SI’s Media Circus hosts 2016 MMA media roundtable
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.
Heidi Fang, MMA 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.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.
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.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.
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.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.
Meltzer: That would change by the day based on what the news is. My interactions with him have usually been discussions that cover a bunch of different territories.
Thomas: My question would be, “What is the justification for requiring fighters to sign away their likeness rights away in perpetuity without any financial compensation?” The reason for asking is simple. The UFC runs an incredible operation, but fighters currently lack any real representation to safeguard their interests. There is no union or trade association. It’s a leverage world and so understanding the mechanics of why fighters are required to make such a deep concession is understandable, but it’d be in the public’s interest to hear UFC management explain why fighters don’t, for example, receive a penny for having their likenesses used in the EA UFC video game. It’s noteworthy the sports journalism community seems concerned with collegiate athletes getting properly compensated for having their likenesses used. One wonders why fighters haven’t been afforded the same level of inspection.
RD: What will be the biggest MMA story for 2016 and why?
Fang: The return of Ronda Rousey. There’s no way 2016 passes us by without “Rowdy” coming back into the Octagon. She is by far one of the most (if not the most) intriguing athletes in the sport. Fans want to see her make a triumphant comeback. Haters want to see her fail. Her career reminds me of something I saw in the Howard Stern movie Private Parts. The average Stern fan listened to him for over an hour. The average Stern hater listened to him for three hours. I think Rousey has that same appeal—either way, both sides root for her to fight again.
Gross: It’s easy to say labor issues. There’s the ongoing antitrust lawsuit against the UFC, and more fighters are talking about organizing than ever before. This is all part of the growing pains, and should be intriguing to watch unfold. If I had to got out on a limb on a major story that would ripple through the sport, don’t be surprised if Lorenzo Fertitta leaves the UFC to focus on his casino business.Helwani:
Iole: Easy. Will Ronda Rousey fight beyond 2016 or will her next fight be her last? She’s by far the biggest star in the sport and she’s in her physical prime. But there are hints she’s not going to be long for the sport. Secondarily, looking at it as a group, the biggest issue will be how the UFC’s drug testing plays out and if use of PEDs slows down. But Rousey is clearly No. 1.
Jones: I hope we’ll see further efforts toward and maybe even the actual manifestation of something akin to a fighters’ union. Currently, fighters are classified as independent contractors, although some promotions don’t treat them that way. For professional athletes in the major promotions, the pay is abysmal for most. Many fighters hold down full time jobs, in addition to training. In fact, a considerable talent just declined to renew his contract with the UFC because he received a better offer from Bellator, particularly the ability to wear sponsors in the cage and at promotional events—the UFC nixed that after signing a deal with Reebok and providing outfits for all fighters. Sponsors are a major source of income for many of the athletes, and the tiered system through the Reebok deal is apparently advantageous to few of them. For the risks they take, particularly with their brain health, the listed remuneration for the great majority of fighters is a pittance, especially compared to other pro sports, in my opinion. A group advocating on their behalf would be great.
Meltzer: If Ronda Rousey fights Holly Holm, because that will be the biggest fight in history. But to me actual bigger news for the sport itself is two key difficult issues, which are PEDs in the sport and weight cutting.
Thomas: This is hard to predict. Can Conor McGregor continue his meteoric rise? Will Ronda Rousey, the biggest star the sport’s ever seen, even return to the Octagon? Can the UFC follow up on its massive 2015 success in 2016? What will happen to Bellator, the Viacom-backed MMA organization out for a share of the market pie? For my money, though, it’s worth following the class-action lawsuit former fighters have filed against the UFC. Unless the suit is outright dismissed, even a settlement has the ability to transform fighter-UFC relations and the industry, generally. Whether that change is positive depends on the lawsuit’s outcome and one’s interpretation of it, but suffice to say, the implications are potentially massive.
RD: What is the worst thing you have experienced on social media related to your job?
Fang: I told this to my supervisor at the R-J and I stand by it, I rarely get trolled. It’s happened a handful of times and most of them are things which I think have been misconstrued. Most of the time, if I feel I’m being trolled, I write back to that person directly, nip it in the bud.
Gross: Nothing so bad that it bothered me for more than five minutes. Sometimes the rabid pro-UFC crowd will come after me, questioning my integrity and whatnot, but that’s always stupid. If you want to include MMA forums, then I’ve taken a ton of garbage. MMA forums can get pretty wild. I rarely if ever block people on Twitter, which is the only social media I care to use. (Mute is the best.) I can’t compare my experience to what I’ve seen many women sports reporters deal with, especially in MMA. There’s been some heinous, hateful stuff.
Helwani: Nothing too bad. I used to not block people because I felt like I didn’t want to give the “trolls” that kind of satisfaction but then I was reading some annoying tweets on a Sunday with my family and I thought to myself, I didn’t invite you into my life today and I’m tired of this, so I just started blocking anyone who crossed the line. I get annoyed sometimes when people complain about our show having some technical issues, but I know that’s coming from a good place so I can’t really whine about that. One thing that really bugged me recently was when I reported about CM Punk’s recent surgery. I didn’t include his Twitter handle in the tweet with the article, but a ton of people added his handle to the reply just to say how happy they were he was hurt or to wish bad upon him. That felt very evil and gross. Who goes out of their way to wish bad upon someone who’s about to have surgery? So that bugged me a bit.
Iole: Twitter can be a cesspool of hate. Bigotry is very common and it just annoys me to no end. I love being able to discuss the things I love with people who share similar interests, but the sheer nastiness of a small but vocal part of the audience, particularly on Twitter, has made interacting with the public via social media far less enjoyable.Jones:
That was certainly the most egregious. Any time I’ve been critical of any part of the industry, including things women within it say and do, I’m met with some degree of gender-specific backlash, as though I need permission from male fans to have a valid voice in the MMA sphere. LOL.
Meltzer: The worst, and for me this is daily, is people who don’t read what I write or listen to what I say, bombarding me with negativity based on things I never wrote or said.
Thomas: No one incident stands out. I don’t think I’ve ever been threatened physically, so I’ve certainly had it no worse than many others. It’s true the great unwashed are all too happy to share their terrible opinions of me from time to time, but that doesn’t seem too aberrant from the norm for those in this profession.
RD: How beholden are you to UFC event access given their dominance in the sport?
Fang: As media, you shouldn’t make yourself ‘beholden’ to any one promotion. Do I appreciate my access and think it's necessary to cover the UFC? Absolutely. But I don’t feel like I owe them something except for putting out the best coverage I can on its athletes. For me, it’s about the sport and telling the stories of the athletes in it.
Gross: Well, based on what other reporters tell me it’s common to feel as if the UFC will render some sort of reprisal for things they don’t like. I’m a pretty good example of that. As is Loretta Hunt and other reporters who were summarily relieved of or threatened with losing access. When media lost access as a group in 2005—the UFC decided it wanted to toss out all dedicated MMA media for a stretch after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter—we sent letters as a group asking for some discussion. There was basically no support from media outside of MMA, which was tiny at the time, and the UFC did what it wanted. In time most of the media were let back in, but this idea that the UFC will simply revoke access permeated the sport because they’ve done it for so long and never paid a price. Fans remind me of it all the time, as do other reporters. I had one reporter recently tell me that he was expecting to join the banned list after some provocative quip. It’s taken a few years but I do find it insulting when media folks approach me this way—as if losing access is some badge worth wearing, or that the UFC would actually revoke their access today for something so stupid. I don’t buy that the UFC would attempt the stuff they’ve done in the past, but so many media folks are tied in with the UFC that it’s difficult to say for certain. There’s a strong perception among fans that reporters with UFC access cede ground to the promotion. I’m sure it happens. I’ve heard too many stories not to think otherwise. I believe far too many do themselves the disservice of relinquishing their own power. This doesn’t have much to do with opinion or news breaking, although the UFC has worked to control how news is broken in the sport. Things get tricky when you’re talking about being a combative reporter who probes. I understand the need to cultivate and maintain sources when working a beat, but reporters will sit on touchy topics because it’s far easier compared to paying the price so many have been conditioned to expect. That serves no one but the people they’re covering. Final thought: I’ve made it more than 10 years without access to the UFC, so it can be done.
Helwani: My situation is a bit different because I also work for the UFC’s broadcast partner, FOX, so obviously it’s good to be in good standing with them so I can do that job properly. But most of my work is for MMAFighting.com and I don’t need UFC event access to do my show every week. I do prefer conducting one-on-one interviews than scrums and they don’t have to grant us those so it’s nice when we are on good terms and they do. Sometimes they haven’t and we’ve figured it out. It’s not the end of the world.
Iole: It depends on what you mean by beholden. At Yahoo, our audience is a far more general audience than an MMA-specific site. So in terms of pleasing my audience, I’m beholden to the UFC because the greatest number of fans are interested in UFC than anything else. They’ll know UFC but not know many, if any, of the other promoters. So I need UFC stuff to write about because that’s what my audience wants. But if you mean beholden to the UFC in the sense that I have to write what they want, no, I’d say that is zero. I write what I want, when I want. And I write what I believe, no matter who likes it. People may not always agree with my viewpoint, but I say what I believe always.
Jones: As I mentioned, I haven’t attended a live event yet as a member of the media, so for me, I’m not beholden at all. Most information offered at events and in press conferences is available online, often via live streaming video. I’ve also found the most interesting information from beyond their reaches, anyway.
Meltzer: I never think about it. In my position right now, if I had to live without it, I could. Years ago, when UFC banned Internet sites, and this is long before the company got big, I was never told I was banned but the story was they banned Internet sites. They didn’t have a credentialing system and nobody contacted me one way or the other. You have to realize the world I came from, so it didn’t matter to me. The world I came from was far less receptive. Dana White actually called me before a show in Sacramento, it would have been the first time they ran, and asked me if I was coming. So that’s when I realized I wasn’t banned.
Thomas: It’s always helpful to receive press releases, luncheon invites or event credentials when trying to do one’s job fully and competently. But I’ve long believed some reporters would be benefited by carving out an identity where they aren’t heavily reliant on promoters in order to produce good content or effective journalism. In terms of my work responsibilities, some measure of access is admittedly quite helpful, but I am not dependent on it. That may not be the case for others, but the nature of my podcasts, radio shows and opinion columns as well as day-to-day reporting don’t necessitate access to be completed properly.
RD: How and where do you conduct most of your interviews and why?
Fang: Since I’ve started covering MMA for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I’ve been talking to a lot of fighters in gyms. I find that they’re more comfortable in their own domains or places with which they’re familiar. I also feel like that sort of coverage provides a real insight as to who each fighter is. When people are in their own environments, they seem to be more open. Prior to working with the RJ, most interviews I conducted were over the phone because I worked on a radio show.
Gross: Whenever possible in person, but due to lack of access to the UFC I mostly worked over the phone or Skype since Strikeforce was swallowed up by Zuffa. I’ll cover Bellator from time to time. You know, I killed them for the awful card they promoted on Friday yet feel comfortable that the next time I applied for access they would provide it. The last interview I did was for the UFC lightweight title fight coming on March 5: I’m writing a piece for the Guardian on champion Rafael dos Anjos, who has the task of beating the man, Conor McGregor. The Brazilian was gracious enough to invite me into his gym to watch him train and chat, and I’ll take a conversation on a sweaty mat over a phone call every time.
Helwani: It varies. On Mondays I host a four-hour show entitled The MMA Hour (yes, I know the name is technically incorrect), and that show features six to nine interviews each week. We shoot the show live from the Vox Media studios in Manhattan and it airs on MMAFighting.com via YouTube. I’ve been doing it for over six years and really love it. I book most of the guests on the show via the fighters themselves or their reps. The hardest part is booking a solid show each week, but I also enjoy the challenge. When we’re covering an event, we usually do interviews at the media events or sometimes in the fighters’ hotel room. I also love doing “walk-and-talk” interviews, where we walk around a city with a fighter for an hour and film the entire conversation in one take. I don’t like to edit any of my interviews. Another reason why I think this is the best beat is there could be 40 straight weeks of UFC but each event brings a whole new set of stories, stakes and characters. It’s never mundane. It never feels like, say, game 52 of the regular season between the Sixers and Magic. So I look forward to each week.
Iole: I would say I do the majority by telephone. I vastly prefer one-on-one sitdowns to telephone interviews, but often, with the sheer volume of shows, it’s not possible. It’s also complicated by the fact that I also cover boxing and HBO, Showtime and Premier Boxing alone combine to put on more than a show a week, on average. So while I almost always get my best stuff in a one-on-one done in person, the sheer volume of shows makes the telephone my best alternative. The UFC does a lot of scrums. I spoke to UFC PR head Dave Sholler long ago about the format of the media days and I give him a lot of credit because he incorporated a lot of my suggestions into what he does now for media. I still prefer not to get my information from a scrum, if at all possible, but sometimes there is no choice.
Jones: So far I haven’t attended a live event as a member of the media, so my interviews are conducted over the phone or by email. The interviewee determines the medium. If it’s left up to me, I choose based on whether I think my questions could put them on the defensive. If that’s the case, I’ll use the phone. I’ve found people will tell you plenty if you get them talking and let them continue. My ideal setting would probably be in the subject’s home or somewhere they love.
Meltzer: The majority would be on the phone. I live in a city with one of the most well-known fight teams so if it’s area fighters, it’s sometimes phone and sometimes in person, usually during a media day with them.
Thomas: Skype is a godsend and what I use most regularly. From there I can make audio calls and easily record them with enough quality for reproduction. The same is true for video as well in the event I have a guest for a podcast. Our audience is highly responsive to video content where the faces of our hosts and guests can be seen. It’s a priority to make this available to them. If I cover an event as a video reporter, I’ll do one-on-one interviews with a videographer shooting and editing everything.
RD: What is your most valuable medium for disseminating your work and why?
Fang: Twitter has always been a great resource for me. I feel the MMA network is strongest there and the interaction with people on that platform is always solid.
Gross: The outlet I’m working for is No. 1. If people hire you to reach an audience for them, it’s great when they push your work because chances are much better it will be seen. No. 2—but No. 1 in my heart—is Twitter.
Helwani: Twitter has been a great tool for me throughout my career. I don’t usually use my personal Facebook to share my work, however, our MMAFighting.com Facebook page has been doing very well these days and we post most of our content there as well. I enjoy using Twitter more because it feels like you’re just sharing stuff with a group of friends at some sort of party, as opposed to Facebook which feels a lot more impersonal and vast.
Iole: I don’t have actual numbers, and someone from our social team would be in a better position to answer this than I am, but my sense is that it’s Twitter. I have a personal Facebook page as well as a Facebook journalist’s page, but my sense is that when one of my stories catch fire, it’s because it’s been spread via Twitter. I think it’s because of the quick-hit nature of what Twitter is. I can say, hey, here’s the breaking news and here’s the link to my story on it, and it gets spread pretty quickly. On Facebook, even when someone likes a story, it doesn’t have that kind of spread that a like or a retweet can have on Twitter.
Jones: Bleacher Report has a considerable readership and acts as the sports section of CNN’s website. Some of our pieces end up on Yahoo’s news page as well. Our team of MMA writers is a great collective talent, the writing is excellent, and we provide knowledgeable analysis and commentary on the sport and industry. So having such a proficient group draws and maintains a loyal base. I think the next most valuable medium for me is probably social media. The MMA community is small and very active on Twitter, including the fighters and industry professionals. When stories get shared, they reach a lot of pertinent eyes.
Meltzer: I’m again in a unique position because my actual bread-and-butter is a weekly newsletter, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that covers both pro wrestling and MMA. I’ve been covering pro wrestling since 1982, and really on-and-off since 1971, and actually covered the first Pancrase show in 1993 and the first UFC show in 1993 and have covered MMA in many ways since the beginning of its existence. So a lot of my best work is for a smaller but very loyal audience. I also write for MMA Fighting doing analysis stories. We have an incredible staff there. They are the best reporters, best videographer, best photographer, etc. in the industry. I also have a web site where I do podcasts after every UFC show and do MMA news several other shows per week.
Thomas: YouTube and it’s not even a contest. The content is dynamic and easily shareable. The audience is seemingly endless and responsive. The ability to have work matter and easily disseminated makes YouTube an utterly indispensable tool. This is also why traditional sports media institutions have utterly failed to attract an MMA audience with their coverage. I’m not just stumping for my employer (nor am I speaking for them here), but no one does combat sports like SB Nation and this is not an accident. It’s unequivocally true the MMA audience is digital in a way no other sport’s audience is. The collection and sharing of video is what kept the sport alive in its years of mainstream ostracism. If you create the kinds of digitally-native content they’re looking for, you can attract more than enough to monetize a robust operation and reach huge swathes of the audience in numbers that would surprise any skeptical sports editor. Many traditional media outlets think MMA won’t work as a sport to cover in terms of working with an audience big enough to justify the effort because their ideas of how to cover it are profoundly out of touch. Among a variety of other problems, they don’t prioritize video. This doesn’t just mean creating occasional video content, putting it above the fold and assuming the effort will take care of itself. It means building around the idea of video news reporting, video analysis, live video coverage and more as a defining principle of editorial coverage. I don’t want to undersell how important good writing is to any sport’s journalism, but I can’t be more clear: video is king in MMA and YouTube is its throne.
RD: What has been the most interesting story you have worked on over the last 12 months?
Fang: Following the growing careers of rising fighters has always been something that interests me. In the past year, I’ve done articles on both UFC women’s strawweight Rose Namajunas and on UFC bantamweight Aljamain Sterling. The two of them are on the rise and I feel like each time I talk with them, I find out something new and compelling about them. Telling the stories of these fighters who have great potential, and finding how how they pave their paths to where they are, makes what I do worth it.In September for Deadspin
Helwani: Such a tough one to answer, but I’ll go with getting the first interview with Jon Jones in November following his arrest in April. We did one of those “walk-and-talks” with him: a one-hour, unedited stroll in New Mexico where he talked about a lot of topics he had never talked about before. I worked really hard to get that first interview and was pretty happy with how it turned out. He still hasn’t done an interview since so it still kind of feels fresh. That was fun to be a part of and I’m really thankful that Jones chose to speak to us first because I’m pretty sure every outlet tried to get him first, as well. That was a huge honor.
Iole: Dominick Cruz’s return from injury to become a champion. The guy’s comeback story is almost unprecedented in sports. He had three knee injuries and a torn groin and fought once in more than four years. Yet he came back and beat a terrific opponent to become world champion again.
Jones: The most interesting story I’ve worked on over the last 12 months is the one I did on Randa Markos’s childhood. She had an abusive father who served in the Iran-Iraq war, and her family fled to Turkey in 1988 before ending up as refugees in Canada a year later. Markos is a fairly stoic, reserved presence, and her story of surviving her childhood and the perspective it gave her was compelling. There’s so much under the surface and she’d never spoken about it in such depth, as far as I’m aware, so getting to look at those mechanics was fascinating.
Meltzer: Different companies and their changing business models are always interesting. The rise of Conor McGregor, the human drama of Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier, the expanded PED testing, how the public reacts and what they want which is a story that will always be there because it’s the crux of many of the key decisions from every group.
Thomas: The level of fighting in mixed martial arts today, particularly in the UFC, is extraordinary. There’s never been a better time to be a fight fan. The massive technical innovations in tactics, strategy and skill development has and continues to transform the sport in often breathtaking ways. I’d argue we are in the midst of a major growth period as it relates to technical growth. Trying to keep pace with that has consumed my interests enormously. The community has more collective wisdom and best practices have begun to spread. The truly knowledgeable have begun to introduce novel ideas about the successful application of violence. The result is routine excellence in ways that many of us never thought possible. I don’t present this issue as one that speaks truth to power. It’s also true every sport’s technical level continues to improve year over year, but when one inventories just how much mixed martial arts is revolutionizing itself, I’m not content to sit around and simply marvel at it. I want to understand it, so it’s something I’ve been covering quite a bit.
RD: Will your job exist 20 years from now? If yes, why? If no, why?
Fang: Yes, of course. When this sport started, it was a spectacle. It didn’t look likely that it would run the course that it has. Fighters in the early days may have only come from one discipline, but were masters of their craft, like Royce Gracie. These days, we no longer have MMA fighters who have only trained in wrestling, or just boxing. I think that speaks to the evolution of the sport. Nowadays, we are even seeing children learn the sport and all facets of it from the early phases of their training. The fighters coming up these days are well-rounded and know how to train for what they’re doing. The growth is remarkable and I think it’ll continue.
Gross: Yes. MMA is here to stay and it will need to be covered for the audience that wants it. My job has shifted. A decade ago I was as close to the UFC as possible, breaking news and churning out a ton of copy but always maintaining distance as any reporter should. I slowed on news breaking by choice a few years ago after leaving SI for ESPN because it was clear to me that the landscape was such that news was being fed to reporters and that made doing the legwork much less appealing. So I wanted to focus on more deeply reported work a growing billion dollar industry needs. I was very fortunate to work with the enterprise and Outside the Lines unit on a couple big pieces about the UFC while I was at ESPN. That’s where my heart is now. One of the great things about not being on the beat—not that I wouldn’t gladly jump back in—has been creating my own space. I’ve done that the last couple of years with MMA filmmaker Bobby Razak. Our production company, Side Control Media, is up to a lot of cool stuff and I hope to tell stories and do journalism in the combat sports world for a long time to come. My first book, Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment, comes out this June. I’d love for it to still be in stores 20 years from now, and I hope to be writing about MMA just the same.
Helwani: Absolutely. I don’t think the sport is going to cease to exist anytime soon, so reporters will always be around. I’m sure it will evolve as technology continues to evolve, as well, but I’m confident the job and the sport will be around in 20 years.Iole:
Jones: I think so. The rise in popularity following Zuffa’s purchase and renovation of the UFC speaks to the available interest in the sport, and viewership continues to increase. MMA has been around in some form for millennia, if not under that name. There was something very similar called Pankration at the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. I mean, in essence, it’s fighting, which clearly has endured as a thing in existence and as a sport.
I also find MMA to be exponentially more interesting than boxing or any single-discipline combat sport, although I might be biased because I’m a grappler. To me, MMA is the pinnacle of human athletic capability. If you can throw a football the entire length of a field but don’t know how to stop someone from putting you to sleep or breaking your arm, that ball-throwing ability looks a lot less impressive in the abstract. Sports are tests of overall athletic skill, and I can’t think of a greater or more compelling athletic skill than survival.
Meltzer: The world is constantly changing. I’m pretty sure I’ll have an involvement somewhere in 20 years, but what that will be, it’s impossible to tell. I really take life one week at a time.
Thomas: It won’t look much like it does today, but yes, mixed martial arts reporting—particularly anything centered around video—should be alive and well.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the last week)
1. Of all the postmortems on SB Nation’s story on Daniel Holtzclaw—the sports site took down the 12,000-word story just hours after it published it and issued a note from its editorial director on the editorial breakdown—I thought the best and most thoughtful piece came from Jessica Luther, who examined what sports writing does when it tries to tackle issues of violence against women, including domestic and/or sexual violence. “It does the worst of what sports writing does when it tries to tackle issues of violence against women, including domestic and/or sexual violence: it centers the athlete and almost completely ignores the victims,” wrote Luther. “In the nearly 12,000 words, I count just under 500 were about the thirteen (13!) women who came forward and testified against Holtzclaw.” I’d urge you to read the piece.
Having worked at an outlet that has had some public screw-ups—notably SI’s coverage of Manti Te’o— the best thing for SB Nation, in my opinion, would be to self-examine the breakdown and be as transparent as possible (and do so quickly). On Te’o, I thought SI managing editor Chris Stone did that in an editor’s note along with a piece inside the magazine and the transcript of Te’o’s interview. You can never win over everyone after a big editorial failure but how you deal with it often defines your publication heading forward.
1a. The New York Times had an update on the SB Nation story on Friday and Deadspin reported that along with a peer review of the piece led by Vox Media editorial director Lockhart Steele, SB Nation’s Longform program will be inactive in the near-term.
1b. I was in and out of Fox’s coverage Sunday of the Daytona 500, but I liked the chemistry between the existing crew and Jeff Gordon, the former driver of the No. 24 car who is now a fulltime analyst for Fox. I asked followers on Twitter what they thought of Gordon’s work and he drew near-universal praise. Good sign for Fox.Sports Illustrated
2a. The legacy for ESPN anchor Linda Cohn, who hosted her 5,000thSportsCenter on Sunday, will be how her colleagues speak of her. An ESPN-er since 1992, Cohn has been a strong presence at ESPN (but not an egoist as some are), excelling in what was once a Bristol boys club. ESPN has been the best of the sports television network’s employing women over 50 and what will really impress me is if the 56-year-old Cohn is on ESPN 10 years from now. That will be a statement, and clearly, she will be overqualified for the job. I enjoyed this piece on her by Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs.
3. Episode No. 42 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN reporter Holly Rowe, who works on a variety of sports for the network including college basketball, college football, gymnastics and volleyball.
In this episode, Rowe talks about her recent diagnosis with a rare form of melanoma that has spread through her body (this is her second bout with cancer—she had a cancerous tumor removed from her chest last May), and that the recent support she has received has been tremendous; she heard from Les Miles, Urban Meyer and Charles Barkley, to name a few. Rowe also discusses what it’s like to compete in an industry that seems to prize youth and beauty over other attributes, why Brent Musburger has been so successful for so long, her hardest interviews on the sidelines, why Doris Burke is among the toughest people she’s met in broadcasting, working the sidelines of memorable games like the 2006 Rose Bowl, being a single parent in broadcasting and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• The New York Times’ Ian Urbina has produced a brilliant series on lawlessness at sea.
• From July 10, 1960: To Kill A Mockingbird is reviewed by The New York Times’ book review.
• The New Yorker’s Nick Schmidle has a must-read profile of TMZ.
• The Moscow Times’ Peter Hobson on Russia’s debt collectors bringing back the brutality of the 1990s.
• MTV’s Molly Lambert on Kanye West and the terror of going off SSRIs.
• A Q&A with the brilliant Robert Caro.
• This piece by Gawker’s Tom Scocca on Bill and Hillary Clinton and how we process politicians is excellent.
• Via The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich: The Consequences of Our Consequence-Free Society.
• “I was 16 years old when my son was born.” Honest stuff from Michigan Daily writer Logan Hansen.
• The Economist obit is always a master class in writing. On Antonin Scalia.
Sports pieces of note:
• The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke on the late Dale Earnhardt.
• SI’s Chris Ballard profiles Dirk Nowitzki.
• Terrific work by Sportsnet’s Donovan Bennett with this roundtable with black sports writers and reporters.
• ESPN’s Bonnie D. Ford on Brazil’s disgusting Olympic water.
• Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford, Gare Joyce and Ryan Dixon had an entertaining and well reported oral history of Jaromir Jagr.
• Buffalo News reporter Tim Graham profiled former Bills kicker Scott Norwood.
• Tim Bella on the concussion gender college gap in college athletics.
• The Ice Network had a three-part series on concussions in figure skating.
• NYT’s Zach Schonbrun on the heated basketball competition between college basketball team managers.
5. The Planet Fútbol podcast crew interviewed longtime announcer J.P. Dellacamera about his career and broadcasting American soccer.
5a. The Solid Verbal podcast sat down with ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi.
5b. Greg Norman to Golf World, on Fox Sports: “I thought I was handcuffed, to tell you the truth. There was a lot of stuff I wanted to say, but the final comment they told me [was that] I was too unpredictable. I thought that’s what they want you to do in that role.”
5c. Re/code reporter Peter Kafka conducted an excellent interview with ESPN president John Skipper.