There are many contentious subjects in mixed martial arts, from the use of performance enhancing drugs to the corruption and ineptitude of various athletic commissions. Before the issues come into focus, they are often filtered by the entity that draws an epic amount of criticism within the sport itself — the so-called “MMA media.”
Yet far from being a homogonous group of “bloggers,” “hacks,” or “shills,” the public would be surprised to learn that there are actually different individuals that comprise the MMA media. Some were drawn to MMA because they love the sport, others were assigned to cover the UFC by their editors, but whether they’re writing as a hobby or as part of the special entourage of writers who get the best seats at shows and special events, the MMA media operates under circumstances that directly impedes their ability to report accurate and truthful stories.
Corruption and controversy have always been at the heart of mixed martial arts since the sport’s modern inception in the 1990s. Then again, maybe Mark Coleman (Olympian, UFC heavyweight champion and PRIDE open weight GP champion) didn’t throw his fight against professional wrestler/PRIDE founder Nobuhiko Takada (career record: 3-6-2) at PRIDE 5? And all the fighters who’ve tested positive for performance enhancers were maliciously framed by athletic commissions, or were taking legal (but tainted) supplements, or had the drugs administered by their doctor without their knowledge?
The media matters because they can bring attention and scrutiny to the dark corners of the sport. Greasing by an athlete? Suspicious judges’ decision? Rival promoter extorted at gunpoint for the rights of their fighter? There have to be news stories that shed light on the truth, especially when you consider that accurate information isn’t always volunteered by the fight promotions or state athletic commissions.
The current mixed martial arts landscape is dominated by the UFC. The question over the hold the UFC has over the media needs to be examined so fans understand the constraints that the MMA media works under.
The most obvious way to control the media comes through barring individual reporters or outlets from receiving fight credentials. When you take away access, outlets either have to get creative or look for a way to get their credentials back. That gives fight promotions leverage over the media.
Consider the last time MMA website Sherdog.com had its UFC credentials pulled in March 2010: It was believed that statements made by Sherdog staff in the Matt Lindland documentary Fighting Politics incited the wrath of the UFC. Now that Sherdog has its credentials back once more, do you think they’ll make similar statements — or write news with the same critical focus on the UFC?
A less-known, but much more effective way to control the media comes through offering financial enticements—indirectly. No one understands this better than UFC president Dana White, who explained how the game works in an exclusive interview with MMAJunkie.com in 2010:
“My biggest beef with a lot of these MMA websites is that these guys are for-profit websites. They’re not [expletive] news sites. They’re for-profit websites,” explained Dana White.
With the exception of the BBC in the United Kingdom, the CBC in Canada, and other state-funded media outlets, White ineloquently states the obvious: Media outlets are businesses that need to earn revenue to fund operations.
The article went on to state that “White doesn’t necessarily contend that media members are taking direct payments for placing a fighter in a top-10 list. Instead, he believes that the advertising that promoters often purchase on MMA websites can easily skew journalists’ opinions.”
The case of SiriusXM radio personality Scott Ferrall is worth reexamining. It was purported that Ferrall was paid to attend UFC shows, however a representative from Zuffa was quick to clarify the arrangement between Ferrall and the UFC was a “talent fee” that is commonly paid to radio personalities as part of a marketing agreement.
“Scott Ferrall was sent to do his show at a number of UFC events around the country due to a legal advertising agreement struck between Zuffa and Sirius XM Satellite Radio to promote the pay per view events, which is standard practice in the fight business,” a representative of Ferrall told CagePotato.com.
Other sources confirmed that in previous years, Zuffa did indeed offer media outlets compensation of expenses in order to cover their events. If the payments were included as part of an advertising or marketing agreement, then Zuffa didn’t directly pay journalists for coverage. Respected outlets like the New York Times would never let advertising taint editorial, but there’s no oversight to stop other media far down the evolutionary chain from making a backroom deal in exchange for money, exclusive scoops, or other partner benefits.
Yet another enticement a fight promotion can offer journalists — a profession bled dry by economic recession, corporate budget-slashing, emerging technology, and cheap user-generated content — is the promise of employment.
Most fans know about the ongoing discord between current ESPN.com writer Josh Gross and Dana White, dating back to the first ban of Sherdog.com from being credentialed in 2005. The fact that just two weeks after banning Sherdog.com (where Gross was employed at the time), Dana White flew Gross into Las Vegas and offered him a $28,000 raise to run the UFC’s website is a lesser known anecdote.
Gross turned the job offer down, but if other MMA journalists cultivate a friendly relationship with Zuffa, they always have the option of applying for a position at the UFC. Public relations positions are far more numerous, stable, and better-paying than most reporting jobs — facts that aren’t lost on reporters who already have the required skill-set to do PR.
(Josh Gross blasts the UFC’s manufactured mythology in ‘Fighting Politics’)
The final reason journalists have been historically biased when covering mixed martial arts has to do with the matter of self-preservation. PRIDE was threatened in 2003 when a rival promoter, Miro Mijatovic, signed Fedor Emelianenko and hosted his own competing show on New Years Eve. Retaliation was swift when Mijatovic was subsequently held hostage at gunpoint and had the rights to Fedor extorted out of him after three days of threats in January of 2004.
Throughout the following period, the Japanese media who covered mixed martial arts were complicit in not only ignoring the yakuza attacks on Mijatovic occurring under their noses, but in adding credibility to PRIDE president Nobuyuki Sakakibara’s denials of reality:
“They just continued to repeat Sakakibara’s bullshit as if it was the gospel,” said Mijatovic.
Former prosecutor turned anti-yakuza crusading lawyer, Toshiro Igari took notice of Mijatovic’s case, and after a prolonged case with investigators, successfully brought enough heat down to get PRIDE taken off of Fuji TV in 2006 with a “cease and desist” order from the Police to Fuji TV.
As for the Japanese MMA media, while it was certainly unethical that they had withheld the truth from the public over the yakuza’s dirty dealings (actions that had spanned years of criminal activity), it was also a survival instinct: In the wake of PRIDE’s demise in 2007, many of them lost their jobs.
Toshiro Igari, also author of several books on the subject of organized crime and a frequent commentator on national TV programs, was found dead in August 2010 in a Manila, Philippines hotel room. While his death was ruled a suicide by the Philippine authorities as both of his wrists were cut open and pills were found littering the room, it was much more likely that the yakuza enemies Igari had made over the years had caught up to him.
While Igari was a media-savvy lawyer and not a reporter, the type of work he did was relevant and close in nature to the often dangerous profession of journalism. Data collected from the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) shows that 70 journalists were killed during the course of their work in 2012 alone. That so many are willing to risk their lives by working in war zones, taking on organized crime groups or handling stories so dangerous that they are murdered for daring to tell them is demonstrative of the line that subdivides all types of journalists.
Going by a dictionary definition, a Taekwondo practitioner who spars for points with chest protection and headgear can define himself or herself as a “fighter.” In a similar vein, someone like MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani, who works as a personality for various UFC television programs (and therefore lacks the freedom to publicly criticize the promotion’s actions), can proudly self-identify as a “journalist.”
Given all of these factors, is it likely that the MMA media will improve or decline in its ability to cover the sport over the next few years? As things stand, it isn’t just fans or discontent outsiders who notice the low quality of coverage.
“We got a bunch of media guys who really don’t know a ton about the sport,” lamented analyst Chael Sonnen on a recent episode of UFC Tonight.
It’s curious that Sonnen is denigrating the very situation that the major promotions and power brokers of mixed martial arts have specifically engineered. After all, they benefit the most from all the scandals, corruption, and other information that is being swept under the rug by media members who prefer to feign ignorance in order to keep their spot on the gravy train.
The next time that Dana White tweets “Pride is dead dummy! I killed em!!!” let’s hope that there is someone left with integrity to report what really happened — instead of using their current job to interview for their next one.
Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the recently published book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.