April 13, 2011

The enduring image from Saturday night's Strikeforce event was not of Nick Diaz or Gilbert Melendez rocking the house in San Diego with the stuff of a champion, or even of a bloodied, battered yet rejuvenated Keith Jardine. Even more memorable -- and surreal -- was the sight of UFC president Dana White sitting cageside in a Strikeforce T-shirt. This was the second-fiddle mixed martial arts promotion's first major event since being purchased by the top-dog UFC's parent company. And the historic evening made clear that it's now a whole new ballgame for the organization White not long ago was referring to as "Strikefarce."

Then again, maybe the farce hasn't gone away from Strikeforce after all. Maybe it's just arrived.

On the same night that Strikeforce ascended to the major leagues of MMA, running what by all accounts was a smoother, slicker show while bidding adieu to insufferable window dressing such as the pyrotechnics that at past events had rattled bones during fighter introductions, the organization also apparently stooped to the amateur-hour vindictiveness of its new ownership. Two reporters assigned to cover Saturday's event by major media outlets were denied press credentials, just as they have been refused access to all UFC events in recent years after writing stories White evidently didn't consider worthy of his company's PR clip file.

It's understandable that not all outlets that apply for credentials can be accommodated. But it was curious that Strikeforce, which doubtlessly dreams of riding in tandem with the UFC into the mainstream of American sports, would bar writers representing such prominent outlets as ESPN and CBS Sports from press row. The reporters denied credentials were ESPN.com's Josh Gross and freelance journalist and author Loretta Hunt, who was assigned coverage by CBSSports.com. (Both have contributed to SI.com, Gross as this site's main MMA writer for several years.) Hunt's exclusion was especially bizarre, since CBS shares ownership with Showtime, which televised the event. CBS has itself broadcast Strikeforce in the past. In essence, Strikeforce couldn't find a place for a representative of its own TV partner.

Gross and Hunt, two of the most experienced and respected journalists covering MMA, have been personas non grata at the Dana White Athletic Club for years. Each ran afoul of the UFC boss while working for Sherdog.com, the most visited MMA website and long the object of White's ire. Site owner Jeff Sherwood and his correspondents still are unwelcome at UFC events.

Gross initially was denied access, along with much of the MMA media and without explanation, beginning with UFC 55 in October 2005. He apparently was still in favor with White, though, as he was offered the top editorial post at UFC.com. Gross turned down the job and continued to report for Sherdog without access. He did not endear himself to White the next year when he revealed the Season 4 finalists of The Ultimate Fighter before the taped Spike show aired. His justification for the "spoiler" was that that season's TUF winners had been guaranteed middleweight and welterweight title shots, making the results news, not just reality TV.

Hunt became Very Public Enemy No. 1 after her 2009 story for Sherdog about the UFC's restricting backstage access of managers and agents prompted White to fly into a rage in his video blog. His gripe: Hunt quoted several unnamed sources. Her reasoning: Managers, agents and fighters were afraid to speak out against UFC policies on the record, for fear of reprisals. (Why would they ever think that?) When the dust settled from White's profanity-laced rant, he did apologize. Not to Hunt, though, but to the gay community for a slur he used in his tirade. Hunt gets no apology. Or credential. Nor does Gross. Who cares what mainstream media outlets they represent?

Mark Cuban no doubt loves this. Judging by the comments he made in a recent blog entry proposing the banishment of Internet writers from NBA locker rooms, the fiery Dallas Mavericks owner would love to be empowered to decide who covers his team and how. But naturally, if Cuban ever tried to pull a Dana White and allow access only to those writers from major media outlets who give his team good publicity, he'd quickly be slapped down by league commissioner David Stern. The same thing would happen in the NFL, NHL or Major League Baseball, whose athletes White wants his fighters to one day be seen alongside on the major daily newspaper sports pages and online news sites. With the UFC, however, White is himself the de facto commissioner. He can do whatever he wants.

Until the media call him on it, which to this point only a few MMA blogs -- none with significant UFC access to lose -- have dared to stand up and do.

Hunt did tell me that after her credential application was denied, editors at CBS Sports not only decided to go without original coverage Saturday night but also indicated to her that "they're not going to be covering the UFC for a while." But when I reached a company spokesman, he took a softer stance. "We serve a growing base of MMA fans on CBSSports.com," Alex Riethmiller said, "so we're obviously disappointed the credential request was denied."

ESPN.com's response was similarly noncombative. "We obviously prefer that our reporters be welcome at all events they cover," said Patrick Stiegman, the site's vice president and executive editor. "And while these issues do arise at times, we continue to work through them, and Josh continues to aggressively cover the sport for ESPN.com."

Spokesmen for Strikeforce and Showtime declined to comment on or clarify the credentialing policy.

"It would be a good thing if news organizations applied some counterpressure," said Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing and sports journalism at the Poynter Institute. "When the leaders of a sport start screwing around with press credentialing in response to what they perceive to be unfavorable coverage, that sends a big message to all responsible journalists who are covering that sport."

It might take a while for that message to sink in with enough media members for it to make a difference. Perhaps nothing will change until the UFC and Strikeforce are firmly entrenched in the American sports fabric, and company officials are regularly dealing with editors who demand the professionalism of mainstream sports leagues and teams. Clark, for one, believes the time will come.

"Any time someone tries to control coverage in this way, it backfires," Clark said. "They look like jerks. They look like bush leaguers. And the actions that they take against journalists become stories in and of themselves. They end up inviting negative coverage."

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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