If you have the money to set up a cage in an arena and the blessings of an athletic commission, you get to run your mixed martial arts business any way you want. Of course, you’re accountable to your paying customers and, if you hope to expand your reach, to the culture at large.
Maybe the new regime at Bellator MMA, for instance, believes that the WWE-style melodrama it dumped into our laps like a steaming pile on Friday night is going to drum up business. But the hype machine sure did sputter in attempting to tout its Nov. 15 matchup between 39-year-old Tito Ortiz and out-of-retirement Stephan Bonnar by letting them share a microphone. All they succeeded in doing was reveal themselves to be such bad actors that their fight should take place in the Nicolas Cage. The pathetically desperate scene, which unfolded between bouts on the second-fiddle promotion’s season-opening telecast on Spike, also featured a masked man who was even less recognizable after being unmasked. And there was the requisite let-me-at-’em-hold-me-back brawl. Somewhere, Vince McMahon was rolling his eyes.
But it wasn’t just a big joke. While Ortiz and Bonnar didn’t land any punches, they did manage to besmirch each other’s character with laser precision. Tito portrayed Bonnar as a “drug addict,” a reference to his two positive tests for anabolic steroids, the latter of which, in 2012, effectively ended his career with the sport’s leading organization, the UFC. And Stephan bemoaned the plight of “poor Jenna,” Tito’s former partner, Jenna Jameson, whose home-life discord and child custody battle with Ortiz included the fighter’s 2010 arrest on a domestic violence charge.
So what exactly is Bellator trying to sell us?
Apparently the same thing as the UFC is selling us.
The behemoth fight organization has added back to its light heavyweight roster Thiago Silva, whose previous run with the company lasted six years and included bouts with such notables as Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, and Alexander Gustafsson. If you don’t recall him from any of those fights, the 31-year-old Brazilian’s name still might ring familiar to you from the chilling scene earlier this year that interrupted his time with the UFC.
Back on Feb. 6, according to a Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office police report, Silva showed up with a gun to the Pablo Popovitch Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Oakland Park, where his estranged wife trained, and threatened to kill her and Popovitch, with whom she was in a relationship. When police were called, Silva allegedly retreated to his nearby home, where there was an hours-long standoff with a SWAT team that ended with the fighter being tased and taken into custody. Silva initially was charged with two counts of attempted murder, but the prosecutor downgraded the felony charges to aggravated assault with a firearm.
The UFC responded within hours, releasing Silva from his contract. Promotion president Dana White told reporters, “This guy will never fight in the UFC again.”
Never say never.
Last Friday, one day after prosecutors dropped all charges against the fighter -- the Broward County Attorney’s Office told TMZ Sports, “The victim was uncooperative, and investigators determined that she has likely moved out of the country” -- the UFC president dramatically changed his tune. “It didn’t look good for Thiago Silva,” White said in a statement issued by the company. “But he was acquitted of all charges. How do you not let the guy fight again? He went through the legal process and came out of it untainted.”
Far from it. If you want to rationalize your roster move by saying that Silva was not convicted of a crime, go ahead and float that, Dana, and see if the public is satisfied. But to twist things any further is playing loose with reality. It is untrue that Silva “went through the legal process.” He was not “acquitted.” The man did not face his day in court because, well, that’s business as usual in domestic violence cases.
One in four women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, according to a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey conducted in 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another study by the same agency found that only around a quarter of those physical assaults are reported to police. And even when authorities do get involved, many cases never make it to trial because victims refuse to cooperate. Sometimes that’s because of outright threats, advocates say, but more often it’s subtle coercion that minimizes the offense in the victim’s mind.
So just because the charges against Silva have been dropped, it’s a stretch to conclude that the incident didn’t happen … which would be the only circumstance in which the Brazilian truly could be considered untainted. In the Broward County courthouse where his case would have been adjudicated, Silva has been convicted of nothing. But in the court of public opinion -- where we are free to consider factors that might not pass muster in a courtroom, and where, yes, we also bring our own prejudices -- the Brazilian fighter and the MMA organization that is welcoming him home with open arms will continue to be put on trial.
Each of us will balance the scales of justice in our own soul. Do you believe the police report, which details not only Silva’s alleged Feb. 6 gun threat but also a couple of others from days earlier in which Thaysa Kamiji accuses her estranged husband of putting a gun in her mouth and later threatening to “hire someone to kill you”? Or do you believe Silva, who on Monday went on the MMAfighting.com show The MMA Hour and claimed that all the accusations were lies, that he never pointed a gun at his ex-wife, that she set him up because she wanted his money? “I don’t care what people think,” Silva said. “I’m going to do my job. I’m going to keep focusing on my training, and that’s it. They will forget. They always do.”
It’s certainly possible, considering how our society historically has swept domestic violence under the rug. If it happens behind closed doors, it’s a mystery to be left alone. Even if it happens in public, it’s still a private family matter whose circumstances can be explained away. Maybe we’re uncomfortable looking into other people’s turmoil. Maybe we don’t care.
Look at the Ray Rice incident. When all that the public had access to was a security video showing an elevator door opening and the player dragging out the prone body of his then-fiancee, the February incident was deemed worthy of nothing more than a two-game NFL suspension. But on Monday, after TMZ Sports published a video from inside the elevator, everything changed. The stomach-turning sight of Janay Palmer getting punched in the head and knocked out prompted the Baltimore Ravens to quickly release Rice and the NFL to suspend him indefinitely.
This is justice, but this also is puzzling. In all the months that the team and the league were watching the first video, how did they think Palmer ended up on the floor?
Unless one of the jiu-jitsu students inside the Popovitch gym had the presence of mind to pull out a smartphone and capture Silva’s alleged gun threat on video, we’re going to have to rely on our culture’s amorphous position on domestic violence. That actually could mean a not-so-rocky ride for the UFC within the MMA fanbase, if we’re to gauge from the sentiments expressed in online comments sections. There’s some outrage that Silva is back, but sadly, there’s been enough domestic violence perpetrated by fighters of late -- Josh Grispi, War Machine -- that fans are accustomed to it.
As for the culture at large, particularly the mainstream sports culture -- which the UFC craves to dip into as it expands globally -- the opinion of MMA wasn’t high to begin with. Those inked-up killers who punch and kick each other in the cage are crazy! That is the image problem the UFC has been pushing against forever. This will not help the cause.
So even if it were just a public relations consideration -- not an ounce of social conscience weighed in the decision-making -- the UFC’s decision to bring back Thiago Silva is bad business. If this situation involved a champion or some other high-profile, top-dollar fighter, it might be worth the headache for Dana White and Co. to stand behind their man. But Silva is decidedly middle-of-the-road. After winning the first 13 fights of his career, he went through a run of just one victory in six fights. He’s won his last two, but before one of them he missed weight. Prior to that, Silva had a pair of no-contests for failing drug tests, in one instance falsifying his urine sample.
That’s dishonest. Just saying.