Covering MMA: Fascinating, frustrating, never dull

One of my projects for this year is to wrap up a book on my experiences covering mixed martial arts. I promise it’ll be a fun read.

So I was happy to see SI’s terrific media reporter, Richard Deitsch, hosting a roundtable of MMA journalists. He got a good cross-section — people are very much “in” the UFC orbit (Heidi Fang, Ariel Helwani) and those who are “out” (Josh Gross).

Boxer James Toney, soaking up attention in a Boston hotel lobby before his lone UFC fight.

It’s a unique environment. I’ve never covered another sport that handed out copies of Playboy featuring an employee. I’ve rarely found athletes in other sports who’ll just chat, though that’s largely a function of having media and athletes in the same hotels.

I’ve also rarely seen qualified journalists — in some cases, the best in the sport — denied credentials for obviously petty reasons. And I hated that. Not only did it strike me as unfair, but it gave readers the impression that those of us who were “in” had sold our souls and agreed not to say anything negative about the UFC.

So it was refreshing to see this roundtable address that issue and a lot of other things that you’ll see in my book whenever I get around to finishing it.

In order of appearance in the roundtable:

Fans on press row, real journalists not: Fang mentions this in her first answer, and she’s right. To an extent, it’s simply a function of having reporters who didn’t go through the dues-paying you get at a local newspaper. I experienced the same thing when I was courtside at the ACC basketball tournament in the late 90s alongside a couple of kids fresh out of college working for a new whiz-bang website, cheering for N.C. State over Duke while I swallowed my tongue.

Helwani says every reporter working for a credible outlet should be credentialed. And that’s something Kevin Iole and others get into as well later in the roundtable.

Media access: Fighters are, for the most part, quite accessible. I interviewed Tom Lawlor while he was going in and out of the sauna to cut weight. Randy Couture saved a seat for me in the stands backstage at a weigh-in so we could do our interview. Kimbo Slice teased me in a small-group interview, which was hilarious.

Helwani raises a good point — fighters only compete 2-4 times per year, so it’s not like they’re doing locker-room interviews 100 times a year. There’s no time for familiarity to breed contempt.

Some are more private than others. I needed a bit of back-and-forth through PR reps to get a phone interview with Brock Lesnar, and he called me from a number that came up as “Private Number” on my called ID. But the interview was just fine.

Rampage Jackson is another story.

Dana White access: Helwani points out the UFC boss isn’t as accessible today as he was a few years ago, back when I was on the beat. When I was at USA TODAY, he’d chat with me regularly. He has withdrawn over the years, to the point of actually not being present at some press conferences. I think it’s a function of rapid UFC expansion — they put on so many fights each year now, and he can’t be everywhere.

Social media: Some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever read has been directed at female MMA journalists. The MMA fan base is generally more civil than you’d think from afar, but Twitter gives the idiots a platform.

Of course, I’ve been threatened by Alex Morgan fans, so perhaps it’s not unique to MMA. But I don’t want to trivialize the abuse female journalists have received, on Twitter and on message boards. Some people need Royce Gracie to knee them in a place where it used to be legal.

Will your job exist in 20 years?: I don’t know. I think writing jobs are going to decline. Multimedia jobs are safer. And organizations are likely to demand more control.

The roundtable is a good read, with good thoughtful people. Enjoy.

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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