UFC 199 was a night of story lines. Michael Bisping’s impossible rise from short notice contender to UFC middleweight champion, after a career of being the guy who could never win the big fight. Dominick Cruz putting the stamp on his trilogy with Urijah Faber, in what Faber told fans afterward, may be the last fight of his career. Dan Henderson, in the last bout on his contract, taking a shocking upset KO win, via head kick and back elbow, at the age of 45… All of them were eclipsed by one story, the UFC’s banning of longtime journalist Ariel Helwani.
Helwani was on the scene for UFC 199 when he reported the news that Brock Lesnar was close to finalizing a deal to return to the promotion and fight at UFC 200. That breaking news apparently didn’t go over well, as it preceded the UFC’s own big surprise announcement over the deal. And if reports are to be believe, may have almost stopped Lesnar from signing on. For his trouble, Helwani and the MMA Fighting crew of Esther Lin and E. Casey Leydon were summarily ejected from the event and banned from the UFC for life.
It’s not the first time a journalist has been banned from the UFC by a long shot, but it’s certainly raised the most eyebrows. And for once, public condemnation of the act has been fairly swift and universal:
Jeff Wagenheim of the Washington Post gave his thoughts, saying that, “away from the arena lights, the UFC showed why it lingers on the infantile fringe of the sports world.”
Matt Connolly over at Forbes wrote up his reaction to the piece quoting ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, who cautioned via Twitter, “And if you create a system where the only people who are allowed to cover a sport are people who do/say exactly what the league wants them to, then you don’t have a media who can question things when they go off the rails. And as we’ve seen…they do sometimes.”
The LA Times’ Lance Pugmire used Helwani’s ejection to call for a writers’ association: “Part of the problem is most major sports – including boxing – have formal writers’ associations that allow reporters to gather to discuss policies or protest treatment such as Helwani’s in collective strength. The efforts to unite MMA writers in such an association have failed to this point.”
Mike Florio of NBC Sports offered his thoughts, comparing and contrasting the UFC’s actions to those of the NFL: “The move is weak and petty and juvenile and shameful — although there’s a chance that UFC president and carnival barker Dana White (pictured) did it simply for the publicity. Regardless of motive, the UFC deserves to be criticized, and criticized loudly, for attempting in such clumsy fashion to shape and control the coverage of the sport.”
Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch puzzled over the decision in his Media Circus column, linking it back to Fox Sports dropping Helwani: “Imagine if ESPN parted ways with Adam Schefter without an explanation. Or Yahoo Sports did the same with Adrian Wojnarowski. As I wrote then: If Helwani was dropped by Fox for not being enough of a PR man for a Fox Sports partner, Fox should simply come out and say it. UFC playing games with reporters didn’t surprise me. Fox Sports caving did.”
And more established MMA outlets such as Kevin Iole at Yahoo Sports, Ben Fowlkes over at MMA Junkie, and Deadspin’s Tim Marchman all gave their views on the incident. Coupled with reporting from the Associated Press, NY Times, New York Daily News, and CBC, Helwani’s ejection seems to have stolen the show and turned what was one of the best UFC events in a long time into a major down note in the promotion’s history.
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