Last Saturday night was one of the most newsworthy nights in recent memory from the UFC, with a fantastic fight card at UFC 199, a shocking upset in the main event, and two major announcements in the return of Brock Lesnar and the official date for Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz II. However, those two announcements also led to what wound up being the biggest story of the weekend: the UFC’s banning of reporter Ariel Helwani.
The former “insider” for UFC Tonight and post-fight interviewer for Fox Sports is the most well known face in MMA media, and since his ousting from Fox earlier this year – which we now know came because of the UFC – he’s taken to undercutting several UFC announcements by scooping them first and getting them out at his home base at MMAFighting.com. That’s exactly what he did Saturday night, reporting news of both the impending Lesnar return and of McGregor-Diaz II being all but official.
According to the UFC, they viewed Helwani’s decision not to seek comment from them regarding either story as an unacceptable and unprofessional “tactic,” and kicked Helwani – along with his coworkers, photojournalist Esther Lin and videographer E. Casey Leydon – out of the event while telling them they were “banned for life.”
It was far from the first time that the UFC had stripped credentials and banned media members from covering their events live. Longtime MMA reporter Josh Gross and former MMA reporter Loretta Hunt have both been banned for years despite continuing to work for large and respectable publications. Gross became persona non grata with Dana White when he refused an offer to run UFC.com out of the belief that he wouldn’t have been able to adequately do his job as a reporter while beholden to the organization. Hunt reported a story on managers and agents being banned from backstage and other events from the UFC, which led to White’s most unprofessional tirade ever where he used homophobic slurs towards the story’s anonymous managers and called Hunt a “f***ing dumb bitch.”
While those previous media bans have been well known in the MMA world, Helwani’s story quickly went mainstream, and after it was highlighted on ESPN and high profile radio shows from Dan Patrick and NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, among others, the UFC wound up reversing course.
“We respect the role the media plays in our sport and beyond, including MMAFighting’s ability to report news. However, in our opinion, we believe the recurring tactics used by its lead reporter extended beyond the purpose of journalism,” the UFC said in a statement confirming the lifting of the much discussed ban. “We feel confident our position has now been adequately communicated to the SB Nation editorial team.
“UFC’s goal as the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion is to cultivate interest in its world-class athletes and events, and deliver for the fans. We will continue to introduce this sport and its athletes to new fans across the world, and we will do so by working alongside media across all platforms.”
MMAFighting.com responded to the UFC’s contentions regarding Helwani in their response:
“MMAFighting.com is appreciative of the fact that the UFC was willing to rethink its stance; however, we respectfully disagree with the UFC’s claim that ‘recurring tactics used by [Ariel Helwani]’ extended beyond the purpose of journalism,” they wrote. “SB Nation and MMA Fighting will continue to stand behind Helwani’s work and the contributions of the rest of the employees on the staff.”
The UFC was very much reactive and wrong in their banning of Helwani, but the reporter didn’t paint himself in the most favorable light this week either in a story that’s continued to have multiple angles this week. In a solo edition of his normal radio show “The MMA Hour” prior to the ban being lifted, Helwani went into a lot of his history with the UFC and Fox leading up to Saturday’s banning, and much of it didn’t give a great impression of Helwani’s actions at times, nor his self-awareness of the situation he got himself in.
What’s interesting is the Gross-Helwani parallel especially, because Helwani found himself under the very same kind of relationship that Gross wanted nothing to do with. During the course of his two hour discussion of the events, Helwani admitted that, while employed to do the pre- and post-fight shows and weigh-in events for Fox, his checks were written out by Zuffa. His relationship with Fox and his work on UFC Tonight also led to him being asked and acquiescing to sitting on news he might have otherwise reported. He compromised himself with that relationship out of his self-professed desire to be the face of MMA media, and he tried to justify each of his decisions while either intentionally ignoring or refusing to see why he was no longer the independent journalist he wanted to believe he was.
Now, those relationships were severed when his employment with Fox was terminated, which as he revealed was at the UFC’s behest, and while he was no longer beholden to the same conceits as he might have been under that deal, clearly the UFC still believed him to be.
On the UFC’s end, it seems there was extreme paranoia within the organization as they believed Helwani was being “fed” information by a “mole” within. It’s a claim Helwani has continuously refuted, but it’s one that got further voice from UFC commentator Joe Rogan, who discussed what he’d been told during his latest podcast this week.
Here’s what Rogan had to say (transcribed by BloodyElbow.com):
“That’s cool, because that means that public support made them lift that. But it also must mean that they worked out whatever the f*** it was. See, this is what they were saying, this is what I’m hearing, okay. I haven’t talked to Ariel, but let me just give me the UFC perspective. The UFC perspective was that there was a mole. They believed that someone was giving Ariel information, and that information he was using to scoop the UFC’s official promotions. So the UFC, which is a private company, they don’t have to have… you don’t have to let people into your business, if you’re a private company, to come and report. So they were feeling that somehow or another he was getting a hold of this inside information, and releasing it, and making them look bad.
“Now, I get the UFC’s perspective. They would wanna know who the f’** is leaking this secret information, and that they don’t want this guy taking this information and putting it live. Now from what I understand, the conversation with him was, ‘Don’t do this, because if you do this, there’s only a handful of people who know this information. So we’re gonna fire everybody. We’re gonna fire a bunch of people and you’re gonna ruin people’s lives.’ This is what I was told, was a conversation they had with him. After the conversation he leaked the Brock Lesnar stuff.
“I don’t know if that’s true, I would have to talk to Ariel. You’d have to get his opinion, you’d have to get the UFC’s opinion, you’d have to get the two of them together to debate whether or not, which story was true. But this is a side that you’re not hearing. All you’re hearing is that the UFC banned him for life and everybody was upset.”
Rogan also tried to argue that Helwani was only spoiling the announcements and releasing stories before UFC’s announcements for himself, but his criticisms and the UFC’s take here are coming from their own deliberate lack of acknowledgement or understanding on the role of reporters.
Helwani, in many ways because of the exposure he gathered because of a closer relationship with the UFC themselves and Fox, has sources who can provide and confirm information before many others might get to it. Without the UFC to shut him down, flat out lie to him about a certain story, or have him wait on getting information out, he’s in the right to post accurate information when he’s got it. Even if the UFC had threatened to fire people in house because they believed there was a mole, that’s not on the reporter, and it’s not his responsibility.
As far as his releasing of the stories when an announcement may or may not be imminent being all about him, well, of course it is. If he establishes himself as someone who has accurate information on these types of stories (and he has continued to be right even as the UFC or other areas deny reports), and he’s typically the first to get them, then more people will go to him for information. These sites only make money via advertisers being willing to spend to appear on them, and the more people who tune in the more viable that becomes. The UFC got him fired from Fox because he gave time to other organizations on “The MMA Hour” and discussed free agency with Rory MacDonald earlier this year; they cut off that source of income, and freed him from needing to be hindered by their message or their timing on announcements.
Now, they’ve seen him as perhaps intentionally antagonistic in his reporting since his Fox release, often getting information out just hours before the UFC can announce it themselves or through UFC Tonight. However, Helwani would argue that the timing can sometimes be a result of the UFC teasing something which gives him part of the story and allows him to track down the rest with confirmation, and once he’s gotten fight news like that confirmed via multiple sources a statement from the UFC isn’t necessary.
The entire situation this week was an ugly reminder of the UFC’s stance on the media in general, especially with their statement in rescinding the ban addressing simple reporting as using some type of nefarious tactics in order to get information. At the same time, Helwani isn’t some martyr for the cause, and as he himself revealed there are ethical issues with the jobs he’s taken in order to be that face, that most known reporter on the scene. Ironically enough, this banning may have contributed to his desire to be an even more known name as a reporter, because the mainstream exposure and interviews he received in the wake of the ban raised his profile, and obviously that pressure brought on enough scrutiny for them to reverse course.
There remain issues with the way the UFC views media in the wake of all of this. Gross, Hunt, and numerous other reporters remain banned for a number of issues which mostly pertain to them doing their jobs, but Helwani also has to be aware of how some of the decisions he’s made and positions he’s taken to move into his spot have in some ways compromised the ethical ground on which he claims to stand.
The spotlight shone on the UFC may perhaps be a catalyst for some type of change in the handling of the media at large, especially with more widespread non-MMA outlets picking up on the story this week. For Helwani, he’s likely only going to be more emboldened by this situation, but while he’s going to be able to continue the work he does the best part of the ban being rescinded is both Lin and Leydon can continue doing the exemplary work for which they’ve come to be known in the MMA space.
No changes may come on the UFC’s end, but backtracking on the ban of Helwani when they’ve continued to hold steadfast on past bans is a sign that public and mainstream pressure and criticism can actually get to them. We’ll find out the next time a credentialed media member breaks a story on site.