duran—and then they’ll go back to ordering PPVs. I’m not surprised by how events are playing out, and I’m completely confident in this prediction because for the UFC, time is a flat circle. We’ve done this dance before and we’ll do it again.
The UFC history of banning fight journalists from events goes back to 2005. Jeff Sherwood (of Sherdog.com) had his credentials yanked in 2005 when Sherdog and the UFC allegedly disagreed on how much money Sherdog should make from selling UFC DVDs. The credentials were returned in 2009, but then revoked in 2010. Cage Potato reports that when Josh Gross—another long time fight reporter—asked for an explanation, Dana White texted him “None of your fucking business.”
Loretta Hunt, also a Sherdog writer, published a story about backstage restrictions for fighter managers and agents, and Dana White went on a sexist tirade. That transcript is also available in the Cage Potato article linked above.
The UFC is pretty much the player in MMA, and they’ve thrown their weight around against journalists time and time again. There is nothing different about the Helwani incident that suggests to me that he will be treated any differently.
At the time I originally wrote this piece, Helwani was still banned, but multiple sites, Deadspin among them, have reported that his credentials have been restored, which is far better than the five year timeline I was going to predict. Despite his credentials being restored, all is still not right in my mind. In its statement on the matter, the UFC said:
"We believe the recurring tactics used by [Helwani] extended beyond the purpose of journalism. We feel confident our position has now been adequately communicated to the SB Nation editorial team."
So the UFC has told SB Nation how it wants its organization covered. Awesome. That's not a victory for journalism, and the article goes on to report that Helwani was once thrown into a wall by UFC security and was also at one time paid directly by the UFC. The waters keep getting murkier.
The bigger reality is that as long as journalists are treated this way, fight journalism will not evolve. Coverage will be limited to fluff interviews and repetitive generic coverage. Here’s why:
- The UFC is not the only organization to blacklist journalists. In fact, I have had high level grapplers threaten to blacklist me from their gyms and from their networks of training partners for some fairly benign writing. The sport is so small that threats like these actually carry serious weight, especially if you’re trying to make a living out of fight writing. So we should not be that surprised when the majority of fight journalism is little more than public relations. Journalists don’t want to be blacklisted, and the publications that release their work are even less inclined to take that risk.
- The size and structure of the fight world amplifies these problems. The number of top athletes in MMA and jiu-jitsu is relatively small, and the number of organizations hosting events is also limited. That creates a recipe where blacklists are exceptionally powerful. If you get locked out of covering any Atos grapplers, for example, your journalistic efforts in jiu-jitsu can be in big trouble.
- These problems aren’t limited to the fight world, though they are less common outside of it. Bill Simmons, for example, was suspended by ESPN for blasting Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice surveillance footage. Simmons alleged that Goodell was lying about not having seen the footage (which is admittedly murky territory for a journalist, without having proof). The suspension immediately called into question how an organization dedicated to journalism (ESPN) could be objective if so much of its business is tied to a positive relationship with an organization it covered (NFL).
- Fight fans don’t seem particularly interested in critical or investigative journalism. Unabashed hero worship is rampant. If a black belt posts entertaining things on social media, he can get away with unprompted street fights and spouting off racist or sexist remarks and any negative commentary—no matter how rooted in objective fact it might be—is quickly booed or downvoted into oblivion. Even the alleged Lloyd Irvin rape scandal took a lot of convincing for outrage to begin (how many grapplers and journalists saw inklings of the problems but never came forward?). But now, the outrage is mostly forgotten.
There are important, thought-provoking stories out there to be covered. The sport has so much growing to do, and a great deal of that growth hinges upon awareness for key issues. There are fighters out there that are as uplifting and positive as they seem. There are fighters out there that despite their cheery social media posts are sociopathic in the gym and in their personal lives. There are pervasive issues of sexism and racism that have existed in our sport form the beginning.
But we don’t talk about them, and every level of the sport is to blame—organizations, athletes, consumers, and journalists like me that didn’t have the mettle to risk it all for the sake of journalistic integrity.