UFC Media Ban Drama Ends — But Did Dana White Learn Anything?

UFC 199 was inarguably overshadowed by media drama that didn’t even have to happen. In case you missed it, MMAFighting.com writer Ariel Helwani was handed a lifetime ban for doing his job.

From the Los Angeles Times,

“Helwani was ousted earlier this year as the UFC reporter on Fox after similarly irking UFC officials by reporting on unwanted stories and breaking news the company didn’t immediately want public.

“On Saturday, after posting a story earlier that day about former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar’s impending return to fight on the July 9 UFC 200 card in Las Vegas, Helwani was told to exit toward the Forum parking lot along with a videographer and photographer before the UFC’s middleweight title fight.

“Helwani also broke the news Saturday that popular featherweight champion Conor McGregor of Ireland would return from being removed from the UFC 200 card to fight Stockton’s Nate Diaz at UFC 202 on Aug. 20 in a rematch of their March welterweight fight won by Diaz.”

Dana White previously declared that Ariel would never be allowed to attend an event “as long as he was president.” The lifetime ban lift wasn’t followed by an announcement that White retired, so what happened?

I have a hard time believing that Dana White was one of those “cooler heads.” White is notoriously stubborn. It’s an attitude that doesn’t always reflect well on himself as UFC president. In situations like this, it’s done little to aid the image of UFC as a company.

To take it a step further, I believe he seriously underestimated how bad this would look for the UFC brand. The story of UFC 199 shifted away from a great night of fights — to UFC being a company that bullies news journalists who don’t toe the line.

Interestingly, there are claims this bad publicity is something that UFC caused themselves — by giving Helwani preferential treatment in the past.

Deadspin commenters observed that Ariel Helwani came out the winner (and the UFC the villain) despite playing both sides against the middle. One commenter put it this way.

“They clearly think the role of a ‘journalist’ is to advance UFC’s own interests at all turns. In that sense, Helwani’s tactics did extend beyond the purpose of ‘journalism.’ Not real journalism — mind you — but this unique UFC concocted journalism.

“UFC would regularly give stories they wanted [to be] reported to Helwani and he would abide. That Helwani would turn and report on something before they wanted him to and then hide behind the cloak of (real) journalism when he had so rarely done that in the past is dubious.”

If this is true, it would certainly explain why UFC president Dana White felt comfortable tossing Ariel Helwani out. White may have mistakenly thought of Helwani as more of an employed UFC PR writer than an independent news journalist.

However, when reputable, non-MMA affiliated news organizations took offense to what happened, it signaled that the UFC had overplayed its hand. Journalists are going to stick together, especially when they feel one of their peers was wronged. As much as the UFC wants to believe it should be and is in charge of its own publicity, that’s just not reality.

UFC, for all its self-promo efforts, remains at the mercy of two very powerful entities: The news media and social media. Both these entities were ultimately on the side of Ariel Helwani. UFC’s brass likely realized that the combination of negative perceptions would not bode well for them — especially if it interfered with efforts to promote UFC 200.

As I said, given Dana White’s attitude about the ban, I have a hard time believing the ban reversal was his idea. I believe quite a bit of pressure was applied — and that’s worrying. Impulsive, vindictive behaviors like this are never good for business. Even now, the UFC is struggling to bring its image up to a level where it’s a universally respected sports brand.

Dana White and the UFC as a whole is going to have to think a bit harder about how it wants to react to news reports and journalists. You can’t bully everyone, even if you feel you have a legitimate grievance.

[Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images]