Skip to main content

SI’s Media Circus hosts 2016 MMA media roundtable

Seven respected MMA media members for a roundtable discussion on a number of MMA-related topics; more Media Circus.

Given the increasing interest in MMA, and considering the fact that this column has not focused much on the many media-related issues of the sport, I thought this would be a good time to panel seven respected MMA media members for a roundtable discussion on a number of MMA-related topics. The roundtable was conducted via email. 

The panel:

Heidi FangMMA Video Journalist, Las Vegas Review Journal

Josh Gross, MMA contributor to the Guardian and author of Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment

Ariel Helwani, writer and broadcaster, MMAFighting.com and Fox Sports

Kevin Iole, MMA and boxing columnist, Yahoo Sports.

Sydnie Jones, MMA columnist at Bleacher Report; editor in chief of womensmma.com

Dave Meltzer, Editor and founder, Wrestling Observer Newsletter; writer for MMAFighting.com

Luke Thomas, senior editor, MMA Fighting and SiriusXM host.

Members of the panel were asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity. This is long but I think you will find it illuminating.

Richard Deitsch: If I made you commissioner of MMA sports, what would be your first action regarding the media?

Fang: I would really want to do something about media who cheer on fighters. Impartiality is, and should be, taken seriously in this profession. If you’re engaging in those actions, like clapping for a fighter at an event or cheering in favor of a fighter at an event, then you’re not being impartial.

Gross: I’d finally organize an association bringing the industry’s media together in a meaningful way. It’s way past time. In the real world, despite many discussions and proclamations, it hasn’t been the easiest thing to get done.

Q&A: Rachel Nichols on her new role at ESPN

Helwani:

Iole: I would create far larger press sections with more seats on the floor. Traditionally, there are far, far more seats reserved for media on the floor of a boxing match than there are at a comparable MMA event. If I had that power, I would expand the media section significantly.

Jones: I would attempt to create a greater distinction between media and promotion. So many people who cover MMA started because of their fandom. That, paired with promotions blackballing reporters and sometimes entire sites for coverage they consider unfavorable, has created an environment where criticism is seemingly not worth the risk to many. Or maybe they’re simply uninterested in taking that risk. Either way, critical coverage of the sport and the industry suffers as a result of this dynamic. It has gone unchecked as long as the sport has stayed on the fringes of mainstream acceptance, and major news sources have only covered it minimally until recently. Even then, it’s mostly stories about a select few fighters, isolated freak incidents (Anderson Silva’s leg break; the ‘Soccer Mom’ KO), or something like War Machine attacking Christy Mack. So the sport continues under this information stranglehold and minimal accountability, and generally, the fan base seems fine with that.

Meltzer:[Declined to answer]

Thomas: I’m not sure specifically what I’d do, but it’d be related to improving diversity. MMA media has a real problem in this regard. There simply aren’t enough persons of color, women or other outside voices contributing. Part of this is a self-selection bias that a wave of a magic wand won’t fix, but there’s simply no denying MMA media will be a lot better when its members aren’t all straight white males, which I say as a straight white male.

RD: How would you define the media access you get covering MMA?

Fang: I get great access. Whether the promotion is large or small, I’ve always been provided with interview opportunities when requested. I have also had great experiences where getting credentialed is concerned.

Gross: Generally adequate. Needed tools like Wi-Fi, power supplies and basic working conditions—seats you could see the fights from—were things a few of us early pioneers pushed for. Now most media can rely on these things when they work, unless you’re talking bottom of the barrel promotions.

Helwani: It’s been a roller coaster at times, but I think we’re in a good place right now. The three major promotions (UFC, Bellator and WSOF) are all very accommodating these days. When I book my weekly show, The MMA Hour, I typically go through the fighters, their managers and/or their PR people. However, if I’m ever stuck, the promotions more often than not come through and are quite helpful. I think MMA is the best beat to cover because the top names are all very accessible. The biggest names in the sport are typically a text away and that’s great for us.

Reviewing CBS’s broadcast of Super Bowl 50

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Jones: Varying: from constrained only by what a fighter is willing to share to tightly controlled, depending on the promotion and relative celebrity of the fighter. The less well-known a fighter is, the more generally successful it is to access her via social media or contact information. I’ve had requests through managers go unanswered. When the promotion is arranging media access to fighters, my experience so far has been that access is limited and chaperoned—15-minute telephone interviews, conference calls with multiple media members also listening/participating, etc. It also varies from promotion to promotion when asking for information from them. Typically, the smaller the organization is, the more readily they provide it.

Meltzer: Good. It’s different for me because I have a lifetime of covering pro wrestling as well as other sports. But for most of that period pro wrestling was different, in the sense they were very resistant to coverage, so people in MMA for the most part were like a different world. It’s not like every time I ask for an interview I get it, particularly since I focus on the business end, but I’d say good. I will also say that because I’ve been there from the start, my experiences are not the same as others. A lot of my framework comes from the world I grew up with where historically it was a lot more difficult than MMA.

Thomas: Based on the particular way I began my career covering the sport, I never desired promoter-granted access. I believed strong writing, informed opinion and dynamic, consistently-produced work could circumvent the need for access that depended on promoter whim. That worldview is, however, a touch paranoid. Being wary of promoters is prudent, but perennially keeping them on the other side of the 59th parallel doesn’t really work either. Generally speaking, I still try to put certain limits on the amount of interaction I have with any MMA promoter (especially outside of event-based coverage). That will obviously vary by issue or calendar year or something else, but it’s been a helpful guideline because it prevents me from being a position where any access I enjoy can be leveraged against me. In short, it’s best to develop the ability to produce work such that if any and all access by every promoter were revoked, it wouldn’t substantively impact one’s ability to contribute meaningful MMA journalism.

RD: How would you define the media access you get covering UFC specifically?

Fang: The access I get from the UFC is fantastic. I’ve worked in Las Vegas for the past four years and have been invited to nearly every engagement they’ve held in the surrounding area. When I’ve requested access for specific projects I have had in mind, I’ve always been steered toward someone who can assist me.

Gross: Nonexistent. I haven’t had access to a UFC [event] since November 2005, before which I had as much as any reporter at the time. A few weeks after most of the niche MMA media was denied credentials to UFC 55, I declined a job offer to run UFC.com. I told [UFC president] Dana White that I didn’t think I could do journalism there. I also didn’t feel right taking the spot after everyone was tossed out. White said I’d live to regret it. At the time you think it’s just the sort of thing people say. A year later I sat with him in the lobby of the Rio in Las Vegas and he asked me if I would be his go-to guy. Here we are today. Anyhow, more than a lack of access, the UFC negatively influenced relationships with fighters, and tried to hurt the way fans perceive me and my reporting. The popular perception is this started after I reported the results of TUF 4 before the season started. I believed then as I do now that it was a news story, and don’t regret how I handled that. Sherdog.com stood behind me at the time—paying the price for it with lost access until it regained it after I left as the site’s executive editor—and thankfully I’ve had tremendous opportunities despite the treatment.

These days I’m writing from my couch for the Guardian on big UFC fight nights. Both SI and ESPN hired me well after the UFC ban, and I’ll always be appreciative for that. The whole thing is strange, but such is life. The last time I got Dana and Lorenzo Fertitta on record I managed, for ESPN, access to the press conference in Los Angeles announcing the FOX/UFC partnership in 2011. When it came time for questions, no one piped up so I took the first few. Later, White and Fertitta politely gave me all the time I wanted. Also, I should note that I can call some people inside the UFC and they’ll pick up. A select few of them even call me from time to time. But as far as company policy, how their publicists treat me, how Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta view me, I’m persona non grata. Of course I feel I should be able to cover the promotion in person. At the very least I wish UFC did more than ignore me when I ask for comments on hard stories. I think they usually blow it by not participating.

Helwani: As I referenced earlier, it’s been a roller coaster at times. I personally have gone from being denied credentials when I just started out to having to work my way up, to getting full access, to less access, to more access, but as I sit here today, I can’t complain at all about the access we get these days. During fight week, the UFC’s PR staff makes all the fighters on the card accessible in one way or another (press conference, scrum or one-on-one) for at least an hour if not more, and if we want to do something outside of the box they are usually accommodating. The staff is also very pleasant to deal with, which wasn’t always the case. 

Iole: Overall, excellent. It’s rare I ever have an issue with UFC. Sometimes, access to the top executives is hit or miss, but by and large, I personally have had excellent access and no significant complaints.

Jones: Limited, if I go through them. This is somewhat difficult for me to answer, because the last several emails I sent to our designated UFC contacts have borne no fruit.

Meltzer: At shows it’s pretty standard. There are plenty of people you can interview. There are a lot of press conferences, they’ll bring fighters into town, arrange for days with area fighters, etc. In that sense the people I’ve worked with on that are 100% great. But it’s not like every time I want to interview someone on business that it happens, but overall good. 

Thomas: Adequate to my needs. I don’t attend shows often, but when I do, I am granted access. I’m not on certain press distribution lists regarding occasional media opportunities (e.g. media call or luncheon for an upcoming event), but those are things I’m highly unlikely to cover, anyway. When I contact their PR representatives for quotes or interview requests, I would describe their responses as largely friendly and responsive. For what it’s worth, the UFC has not denied me or ever revoked my credentials. I state that only as a personal disclosure. I make no claims regarding how they grant media access for journalists, generally.

RD: Who do you consider the media-friendly athletes in your sport and why?

Fang: In all honesty, I have had most athletes be friendly to me. When I first started working as a reporter in this sport I expected to get turned down at times, have a few doors slammed in my face. However, I have yet to encounter problems with anyone. I think most of the athletes want to promote themselves and the sport. Most of them seem to make the most of any opportunity they can to do just that. But obviously the big standout right now that most fans want to hear and see about is Conor McGregor.

SI.com's P4P rankings: Cruz climbs back into Top 10 after Dillashaw win

Gross:

Helwani: This may not be a sexy answer, but I could literally name 99% of the people in the sport. As media we are so lucky to be covering these athletes because of how accessible and honest they are. We are spoiled in many ways. Luckily for us, and perhaps somewhat selfishly, they aren’t being pulled in a thousand different directions so they are usually quite happy to talk. Also, we only see them a few times a year so I don’t think they get sick of us as much as, say, a baseball or basketball player. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Iole: There are so many, because MMA athletes rank up there with the best I’ve ever covered. They seem to take personal interest in growing the sport. The two most obvious answers are Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. I’m always amazed at Ronda by her willingness to answer everything and to give thoughtful, insightful and interesting responses. But there are so many who are great. Urijah Faber is terrific. So is Joe Lauzon and Michael Bisping. My favorite athlete to interview, perhaps among all those I’ve spoken to in more than three decades as a sports writer, is UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. Cruz isn’t quite as accessible as some of the others, but he is flat-out the best interview I’ve ever had.

Jones: In terms of accessibility, regional and lower-level/smaller promotion fighters are easier to reach and more responsive. Smaller (but still among the major) promotions would include Invicta FC, Legacy FC, World Series of Fighting, and, to an extent, Bellator. Perhaps I should say, ‘promotions that aren’t the UFC.’ Even within the UFC, though, its roster is so large (500+ fighters) that many of the lesser-known fighters are quite responsive.

In terms of savvy, it’s partially contingent on how much marketing and promoting the organization is doing for the fighter. Those who the promotion gives the most visibility are quite savvy, but that tends to be a select few. So perhaps there’s plenty more but we haven't been exposed to them. Connor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk give great sound bites and think well on their feet. Daniel Cormier and Chris Weidman also do well. But they’re all champs or former champs in the UFC, and all except Cormier are white. We’ve seen Sage Northcutt heavily promoted as well, and he definitely has a babe-in-the-woods-esque charisma on camera. Paige VanZant received similar treatment. Aljamain Sterling, Tonya Evinger, and Michael Bisping usually give you something to pay attention to. Evinger is grossly underused; she’s unflinchingly honest and really, really funny. Fabricio Werdum is very charismatic and likes to troll people, which is always great. Ilima-Lei MacFarlane is articulate and easy to interview.

Meltzer: It’s very rare, as in I can count on one hand, where an MMA athlete hasn’t been friendly. Obviously some are difficult to track down, but are usually good when you do track them down. I don’t want to pick any out. Obviously some make themselves more available and some are more private. I think most have seen that it’s to their benefit as far as building a name to be media-friendly, but those who are the most media friendly end up deluged, and if they are top stars and media friendly, it’s a real balancing act.

Thomas: To be fair, most athletes are quite media friendly. Whether they are adept at making use of their time in the media spotlight is a different consideration, but the overwhelming majority are happy to talk, at least on some level. MMA fighters provide a degree of openness and access that is basically unheard of in any other stick and ball sports. For that reason, it’s hard to single out some as uniquely friendly to the media. What I can say is the fighters who are good at media are more likely to share their time with you. UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, for example, knows he is a gifted orator and uses it to his professional advantage.

RD: Who do you consider the media-unfriendly athletes in your sport and why?

Fang: This isn’t a non-answer, but I can’t think of anyone who has been unfriendly in regards to accepting interview requests or things of that nature. 

Gross: There’s no point in naming names other to say Jon Jones told me off on Twitter not so long ago. I’m not sure why, exactly. It happens, and I’m not too worried about it. I’ve been threatened by fighters. I’ve had fighters try to gain my favor by offering to get me laid. One story … a former champion and favored son of the UFC agreed to answer a few questions I had about an old teammate of his. This was at his gym in Las Vegas. As soon as we’re done—it was only about two minutes—he looks directly at me and tells me to f-off. He wasn’t nice about it. Now, why would I be interested in dealing with that guy again?

Helwani: I’ve had moments with people here and there, but I’m thankfully on pretty good terms with most people in the sport right now so no one really comes to mind at the moment. They aren’t athletes, but I do wish athletic commissioners, judges and referees were more accessible before and after events.

Iole: Boy, this is a difficult one because there are so few. I guess I would say Mirko Filipovic. He just isn’t interested in talking and dealing with the media and is very guarded. Once, at a news conference in Vancouver, I was seated in the first row, directly in front of him. For some reason, he was relaxed and joking and was great. When the news conference ended, I approached him and told him I appreciated his candor and openness and urged him to be that way more often. He said he would, but he never really did.

Jones: The least accessible to most MMA media are the champions or ‘rising stars’ in the UFC. MMA fans are generally the readers of MMA reporting, and the UFC’s goal is to grow the sport. Interviews and appearances they coordinate are frequently with mainstream media. But there are a couple of MMA websites in particular to whom the UFC allows greater access. Plenty of people, and thusly plenty of fighters, are not especially articulate. That can make for a difficult interview. I spoke to a regional fighter over the phone who answered as economically as possible with open-ended questions, and didn’t elaborate beyond a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when it wasn’t necessary. But even then, it just took a little chit-chat and some personal anecdotes for her to feel like we were having a conversation. So far I haven’t run across anyone so uninterested or non-communicative that I felt it was an exercise in futility.

Meltzer: [Declined to answer]

Thomas: Ronda Rousey might be an unlikely choice, but she comes to mind. In fairness to her, she still fulfills an enormous amount of media obligations both in and out of camp. She should frankly be commended for that, but she applies a different standard of what she’ll tolerate in terms of questions when dealing with indigenous MMA media. The dedicated MMA fan base thinks as highly of Rousey as the rest of the wider world, but traditional sports outlets talk about her as if it’s real-time hagiography. They pick up on none of her contradictions, problematic statements or other areas of curiosity. She’s under no obligation to speak to MMA media or answer our queries, but if all you know about Rousey is from what you read from non-native MMA outlets, there’s a case to be made you’re getting a manicured version of reality.

RD: How often are you lied to by someone you cover?

Fang: To my knowledge, I’ve never been lied to by any fighter, promoter, or manager. There are times when I can tell an answer has been prepped or groomed to deal with controversial questions, but I don’t think I’ve ever been lied to by anyone in the sport.

Gross: Outright lie? It happens and I’ve been burned but it’s rare and lessons are learned. The real trouble comes when people shade truth and lie by omission, which takes reporting to sort through, but that goes for any space covered by journalists. People lie in all sorts of ways. The fight world keeps it interesting.

Helwani: I don’t think too often. It’s happened a couple times that I can remember, but like I said earlier, I find the athletes refreshingly honest more often than not.

Iole: I would say spin is far more common than outright lying, but I would say a week doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t flat out lie to me.

Jones: Directly, I think only once so far, and I suspect it was a matter of self-preservation for fear of reprisals from the promotion he fights in.

Indirectly, Dana White has lied particularly blatantly in recent memory. He appeared on a Canadian show called Off the Record in May of last year. When the host asked him about Anthony Johnson’s conviction for domestic violence following two additional allegations from two different women that had recently come to light, White claimed he didn’t know and then moved on to demonizing Johnson’s accuser. At the time, Johnson was days away from fighting for the light heavyweight title, and the UFC had been promoting him heavily for months, if not longer. Johnson received extensive scrutiny because of the accusations. The UFC had even suspended him while they investigated the most recent allegations, so for White to claim that after all of that, he didn’t know the circumstances of Johnson’s conviction and subsequent sentencing in 2010—even though Johnson was fighting for the UFC at that time—is absurd to the point of being insulting and impossible to believe.

The UFC tries to maintain a strict hold over the flow of information and seems to discourage questions and criticisms of their operations, so with limited information offered and minimal avenues to access more, it can be difficult to say whether or how often it happens.

The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox

Subscribe

Meltzer: Everyone has a frame of reference and some people’s memories aren’t the best. It’s more that, but on occasion, you do get lied to.

Thomas: Routinely. I suspect the majority of conversations I have with members of the fight community are either extended lies or at least contain a lie. The trick is to get a nose for it. It also helps to find those rare individuals who have a proven track record of truth telling when working on a story. Lying is routine in MMA because it’s essential. It’s a natural human response given the conditions in which we operate. You should think of MMA as a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. Everyone runs into everyone else. As a consequence, people are trying to navigate the waters without upsetting entrenched power or their own allegiances while still getting ahead. It creates for a lot of deception.

RD: If I limited you to asking Dana White one question, what would the question be and why?

Fang: Tough one. I haven’t been able to do a one-on-one with the UFC president in awhile and my questions are piling up! One question, huh? Who would he pick to run the UFC if he wasn’t is one I’d have. You have to wonder how taxing it is to do what Dana does on a daily basis and if he would ever hand over the reins to someone else. If it had to be a bucket list question, I’ve always wondered what the conversation was between Georges St-Pierre and Dana following UFC 167. 

Gross: For a guy who rarely if ever gets to ask Dana White questions, this is a tough one. I would ask him, “How did the UFC determine it was acceptable for Vitor Belfort to fight Jon Jones in September 2012?”

Helwani: There’s no doubt White is less accessible these days (I would argue that between 2009 and 2014 he gave reporters more access than any other president/owner/coach in sports), however, he’s still accessible at pressers or via text so there’s nothing really pressing that comes to mind. I’ve always wanted to talk to Frank Fertitta, though, especially since he very rarely does any kind of media.

NFL media roundtable: What would you ask Goodell? More Media Circus

Iole:

Jones: I would ask him why, despite the UFC’s stated policies on domestic violence and despite what White himself has said about fighters convicted of domestic violence, two men convicted of domestic abuse (Anthony Johnson and Abel Trujillo) were signed to the promotion at all, let alone why they're still actively fighting for the UFC.

White has said a fighter will ‘never bounce back from putting his hands on a woman.’ I think the language may have changed slightly in the most recent employee manual, but previously the UFC’s policy was that incidents of domestic violence were met with termination of the fighter’s contract. It's a hypocritical stance from a promotion that doesn’t think it’s a serious enough concern to actually address. When Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel did a story on the rate of arrests for domestic violence among MMA fighters, White said it was a ‘crock of s--- show’ after the UFC declined to have anyone appear on it. They have a solid history of doing next to nothing about and making excuses for their fighters while insisting they’re unimpeachable.