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What Really Happened at the UFC 189 Toronto Press Tour

By Brian J. D’Souza

The last article on MMA that I published in 2014 was Shill ‘Em All, Part 5: Goodnight and Good Luck. It was a series about the constraints of the MMA media due to both carrots and sticks offered by promoters that won BloodyElbow.com’s “Best MMA Writing Award” in 2013. Last Friday, at the UFC’s media tour stop in Toronto, I found myself encountering the vitriolic stick used by the UFC that often keeps important questions from being asked.

Fighter pay became a feature of the UFC 189 media tour when Marc Raimondi of MMAFighting.com reported that Aldo said “I will always complain…I will always want to earn more. This is the right that I have, so I’m going to continue doing this,” at the March 24th presser in Los Angeles.

The media portion of the Toronto press tour was kicked off by a question about whether Conor McGregor was copying an iconic photograph of Muhammad Ali when he posed in front of a bank safe with bankrolls full of cash.

“It just happened to be coincidence that it looked like the Muhammad Ali photo,” responded McGregor, “but what was really happening was, I was collecting my win bonus in advance.”

I’ve never shied away from writing about the contract issues and financial issues that have lifelong consequences for fighters. For instance, in 2014, I wrote a feature for Bleacher Report that described the stark realities faced by retired MMA fighters evidenced by the case of TUF 1 and UFC veteran Chris Leben. I followed that up by probing Jon Fitch’s road from being a title contender to being cut by the UFC for not signing away his video game likeness rights to being cut a second time and ending up in WSoF.

Since the lawsuit against the UFC was launched in December by the initial group of Jon Fitch, Cung Le and Nate Quarry, I began to openly question why no reporter had attempted to broach the subject with Zuffa. Then again, why would they when they can just continue asking tough questions like these?

Lawsuits are a common landscape feature in sports, from the recent case of Formula 1 driver Giedo van der Garde suing F1 team Sauber over his right to drive for them to the widely-publicized dispute between former NFL players and the NFL over concussions.

Throughout the eight-stop press tour for UFC 189, Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor have been open targets for fans telling them how their respective opponents were going to destroy them. They are expected to suffer and bear the experience because it furthers the goals of the promoter—selling tickets, pay-per-views, TV licenses, merchandise and sponsorships—and because Aldo and McGregor themselves will receive a portion of the financial proceeds.

McGregor himself told MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani that he would make “More than the [$7 million dollar] gate…I am on the pay-per-view cut. I will make three times more than Jose…and that’s still not fair.”

At the UFC 189 press conference, I asked Aldo about his pay complaints, whether his contract had changed due to the lawsuit and whether he would consider joining the lawsuit. A reliable source had told me that every time a main event fighter was rumored to be joining the lawsuit, their contract would get renegotiated.

This is where UFC president Dana White pretended to be translating and responded “He says you’re a dick” to me.

Aldo then responded tactfully through his (real) translator, saying “I’m happy, I’m not complaining, people are going to do whatever they want to do, so, it’s up to them. I’m happy with my contract.” It was the equivalent of saying “No comment.”

If I had foreseen Dana’s reaction, I would have held on to the microphone after asking my question in order to follow up. It was at this point when I stood up and said “My question was respectful, your answer was disrespectful. That came from [Aldo], not from you.”

The fallout from the press event was twofold: First, a UFC representative called me on Saturday to inform me that I was no longer welcome at any future media events. Second, Dana White sent out a series of tweets (check them out here and here) claiming that I was not a journalist and that I had snuck into the press conference. This is patently false—I have contributed to major outlets such as like ESPN and Sportsnet Magazine for years, was approved by the UFC’s PR representative, placed on the media list, and subsequent to the event, wrote an article on the presser. The UFC also has my signature on a release form that I signed to get into the event, after which, I was issued a wristband.

As for claiming I was representing BloodyElbow—I e-mailed the UFC rep for information about the press conference on Tuesday March the 24th. The UFC rep e-mailed me to confirm she’d placed me on the media list on Thursday at 7:41 PM. My editor for the publication I originally wanted to write for happened to take Friday off, so I had no lead time to discuss anything with them. I wanted to file a story on the UFC 189 presser that weekend, so I approached BloodyElbow on Friday morning and was commissioned for two articles, which were killed in the aftermath of the press conference.

If you read through the entire Shill ‘Em All series, you’ll see a recurring theme of the promoter controlling the narrative. Yes, the UFC 189 press tour was designed to market UFC 189, not to give any attention to issues outside the periphery of that goal. I maintain that my question about fighter pay was a logical continuation of the thread that Aldo and McGregor themselves started. The question over which UFC main event fighters are contemplating joining the lawsuit also needs to be asked.

March has been a sad month for MMA, with tragic stories about former UFC and PRIDE champion Mark Coleman and TUF 1 alumni Jason Thacker surfacing. While I admire the crowdfunding effort to raise money for both of their cases, I believe that having more contractual rights could have benefited both fighters throughout and beyond their MMA careers.

It was five years ago that former MMAWeekly.com editor and writer Ivan Trembow announced that he would cease his coverage of MMA due to the brain damage incurred in the sport. Perhaps he could have done more good from the inside, but he made a clean break and has never resurfaced to my knowledge.

To those that continue to report on MMA, I hope you think back to the tough times in your life when, like Jason Thacker, you needed help or support. And I hope you become that beacon of light that provides comfort or warmth in someone else’s life.

***

Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the critically acclaimed book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.

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