In fighting terminology, Saturday night was a split-decision loss for the UFC.
The 15,587 who packed The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., for UFC 199 did walk out of the building feeling the buzz of having seen a lost-cause underdog score a stunning knockout to capture a championship that had eluded him for a full decade. Fans also witnessed an even more exhilarating KO earlier in the evening, authored by one of the sport’s all-time greats, an improbable surge along the home stretch of grandeur. And, true, they were treated to a pair of tantalizing announcements as well: that two of the UFC’s biggest attention-getters had agreed to a rematch that until this night had appeared to be lost, and that a star from years past — the sport’s biggest draw of all — will make his return this summer.
But away from the arena lights, the UFC showed why it lingers on the infantile fringe of the sports world.
Minutes after Michael Bisping had pulled off the upset of the year by knocking out Luke Rockhold to capture the middleweight championship, the two main- eventers sat backstage at a news conference lashing out at each other. This was a bitter counterpoint to the alluring image usually seen at the fights: two martial artists, fresh off beating each other up in a cage, hugging at the final horn and proceeding to conduct themselves like professional sportsmen. It happens all the time, and it makes everyone a winner.
But on this night, Bisping and Rockhold sat in front of the media and engaged in an acidic exchange that culminated with the new champ flinging an antigay slur at the man he had just dethroned.
Their co-main combatants did not sink quite that low, but Dominick Cruz didn’t exactly cover himself in the glory he was due for dominating Urijah Faber over five rounds to retain his bantamweight belt. Rather than dissecting the fight, the champ flung a serious charge at Faber, accusing his longtime nemesis of having an ulterior motive for touting one of his Team Alpha Male training partners as a potential 135-pound title challenger. If Faber does indeed take a percentage off the top of purses the UFC pays to fighters at his gym, as Cruz charged, then fans might indeed judge him harshly. But Cruz’s tattling ran counter to the grace he had shown in the cage.
It was the UFC brass itself, however, that set the tone for the evening’s pettiness. Just prior to the main event, the promotion had security escort three journalists from MMAfighting.com out of The Forum, reportedly telling them they are banned from future events.
Their crime? The website earlier in the evening had reported the two aforementioned stories: that a lucrative Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor rematch, which had been planned for UFC 200 but had fallen through, was in the works for Aug. 20 at UFC 202, and that former heavyweight champion and cash cow Brock Lesnar, now a WWE pro wrestler, was in talks to fight at UFC 200.
The UFC ended up announcing both of these items later during Saturday’s fight card. Apparently Dana White & Co. did not appreciate getting scooped.
“I love this sport and this job with all my heart,” Ariel Helwani, who broke the news for the website, wrote on Twitter. “Did nothing unethical. I reported fight news. That’s it. And then told we’re banned for life.”
The other two ousted from the arena were his colleagues Esther Lin, a photographer, and E. Casey Leydon, a videographer.
UFC spokesman Dave Sholler was asked about the sanctions during the postfight press conference and declined to address the issue.
This was not the first time the UFC has appeared to lash out at journalists attempting to cover the sport. But the promotion now sits under a brighter spotlight than ever, and Helwani, a reigning six-time Journalist of the Year at the World MMA Awards, has the highest profile of anyone regularly covering the sport. Whereas previous UFC vs. the media incidents quickly faded away, this one likely will leave a lasting stench.
This night should have been about Bisping and his massive victory, which was especially surprising given that he was booked for the fight just two weeks ago, as a replacement for the injured Chris Weidman. Bisping (29-7), a 37-year-old Brit, connected with a counter left hand midway through the first round, flooring Rockhold, then caught him again as the champ climbed to his feet. The knockout came at the 3-minute-36-second mark and set the stage for a title reign that promises not to be boring. Or cordial.
The night should have been about Cruz (22-1) reestablishing himself as the dominant force in the 135-pound division, a status he once owned but was forced to relinquish after his body failed him again and again. After sitting idle for the better part of 4 ½ years healing from ACL surgeries on both knees and a groin tear, the 30-year-old looked as quick and elusive as ever. And while he didn’t get the finish, he knocked down Faber in the second round and showed that his punching power cannot be ignored.
The night should have been about middleweight legend Dan Henderson, at 45 years old and on the brink of defeat, somehow finding the will to stay in the fight long enough to find the chin of Hector Lombard. Again and again, Henderson (32-14) tried to end the fight with his big right hand, known as “the H-bomb.” Instead, Saturday’s most potent weapon ended up being the elbow Henderson used to collapse the favored Lombard at 1:27 of Round 2.
This night should have been about featherweight Max Holloway (16-3), who won his ninth straight fight. It should have been about one undefeated prospect, featherweight Brian Ortega (11-0, 1 no contest), pulling off a spectacular KO to salvage a fight he was losing, and another, Tom Breese (10-1), falling for the first time. It should have been about the “Ali! Ali!” chants that arose at The Forum as touching video tributes to The Greatest were being shown between bouts. It should have been about Diaz and McGregor and Lesnar.
But instead the two big title fights and other major stories must share the spotlight moment with minor league smallmindedness. In its unending quest to find a place at center stage of the sports world, the UFC once again couldn’t get out of its own way.