Take an outcast gaggle of reporters covering a sport no one dares to care about, and you've got the makings of a pretty pathetic scene. Back in early winter, 2005, that was a fairly accurate description of a handful of us, including myself and a friend named Loretta Hunt -- whom you may or may not have heard of in recent days.
Hunt, as she's often done throughout her career, made news Wednesday -- though for unintended reasons. Having put her byline on a story that attempted to once again shine light on the back-room business of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, one of the few female reporters in the sport came under attack during a misogynistic profanity-laced YouTube video blog featuring the organization's most famous and, perhaps, most infamous character: its president and 10-percent stakeholder Dana White.
The piece, published on Sherdog.com, of which I was executive editor for four years before joining SI.com 11 months ago, was, on its face, fairly innocuous. As part of a larger theme, however, Hunt's article appeared to illuminate another example of the UFC's attempt at consolidating power in an industry that continues to take shape as if it were an iron rod being manipulated by a master blacksmith. It dealt with managers and agents of fighters vexed over what they said were recently revised UFC credentialing policies designed, apparently, to separate them from their fighters backstage. About six weeks ago I heard similar complaints, yet chose not to pursue the story. Hunt, to her credit, followed up.
For some of us, the credentialing issue rang as ironic -- which is where my story begins if you'll first allow me a few paragraphs to set up the scene.
Hunt's work followed previous reports of a revolt by managers and agents over a restrictive merchandising rights agreement, which SI.com broke, and was later quelled by the UFC. That happened largely due to White's 24-hour public roasting of Jon Fitch and the top-ranked welterweight's management team, a clear warning shot across the bow to any camp who dared to say no to the UFC. Later, among other tidbits that leaked as a result of reporters and bloggers who dared delve into the reality of UFC's business practices, news surfaced of changes in the handling of sponsorship deals and dollars.
Let me digress, because no matter how obvious, this needs to be said: The idea that mixed martial arts coverage would be welcomed in this space was a pipedream in '05. Today's reality, the fact that I make most of my living covering MMA for an outlet like SI.com, is due in a very major way to White. That's undeniable, and I say so without the slightest hesitation. His passion to make the UFC the sport's dominant player, and his drive to morph what can sometimes be an ugly, easily misunderstood venture into something palatable and popular enough to catch the attention of sports editors ranks among sports greatest upsets.
White and the UFC have done a tremendous amount of good. He's delivered fame and fortune to more than a few fighters. To the ones who haven't reached the pinnacle of MMA, there's never a concern in the UFC over bounced checks, suspect matchmaking, or myriad other troubles that seem to plague many of the sport's other promoters.
Still, White's ram-the-door-down tactics rarely seemed necessary. Along the way, reporters willing to question the accrued power of White and his company earned his wrath. I speak from experience.
This is a story I've shared many times, yet rarely in public, and never with the level of disgust I feel at the moment. For full disclosure, media outlets like Sherdog.com, which has served as ESPN.com's MMA content partner since 2007, have been denied access as members of the working media since October 2005, when many of us were cast aside without so much as an explanation. (There is a shared belief that as the UFC pulled itself out of the abyss and emerged following the successful debut of The Ultimate Fighter, those of us who had covered MMA and knew the landscape might have caused more trouble than we were worth, especially as new media, which had been courted hard, jumped on board.)
That policy continues under the directive of White and with the clear consent of UFC's majority owners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.
Despite covering MMA for SI.com, I still find myself shutout. For several reasons it's not something I've talked much about publicly. For one thing, I could only come off as whiny and bitter, neither of which I'd like to believe are accurate. Judging by the reaction in 2005 when we, as a collective, tried to drum up support, mainstream media didn't seem to care. And, as many of us would come to learn over the years, access isn't a prerequisite for proper coverage -- you'd be surprised how close you can get without a badge around your neck.
Of all the things those of us out of favor with the UFC have dealt with, bullying remains the worst. Which brings me back to Hunt, and White's comments on his video blog. As a result of the UFC's stringent -- dare I say virulent -- media policy, it appears some with access have allowed the fear of losing a place on the inside to get in the way of doing necessary reporting. Important questions don't get asked nearly enough, and White's M.O. clearly explains why: screw with our business and we'll screw with you.
White's verbal assault has received attention for its misogynist tone and despicable anti-gay rhetoric (for which groups like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation have demanded, and received, an apology). I don't believe White's homophobic -- like many people that's just how he talks. Really, White's anvil-tongue is the clearest reason why he's become a fan favorite and pseudo celebrity. But language is different than context, and in calling Hunt a "[expletive] dumb b----" while rebuking her reporting as "absolutely [expletive] retarded" he offered in plain view the way in which much of the media covering MMA is regarded by him and his company.
Privately, he's offered similar thoughts in my direction. But that's different. That's behind closed doors, or over text message. This was public, a sanctioned verbal bullying of a female (not that it should matter) reporter that would have, at a minimum, required a strong rebuke of any executive in any industry, if not an outright dismissal.
Having earned the reputation of a man who could make a sailor blush, White will seemingly get another pass, though I imagine it might be his last.
For quite a few of us in the MMA media, his latest rant was business as usual. That the rest of the world appears to be paying attention may change the dynamics. Only time will tell.
MORE DANA WHITE
VIDEO: White goes off on journalist(Warning: link contains strong language)
SHERDOG: Some managers, agents lose backstage pass
AP: MMA reporter stands by her story
JHABVALA:White's rant an embarrassment
REACT:Your thoughts on White's tirade