It's not a party until someone embarrasses himself, right? Well, Saturday night's gala in Las Vegas, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was soured late in the evening by a mortifying display.
I'm not referring to the imperfect, though courageous showing by Georges St-Pierre, who was far from his dominant self in being battered -- somewhat senseless, we would learn afterward -- in a roundly criticized split-decision win over Johny Hendricks. The slim victory allowed the 32-year-old to walk out of the octagon still in possession of the welterweight championship belt he's worn for going on six years.
I'm not talking about the job done by cageside judges Sal D'Amato and Tony Weeks, either. You might have a bone to pick with their 48-47 scorecards in St-Pierre's favor, but if you do, you likely didn't see the bout much differently from Glen Trowbridge, whose scorecard had the same numbers but in Hendricks' favor. A decision that swings upon a single tightly contested round does not warrant Armageddon outrage.
No, the most ghastly performance of the night was turned in by Dana White, the loquacious and unfiltered UFC president, who was at his most crass and petulant in the aftermath of Saturday's main event.
White's late-night rant against the Nevada State Athletic Commission -- its judging, its refereeing, its brazen disregard for him and all he does for mixed martial arts -- was astoundingly over the top, and unless it was all hot air, it might have a longterm impact on the sport. The blustery promoter did intimate, after all, that he's "scared to come back here and do fights." By "here" he meant Las Vegas, the UFC's hometown and site of seven of the promotion's 33 events in 2013. How does that bode for 2014?
But it was while addressing a different aspect of his business that White stepped over the line, showing a callous disregard for a troubled champion. It would have been shameful for the promoter to speak of any fighter the way he did, but for the UFC boss to act so despicably toward a man who has played a significant role in making his company a success was scandalous.
Georges St-Pierre had just had his hand raised and the hefty belt affixed around his waist, and as he stood at the center of the cage being interviewed by Joe Rogan, he looked a mess. There were cuts below both eyes, abrasions everywhere you could see -- from forehead to lips to bridge of the nose. His eyes were glassy, and he was blinking as if searching for focus he'd misplaced somewhere but couldn't recall where.
After answering a couple of questions about the fight, speaking of how he couldn't see out of his right eye at one point and had lost his memory -- "Imagine how tough it was" -- the champ grabbed for the microphone and appeared to well up with emotion. "I have a bunch of stuff in my life happening," he said. "I need to hang up my gloves for a little bit." Gently probed by Rogan as to whether this was a retirement announcement, St-Pierre would only say, "I have to go away for a little bit at least."
It was a cryptic message, spoken with humility and fragility. It was met by a bull in a china shop.
"GSP will not retire. He will not retire after that fight," White fumed minutes later, with agitation and defiance in his voice, as he was interviewed on the Fox postfight show. "He owes it to the fans, he owes it to this company and he owes it to Johny Hendricks to come in and do that fight again."
Interesting to hear that from a promoter who has said many times in the past that he would never stand in the way of a fighter who feels it's time to retire. White acknowledged as much a short time later at the press conference, although other than pointing out that St-Pierre putting his career on hiatus was not a true retirement, the UFC president did not soften his stance. He just added a dose of sarcasm.
"There's no 'Hey, listen, I'm going to go on a cruise.' 'I'm going to be gone for two years.' 'I'm going to take a hiatus.' 'I'm going to take a leave of absence.' Whatever the hell it was that he was saying," said White. "That's not how it works. It doesn't work that way."
It does work that way, though, at least for an athlete at St-Pierre's level within the game. GSP is not some prelim fighter whom White can bully into walking the line. If Georges feels the need for time off, he can step away and there'll be fights waiting for him when he chooses to come back ... if he chooses to come back. It's within the right of the UFC to strip him of the welterweight belt, of course, but demand that he fight? No.
What was especially troubling about White's diatribe was that the UFC poobah seemed to have no context for ridiculing his champion. When a reporter asked if he thought it would have been wise to first learn what was troubling GSP, White didn't pause for even a moment to think over the question. "No, it wouldn't," he snapped. "Because here's the thing: Let's say he had health problems or something like that; he wouldn't be fighting if he had health problems."
Had White not just heard St-Pierre speak of experiencing blurred vision and memory loss during the fight? It wasn't the first time the champ had mentioned having problems with one of his eyes. And do mental health issues count? Didn't the boss hear the confusion and melancholy in the fighter's voice?
Apparently not. Perhaps White was too busy working on his comic interpretation of what the UFC might be like if a big baby like GSP were its president. "Hey, guess what, Lorenzo: I'll see you in a year and half," he said mockingly, play-acting a theoretical conversation with Lorenzo Fertitta, the fight promotion's CEO and part-owner. "I'm going to [expletive] take off for a while. I got some [expletive] to do."
The caustic and ugly rhetoric toned down a bit once St-Pierre showed up for the latter part of the press conference. As the fighter spoke, though, his haziness came more and more to the surface, and it seemed not to stem entirely from the brutal fight that had ended an hour earlier. "I can't sleep at night now," said St-Pierre at one point. "I'm going crazy. I have issues, man. I need to relax. I need to get out for a while, you know? I don't know what I'm going to do."
It was a telling moment, made more so by White turning bully again. The fighter wasn't the target this time, though. The alpha dog promoter cut off a reporter's query for St-Pierre and instructed the assembled press to not ask GSP anything more about what had prompted his hiatus announcement. "He doesn't want to answer that question," said White, whereupon the press corps dutifully dropped the matter. That the MMA media would allow itself to be intimidated shouldn't come as a surprise considering that one of White's earlier comments about the Nevada commission actually had drawn applause. At a press conference. Yeesh.
White is charming and engaging, for the most part, in his interactions with those of us who cover MMA. He is accessible in a way that no other sport's big cheese has ever been. He's a promoter and he knows what to say to sell a fight, to be sure, but you'll never get from White the corporate-speak that you would if you were granted an audience with Roger Goodell. In any conversation with Dana White, you're pretty much assured of squeezing an "I probably shouldn't talk about this, but ..." revelation out of him. The man makes covering this sport a lot juicier, so it's easy to understand why reporters tiptoe around him as if he were a lovable king of the jungle.
When you talk with White, one of the things that comes through loud and clear is that he's a huge fan of fights. And of fighters. Even his take on the GSP-Hendricks decision seemed to derive from that perspective. Sure, the UFC will profit if it gets to stage a rematch, but the loss of a dominant St-Pierre -- which seems to be coming about anyway, but surely would have if Hendricks had become champ -- would not be a boon to the bottom line. Yet White was upset because, in his unwavering opinion, the wrong fighter had his hand raised. He can be righteous.
It's reasonable to speculate that White's bitterness toward the Nevada commission fueled his sour mood and set in motion the St-Pierre rant. He'd never before spoken negatively about the champ. And after talking with GSP briefly following the press conference, White was more at ease when he came back into the media room for a casual sit-down with reporters. "I'm in a better mood now," he acknowledged, later adding with regard to St-Pierre: "He's obsessing over something right now that might seem like the end of the world, but it's not. ... I think everything's going to be fine. I think everything's going to roll just like it always does."
All's well that ends well, then? Not quite. White may have struck a more conciliatory tone by night's end, but his more public earlier rants -- on the Fox show and in front of press conference cameras -- don't just go away. Words matter. They mattered when Miguel Torres tweeted rape jokes. They mattered when Matt Mitrione made offensive remarks about a transgender fighter. Don't hold your breath waiting for Dana White to be fined under the UFC's Code of Conduct, but it cannot be ignored that his bullying words matter even more than the fighters' do because, when push comes to shove, White sets the tone in the world's biggest fight promotion.
Even if, in the end, White entices St-Pierre back into the cage with honey rather than vinegar, that's a dangerous road to go down. The fighter had a reason for saying he needs a break. And based on what he said, GSP shouldn't be leaned on to continue fighting, whether that persuasion comes via a bully's ridicule or a friendly arm around the shoulder that smoothes out problems that, in White's contention, "aren't as bad as he thinks they are." If there's convincing to be done, it should start with Georges St-Pierre. He should have to persuade the UFC and athletic commissions that he's in the right place, physically and mentally, to be allowed to compete again. We all heard what he said. Words do indeed matter.