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Dana White went soft on Matt Mitrione; updated with fighter's apology

UFC president Dana White lifted Matt Mitrione's suspension despite Mitrione never apologizing for his comments. (AP) UFC president Dana White lifted Matt Mitrione's suspension despite Mitrione never apologizing for his comments. (AP)

NEW YORK -- Dana White was sitting on a brightly lit makeshift stage in the lobby of The Theater at Madison Square Garden, well aware of the irony of him being on this stage on a Thursday afternoon while, two nights later, his fighters would not be allowed to put on a show under the bright lights in the arena behind him. UFC 159 will play out on Saturday night not in New York’s eminent sports cathedral but across the river in New Jersey. It’s as if White’s mixed martial arts organization were the Giants or Jets, except for one tiny detail: The NFL is welcome in the Empire State.

“It is what it is,” the UFC president told a gathering of reporters, pulling out a well-worn phrase of his, but this time with what seemed more resignation than usual behind it. White has seen MMA sanctioning legislation have its moments up in Albany, like a fighter getting in a few crisp jabs and leg kicks early in the first round, self-assuredly sticking and moving, looking like it’s his night. Until he runs into an overhand right. The leadership of the New York State Assembly, which again and again has KO’d an MMA bill before it even could come up for a vote, packs a mean punch.

“I’m so over it,” said White, sounding like he’s anything but. Unless by “over it” he means keeping his nose out of a lobbying effort that can only suffer from his crudely tactless manner. That’s why the company’s visits to Albany are being made by CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, whom White characterized as “the kinder, gentler side of the UFC.”

But as the UFC pushes for the sanctioning it needs to celebrate its 20th anniversary come November with a gala fight card in the Garden, which the organization has expressed keen interest in doing, White continues to play a significant role. How could he not? More than any fighter, the boss is the public face of the company. What he says and does matters.

That is why the irony White missed on Thursday was more telling than the irony he acknowledged. Sure, he noticed the row of sports photographs that line one of the walls of the Garden lobby, prominent among them a shot of a kickboxing match. That sport is sanctioned in New York, along with boxing and other combative disciplines that are elements of MMA, while MMA itself is not? Right there from a frame on the wall, irony was getting up in White’s face.

At the same time, the UFC poobah chose not to look squarely in the eye of the situation’s other source of irony. That would be the shameful saga of Matt Mitrione. You know, the heavyweight who back on April 8 had his UFC contract suspended after he’d spewed a venomous tirade against transgender fighter Fallon Fox. Back then, the UFC had rose petals thrown at its feet for swiftly bringing the hammer down.

As it turns out, though, the hammer was only a Nerf hammer, the suspension no more than a kid’s timeout. Fox Sports reported on Wednesday that Mitrione will fight on the network’s UFC card in Seattle on July 27. So that’s it? A suspension lasting 16 days, which since “Meathead” wouldn’t have been fighting anyway amounts to nothing at all? White wouldn’t address the upcoming fight, reportedly to be against fellow Season 10 alum of The Ultimate Fighter (and fellow ex-NFL player) Brendan Schaub, but said Mitrione was fined “enough to make him call me 40 times and ask me not to fine him that much."

The takeaway: Open your wallet, Matt, but no need to publicly acknowledge that calling Fox a “lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak” was vile and unbecoming of a professional athlete employed by the UFC.

Of course, White doesn’t see it that way. “If a guy comes out and says something stupid, I don’t go to him and say, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to apologize,’ and you’re gonna do this and that,” he said. “You can’t make somebody apologize. If I make him do it, it’s not real. Then he’s not really apologizing.”

There’s truth in that. All too often, athletes and others in the public eye issue faux mea culpas crafted by their PR teams. Those apologies aren’t worth the breath wasted on them. But the UFC is not the NFL or Major League Baseball, sports organizations that are already well established in the public perception, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. White’s fight league is on the fringes, vying for attention.

Positive attention, that is, as opposed to having its notorious history of misogyny, homophobia and other antisocial behavior continually spotlit by groups like the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226. The Las Vegas-based outfit has long waged a battle with UFC majority owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta in an effort to unionize the brothers’ other business, Station Casinos. Recently the local has dragged the UFC into the fight, using the union's political muscle in New York to lobby against MMA legislation. White calls this “dirty.”

No, what’s dirty is masking Mitrione’s depraved hatred under the guise of having an opinion but just expressing it wrongly. Here’s what White said on the Mitrione matter on Thursday: “I don’t think that somebody who used to be a man but became a woman should be able to fight women. I don’t. But the way he said it? If he was standing in front of a courtroom because he was so passionate about this, in front of a judge or a committee or something like that, he wouldn’t have said it the way he said it. Maybe he thought he was trying to be funny? It wasn’t funny. My guys aren’t comedians, and they really need to figure that out and learn it. You wanna be funny, do it in with your friends, around your crew and everything else. Don’t do it on any public forum.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with White expressing an opinion of whether a trans woman should be allowed to compete with other women in combat sports, particularly in light of what he said next: “And you know, I’ll leave it up to the athletic commissions and the doctors and scientists, or whatever it is, to see if you have that surgery and you go through that stuff, if you actually become a … but bone structure is different. Hands are bigger. Jaw is bigger. Everything is bigger. I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe that someone who used to be a man and became a woman should be able to fight a woman. I don’t.”

So White believes what he believes, but he’ll leave it to the experts to decide on how to proceed. Fine. The UFC president is not alone in that evenhanded stance. However, neither he nor anyone else who has commented on the matter -- other than Mitrione -- has darkened his or her opinion with a nasty personal attack. If the UFC wants to get past dirty politics, it needs to clean up its act by cleaning out the haters. Not by simply telling them to just whisper their malevolence to their buddies.

Dana White might not get that, but his light heavyweight champion sure does. Jon Jones, who’ll defend his belt against Chael Sonnen in Saturday night’s main event at the Prudential Center in Newark (10 p.m. ET, PPV), offered up his own opinion of Mitrione during Thursday’s media gathering. “I think he’s terrible for that,” Jones said. “It’s ridiculous. I think Fallon Fox, that’s a strong person. Despite what the person has been through in their life, that’s a strong person. I’m a fan of that person because of what they’ve gone through and what they’re willing to go through. People like Matt Mitrione are scumbags. He’s a scumbag. I don’t care if he’s off suspension or doesn’t fight again. He’s a ridiculous person.”

You might have noticed that Jones, even in defending Fox, did not once use a female personal pronoun. Taken within the context of what he said, he clearly meant no disrespect. Jones was just speaking outside his comfort zone. The emergence and gradual acceptance of transgenders and others who’ve long been shunned or ignored is a work-in-progress in sports as well as all of society. Comfort zones  can only expand along with education and compassion. One wonders whether that’s a lesson the UFC is even remotely interested in teaching Matt Mitrione.

-- Jeff Wagenheim

UPDATE: Mitrione issued an apology on Friday via a UFC press release: “I want to apologize for my hurtful comments about Fallon Fox and a group within our society which, in truth, I know nothing about. I know now there’s an important line between expressing an opinion on a subject and being hurtful and insensitive. I crossed that line by expressing my views in an ugly, rude and inappropriate manner.”

So, is this one of those meaningless apologies White was talking about? The jury is out on that, as Mitrione himself went on to acknowledge: “Anyone can say ‘I’m sorry’ to get themselves out of trouble. That’s not the kind of person I want to be. I am embarrassed I chose to express myself in such a fashion and am looking forward to living up to this apology through my future actions, words and conduct.”

A couple of word choices suggest that perhaps the fighter is learning something from this ordeal. Describing transgenders as a group “I know nothing about” is a simple yet difficult acknowledgement that he was speaking out of ignorance. It also was good to hear Mitrione talk about “living up to this apology” with not just words but actions, a commitment the UFC plans to hold him to. Lawrence Epstein, the promotion’s vice president and COO, said Mitrione will work with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender groups “to make amends to the community he hurt.”

How many grains of salt with which you take all of this depends on your own degree of naivete, cynicism or pragmatism. But if Mitrione is sincere in his desire to move forward, he has an opportunity here. There’s no better way to develop respect for a group of people different from you than to spend time around those people learning ways in which you’re the same.

--J.W.

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