Ariel Helwani, presently of Vox’s MMAFighting.com, has long been considered the best journalist covering MMA and the UFC. However, now he has been banned from covering the sport and apparently it was because he was doing his job too well.
On Saturday, Helwani said he was stripped of his UFC credentials, removed from a UFC event, and told he had been banned for life from covering the UFC, all because he broke a piece of news before UFC officials wanted it to get out.
On Sunday, prior to UFC 199, Helwani reported that retired fighter Brock Lesnar was close to signing a deal that would have him come out of retirement and compete at UFC 200. (Lesnar has since confirmed Helwani’s original report.) Later on that day, during UFC 199, Helwani tweeted that he — along with his colleagues Esther Lin and Casey Leydon — had all been kicked out of the event and told that they were banned for life from UFC.
I was escorted out of the building by Zuffa staff before the main event. Credential taken away, too. Didn’t see Bisping realise his dream.
— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) June 5, 2016
I love this sport & this job with all my heart. Did nothing unethical. I reported fight news. That’s it. & then told we’re banned for life.
— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) June 5, 2016
News of Helwani’s dismissal caused an immediate firestorm within the fighting community, and the media community more broadly.
Helwani is the reigning five-time World MMA Award Journalist of the Year winner; journalists and fighters alike respect and necessarily rely on Helwani’s reporting.
Many, though, were not surprised to learn of Helwani’s ban, saying that UFC has been treating journalists like this for a long time:
Did fans really not know that UFC has long used the threat of a lifetime ban to keep entrenched media in line? It’s a decade old policy.
— Jonathan Snowden (@JESnowden) June 5, 2016
On Twitter, many media members expressed anger that a journalist had lost access apparently only for the crime of doing his job. The Vertical’s Chris Mannix called for journalists covering UFC 200 to boycott covering the event.
ESPN’s Rachel Nichols said all UFC fans, especially those who purchase the Pay-Per-View to watch the fights, should be concerned about Helwani’s dismissal:
On Monday, Helwani talked with Yahoo’s Kevin Iole and spoke at greater length about what had transpired on Sunday night at UFC 199. He revealed that UFC CEO Dana White had personally given Helwani the boot because, among other reasons, he was too negative.
“I was brought to the back by UFC [public relations] and told by Dana White that I had to leave the arena,” said Helwani, who said it happened just prior to the main event. “Dana mentioned that from what I recalled that Brock Lesnar was upset the news was released early and that this could have ruined their deal.
“He repeatedly said, ‘Go cover Bellator [a UFC competitor]. We don’t want you here.’ … I said, ‘What did I do wrong?’ He said, ‘You’re too negative.’
Helwani also appeared on the Dan Patrick show on Monday, where he revealed that the Fertitta brothers, who own the UFC, allegedly told White to ban him for life.
From Dan Patrick (link not yet available online):
“He said ‘Lorenzo Fertitta is not a fan of yours. He made the call to kick you out and you’re not welcome here ever again … I know [White] was a little bit upset. I don’t know if he wanted to go to this length. I don’t know if he wanted to ban me necessarily — again, maybe that’s me just dreaming — but he did say multiple times that this was Lorenzo’s decision, that Lorenzo was not a fan of mine, that I am too negative and he hates me and that I’m done. And he said, ‘You’re finished. You’re not going to cover this organisation ever again.'”
Helwani, who previously worked at Fox, also said outright that he was ousted from Fox (UFC’s broadcaster) because UFC wanted him gone.
“Fox dropped me because the UFC told it to. That’s a fact,” Helwani told Patrick.
The UFC initially declined to comment on Helwani’s blacklisting, but ultimately said in a statement that Helwani’s story wasn’t “wholly accurate“. They also said he hadn’t come to them to confirm the report of Lesnar’s fight at UFC 200.
“I’m not saying you don’t have a job to report, but in this case [with Helwani], the professional standards are to reach out [to the UFC] for comment on a story you’re about to report, even if you get a no-comment,” UFC spokesman Dave Sholler said.
While this is by far the most brazen punishment Helwani has received, as Deadspin notes, it is not his first spat with UFC. His relationship with White is a complicated one, and in 2014 Helwani was temporarily denied credentials to UFC events allegedly because he had reported on Bellator, a UFC competitor.
UFC 200 will take place on July 9. Only time will tell if Helwani (and his two coworkers) will be able to cover the event. It should go without saying that they deserve to be there.
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