UFC President Dana White (Sherdog)

The Great Divide: Ariel Helwani and How the UFC Feels About Journalism

Ever since the existence of mixed martial arts as an official sport and the inception of the Ultimate Fighting Championship as MMA’s premier combat organization, the mainstream media has played a unique role in shaping how the public views what many people saw as a dangerous and barbaric sport.

It’s basically been 20-plus years of a love-hate relationship, and that trend seems to be continuing to this very day, but for many different, petty reasons.

MMA media has gained recent notoriety from devoted fans, who have fallen in love with a sport that’s become popular worldwide with every demographic imaginable. These fans rely on certain outlets to get the story behind the story. They want MMA journalists and writers at those publications to break news stories they weren’t expecting to happen.


It’s something that’s been happening in every major sport for decades. When big news happens at the NBA trade deadline, or if a major injury occurs in the NFL, fans are either tuning in to ESPN to hear the breaking news or, with the existence of social media, they just check out what people are saying on Twitter.

That’s how people like to get their news… That is, unless the UFC has something to say about it.

First, the back story:

Recently, news broke that former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who was involved in one of the promotion’s milestone events at UFC 100 in July 2009, will be making his return to MMA exactly seven years later when he takes on heavyweight legend Mark Hunt at UFC 200.

The problem is, this news, which was originally broken by Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting.com during the UFC 199 prelims, didn’t sit well with UFC executives, specifically promotional head Dana White, who ended up taking matters into his own hands.

It was such a serious situation that Helwani reported this news — which was still a rumor at the time — that it actually got him escorted out of UFC 199, which was being held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and eventually “banned for life,” along with two of his co-workers at MMAFighting.

Helwani broke down all the events, which apparently occurred following the co-headlining bantamweight title fight between Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber, on his official Twitter account:

Right after the conclusion of the bantamweight title fight, Helwani, along with MMAFighting’s video director E. Casey Leydon and photographer Esther Lin, was escorted out of the building.

Helwani addressed the matter on his own podcast, “The MMA Hour,” a couple of days later and expanded on more of the details:

He expanded some more on Twitter later in the afternoon, mainly thanking various people for their support and expressing his hope for a resolution in the near future:

Adding insult to injury, the publication also got its media credentials completely stripped, which meant that anybody working for MMAFighting would no longer be allowed to cover live UFC events in the same capacity as the rest of the media does.

However, after days of backlash, the UFC ended up lifting the ban and giving back the publication its media credentials. Both MMAFighting and the UFC gave their own statements on the matter.

Ultimately, what this saga between Helwani and the UFC exemplifies is yet another example of the corporate establishment pressing its proverbial boot on the neck of the media when the media doesn’t do what it’s told and opts to engage in actual journalism. Yes, that explanation sounds like a lot of wonky mumbo-jumbo, but in the day and age of politicians demanding that corporate entities control the way journalists are supposed to do their jobs and stripping credentials from them when they don’t fall in line (see also: Donald Trump during the current election cycle), it’s really a shame that it has to be seeping its way into sports journalism, as well.

Let’s get something straight here: Helwani did nothing wrong. Did he do something that ticked off the executives of the biggest combat promotion in the world? Sure. But did he break some kind of moral code that shouldn’t have been crossed? No. Was he informed beforehand that he wasn’t allowed to report on a simple rumor he had received from inside sources? Not at all. He correctly reported the story as a rumor, which it was at the time, and he was punished for it, simply because the UFC wanted to break the news of Lesnar’s return through its own video preview during UFC 199.

Here is the video the UFC released during the event, previewing Lesnar’s return:

It’s not that hard to see how the UFC felt like Helwani may have stolen its thunder. He reported the Lesnar rumor before it was announced in a dramatic way. However, the whole point of being a journalist is to find stories and report them so people can find it out as soon as possible. As long as the stories are accurately reported and not misrepresented in any way, nothing wrong is being done from a moral standpoint.

From all indications, Helwani was punished for having the nerve to do his job. If the UFC is upset about journalists reporting rumors and wants to ban them for doing so, then the company might as well not have reporters at its events. If the UFC wants to have personal stenographers pushing out press releases and wording them in the way the company likes, then it should hire people for that job.

Helwani doesn’t work for the UFC. He works for MMAFighting. For years, he has been known to do fascinating interviews with the likes of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, boxing champion (and one-time MMA fighter) James Toney, and even Dana White. Helwani has been cordial and respectful to all of these people, while also entertaining viewers, so for him to get punished for doing his journalistic duties is ironic, to say the least.

Also, people shouldn’t forget that this isn’t the first time the UFC has taken issue with the popular reporter. Helwani was also fired from his gig with Fox Sports after he had a candid interview with UFC fighter Rory MacDonald where the topic of MacDonal’s impending free agency and his thoughts on staying with the UFC were discussed.

MacDonald was none too pleased about Helwani’s firing, sounding off about it on Twitter:

Of course, in typical Dana White fashion, he had plenty to say about Helwani when he joined the debut episode of the podcast “UFC Unfiltered,” hosted by former UFC champion Matt Serra and comedian Jim Norton. On the show, White said Helwani threw himself a “pity party.” White mocked Helwani for crying when discussing the issue of being banned on his podcast, and White also claimed that Helwani tried to make the whole issue about himself.

I’ll allow White’s attack against Helwani to speak for itself — and it speaks loud and clear — but if anything, it just proves that when you cross the boss, you get into big trouble.

Is this what MMA journalists are going to have to deal with in the future? Let’s hope not, because this is a sport that is still growing. It would be a real shame if the UFC were to cut down the best story breakers at the knees just for doing their jobs.