On Saturday, highly regarded MMA reporter Ariel Helwani was escorted out of the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., before the UFC 199 main event, and he had his press credentials revoked, in retaliation for a pair of stories that scooped the company on major upcoming fights, including Brock Lesnar’s match at UFC 200. That made for an emotional edition of “The MMA Hour,” the live-streamed show Helwani hosts at MMAFighting.com on Mondays, and by the end of the day, the UFC had lifted its ban.
That represented an about-face for the company, whose high-profile president, Dana White, had told TMZ Sports that Helwani was banned for life from getting credentialed by the UFC “as long as I’m here.” In a statement issued Monday evening, the UFC said, “We respect the role the media plays in our sport and beyond, including MMAFighting’s ability to report news.”
The MMA giant added, “However, in our opinion, we believe the recurring tactics used by its lead reporter extended beyond the purpose of journalism.” Helwani may or may not have been employing a “tactic” Monday to rally support for his reinstatement, but his heartfelt comments, which constituted the entirety of Monday’s two-hour show, likely helped further the image he already had among many, including a number of influential media members, as a sympathetic victim of the UFC’s bullying and disdain for journalism.
Amid occasional pauses to wipe away tears and collect himself, Helwani said he hated that “his story” was overshadowing, to a degree, Michael Bisping’s remarkable win at UFC 199. The 37-year-old Brit authored a stunning first-round knockout of Luke Rockhold that Helwani was unable to see in person, but he described it as “one of the greatest stories in the history of this sport.”
Toward the end of his comments, Helwani, who has won “MMA Journalist of the Year” at the World MMA Awards every year from 2010 through 2015, said with emotion, “To not be welcome [at UFC events] legitimately hurts my heart.” He added that it was “surreal” to have been told be he’s no longer welcome in sport in which he’d “put all [his] eggs in one basket.”
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
However, in an extensive effort to tell “the whole story” of what had led to his ban, and to dispel whispers that he had been a “shill” for the UFC, Helwani made some interesting disclosures. Foremost among them was that, in his stint as an MMA “insider” for Fox Sports shows, he was actually paid directly by Zuffa, the company that owns UFC, rather than by the media outlet itself.
Helwani had appeared on Fox’s “UFC Tonight,” as well as on pre- and post-fight shows from 2011 until an abrupt departure in March. “So, ‘UFC Tonight‘ is one contract, and that’s a Fox production, Zuffa has nothing to do with that,” he said Monday. “But even though Fox is paying the UFC for those broadcasts — weigh-in shows, post-fight shows, all that stuff — the money is going from Fox to Zuffa, to the talent.”
“I don’t want to get any check from Zuffa. . . . I want to be a journalist, I want to be unbiased,” Helwani said, noting that his education at Syracuse’s prestigious journalism school included a “rule” against taking “anything above $30.” He added, “Because you can’t owe them anything if you want to be unbiased.”
Despite the fact that he “hated” the arrangement, Helwani went along with it, because he had a longstanding ambition to become “the Howard Cosell of MMA.” The Montreal native, 33, explained that he was able to rationalize the Fox arrangement as his salary simply “taking a detour” through Zuffa on its way to him.
Eventually, Helwani lost his TV gig, he said, after a series of events that either raised tension with White and other UFC executives or revealed a lack of support from them. One of the latter episodes arrived in October 2015, when he asked Travis Browne whether he would consent to some questions about rumors of his romantic relationship with then-bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
According to Helwani, Browne said he’d have to get permission from Rousey, and subsequently indicated that the MMA star was okay with him confirming those rumors. However, Rousey then became angry at Helwani, he said, and refused to talk to him, even after he traveled all the way to Australia for UFC 193 in November.
“I would never do something that she wouldn’t want me to do, I would never do something that would expose her, embarrass her,” Helwani said. He noted that he specifically asked for permission to ask certain questions beforehand, which he said was something he was taught never to do, but he also complained that no one at UFC or Fox intervened to help smooth the situation with Rousey.
Pretty amazing stuff from @arielhelwani today. Raw, painful, honest. Respect.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) June 6, 2016
Fox Sports declines comment on @arielhelwani's charge that UFC ordered him off Fox's airwaves.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) June 6, 2016
The “last straw,” as far as Helwani’s overall relationship with the UFC went, appeared to come Saturday. He said he knew there was an “open slot” at July’s UFC 200, and his job mandated that he try to find out who was filling it. Once “multiple sources” confirmed that Lesnar would be on the card, Helwani said he felt he had little choice but to post the news, despite the “awkward” fact of being seated in the press room for UFC 199.
“The last thing anyone should do is sit on news. If you have it confirmed, you should go with it,” Helwani said. He was told that the UFC had been planning on dropping that bombshell during the broadcast of the event, but, he said, “I’m not trying to steal anyone’s shine.”
Nevertheless, he was more or less ordered to pay a visit to White just before the Bisping-Rockhold fight, and he “had a feeling that this wasn’t going to be the most pleasant conversation.” Helwani said the UFC president told him, “You’re out, get outta here. You’re done, we don’t want you here anymore, go to Bellator.” The reason given to the reporter was that he was too “negative.”
“I love this sport, I’m not here to ruin this sport,” Helwani said. Later in the “MMA Hour,” he said, “I hope we can go back to how it was, maybe before the Fox thing — maybe I flew too close to the sun. . . . If I’d known it was going to end like this, maybe I would have done things differently.”
It appears that Helwani will get a chance to do things differently, although the scores of MMA fans and aspiring journalists who admire him would likely prefer that he not change much of anything. “We feel confident our position has now been adequately communicated to the SB Nation editorial team [which oversees MMA Fighting],” the UFC said in its statement Monday, which sounds vaguely ominous.
The UFC took plenty of heat Sunday and Monday for its treatment of Helwani, as well as of a pair of colleagues who accompanied him to Saturday’s event. The company appeared to have quickly learned its lesson, likely in part because of the response to the decorated reporter’s impassioned comments on his Internet show. Now it remains to be seen what lessons Helwani himself takes away from the turbulent episode.
Monday’s “MMA Hour” can be viewed in its entirety below.