Mayweather-McGregor: A corporate bailout, not a fight

I’m certainly not the first person to tell you I won’t be watching Floyd Mayweather box Conor McGregor tonight.

It’s one thing to watch Randy Couture pummel James Toney in the co-main event of a strong UFC card. It’s another to shell out $99.99 to watch a UFC fighter who’s third, at best, in the current pound-for-pound rankings of a down period for MMA taking on a boxer who, for all his personal flaws, knows his craft about as well as anyone ever has. McGregor isn’t even the UFC fighter who would bring the most entertainment value to a freak-show MMA-vs.-boxing bout — that would be Nate Diaz, who cheerfully absorbed a McGregor beating for five minutes and then turned the tables for a submission win.

And it’s not as if these are people worth rooting for. Nancy Armour has summed up the casual racism, homophobia and other bigotry that peppered the promotion of this event. McGregor can be gracious and entertaining at times, and the Irish part of me would love to get behind Dublin’s biggest export since U2. But he considers himself bigger than his sport, demanding things no other fighter has demanded, showing up for scheduled appearances with all the reliability of Axl Rose in his heyday, and never finding the time to defend a championship belt.

The classic example: On The Ultimate Fighter, he trash-talks Urijah Faber about making exponentially more money than Faber ever did. But that’s a question of timing, not talent. McGregor should be thanking Faber for fighting when fighting was not big business. Faber was one of the fighters who made us take the lighter weight classes seriously, building the base upon which McGregor would like to place the idol of himself. Without Urijah Faber, Conor McGregor is still beating people up in Cage Warriors, probably making about as much money as Faber did when he was making WEC shows on Versus must-see TV for hard-core MMA fans.

But money makes an effective blinder. And this fight is all about money.

Worse, it’s about people who’ve made a ton of money but spent more. Mayweather does everything with his money short of burn it. McGregor’s heading down the same path: “I got Versace plates and forks,” he told ESPN. “I don’t even need ’em.”

And then there’s the pinnacle of overspending: WME-IMG, which spent $4 billion on the plateauing UFC and now seems desperate to recoup some of that money.

Here’s how Victor Rodriguez put it in an entertaining Bloody Elbow predictions column:

See, this fight had to happen. WME|IMG is trying to outwork the bank on that loan they took out to buy the UFC. PPV buyrates are down, ratings are in a slump, Rousey’s gone, and even after the performance of a lifetime Jon Jones can’t stop stumbling over his own feet. Oh, but GSP’s coming back, don’cha know? Yeah, he’s fighting for a title in a division he’s never competed in after 4½ (years) out of action. Even then, we don’t know what kind of box office allure he’ll have! Add to that the woes of negotiating a new TV deal and you can see why they’re so urgently willing to make reckless moves for quick cash.

Meanwhile, most of the media simply can’t avoid this fight. We’re desperate, too. Our business models, from ad-supported online ventures to subscription fee-supported networks threatened by cord-cutting, are all shaky. It’s been disappointing to see journalists who certainly know better buying into and building the hype for this event, but what else can they do?

And I don’t mind supporting the journalists doing credible commentary, putting all of this into proper perspective. If the wealth of this fight trickles down to them, that’s fine.

As for the fight itself …

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It’s 3 a.m. Smile! You’re on camera! Inside The Ultimate Fighter

Fighters get used to the cameras, sort of, but maybe not each other. Several TUF alumni sound off in this excerpt from Beau Dure’s unpublished book about the show.

Source: Inside The Ultimate Fighter: Fishbowl format distorts reality for reality TV – Bloody Elbow

Inside The Ultimate Fighter lives … at Bloody Elbow

I wrote a book about The Ultimate Fighter that never saw the light of day. But Bloody Elbow will publish excerpts for the next 10 weeks. Here’s the story of the book …

Source: Inside The Ultimate Fighter: The best-selling tell-all book that never was – Bloody Elbow

How Kimbo Slice and MMA challenge our notions of celebrity and humanity

Written in the wake of a dizzying weekend of MMA news, with one of the sport’s top journalists (Ariel Helwani) temporarily losing his UFC credentials and one of the sport’s most famous figures (Kimbo Slice) passing away suddenly.

Source: How Kimbo Slice and MMA challenge our notions of celebrity and humanity | Sport | The Guardian

June 7, 2016

MMA writing: 2008-2015

Selected pieces on mixed martial arts — all USA TODAY except as noted:

Issues

Preview, features, event coverage 

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).

IMG00507-20100827-2108
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.

Back in the podcasting game

The new SportsMyriad podcast features me ranting about the U.S. women’s soccer roster, curling, Rio 2016 prep, youth soccer getting too serious, and of course, the bizarre lawsuit filed against Ronda Rousey by a guy who apparently lives at White Castle.

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Please let me know what you think. Yes, it goes too long — future podcasts will either be shorter or will have an interview segment.

My books (so far)

In reverse chronological order:

How the Hell Did I End Up Cageside?: An Accidental MMA Writer’s Memoir is in the early stages, though I have a bit of a headstart because it will incorporate several interviews I did for a book on The Ultimate Fighter.

sds book cover 118Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game was released electronically in August 2015, with a paperback edition released in September. It can be ordered on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple or Kobo.

The book is a guidebook for parents and a reality check for coaches and administrators. It has colorful anecdotes from bumpy playing fields along with research, including interviews with top pro players and coaches, that questions the status quo and encourages families to find the best way to meet their needs in the sport.

See more at singledigitsoccer.com — including excerpts, a press release, a flyer and a video.

spirit15Enduring Spirit: Restoring Professional Women’s Soccer to Washington was first released for Kindle and Nook but is now available at other outlets as well. The print version is available at Amazon.and Barnes & Noble.

To write the book, I followed Washington Spirit players, coaches and staff through the first season of the NWSL, from preseason tryouts to their final game of the first season. The team finished in last place, but the fans and players built relationships that have strengthened as the team has found more success over the next two years. And the book captures the struggle and sacrifice, leavened with good humor, that goes into building a team and building a sport.

Women’s soccer is more than just an occasional event on our TV screens in the summer. It’s an endeavor of hundreds of players putting aside higher-paying job opportunities to chase a dream and see how far they can go with their club teams while working their way into national team pools. The great drama of the U.S. women’s march to the World Cup trophy in 2015 was built in part from humble practice sessions on freezing fields and long bus rides after lost games. This book is not about the destination. It’s about the journey and the people who make it possible.

lrg15Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer was first available, by sheer coincidence, the same day World Cup 2010 kicked off. It’s the history of the league from inception until early 2010, relying on extensive original interviews as well as the usual assortment of reports and documents.

The “success” of MLS is that it has survived so many obstacles. In the mid-1990s, betting money would have gone against the new league’s chances of outlasting every other attempt to make professional soccer take root in the USA. Then the league had to survive a thorny lawsuit and an economic downturn, and it still has to cope with staggering competition on the airwaves from soccer leagues around the world.

The book was well-received, and even though MLS has added a few more years to its history, I still hear comments and questions from new readers.

MMA fighters: Please don’t fight for your family

Marion Reneau is just the latest MMA fighter who says she’s fighting to support her family / give her family a better life:

UFC women’s bantamweight contender Marion Reneau, who is pushing 40, started MMA in her early 30s to help finance her son’s college fund.(From MMA FIghting)

Let’s take a look at the money available in the UFC …

UFC 189, one of the biggest cards in history, paid most of its fighters $10-15K to fight, plus the same amount as a win bonus. (Conor McGregor made a bit more. Just a bit.)

Reneau was actually on a lower pay scale, the dreaded “8+8” scale, for her January fight. She got a bit more because her opponent turned up overweight.

I can’t find the numbers for her February fight, possibly because it was in Brazil. She did get a $50,000 performance bonus.

Then there’s sponsorship. With the Reebok exclusivity, a fighter like Reneau will make $2,500 per fight. A couple more fights, and she’ll make $5,000.

So she might gross $100,000 for the year so far. Not bad, right?

Now consider the following factors:

  • Fighters are paying managers, corner personnel, trainers, etc.
  • This might be a once-in-a-lifetime year for Reneau. Her loss last night to Holly Holm, in an unimpressive fight, put her back down the ladder. Half of her income is one performance bonus — if another fighter had a more impressive knockout or submission on that card, she wouldn’t get that money.
  • Many fighters don’t get three fights a year in the UFC. The roster is too crowded.

So Reneau might clear six figures if she has some other sponsorship that she can tout outside the Reebok-only cage. Or maybe she wins the virtual lottery to get a rare fourth fight this year.

Then next year, she might get two fights and end up with about $30K. And she’s almost 40.

Reneau’s other job was teaching in the Farmersville (Calif.) Unified School District. Minimum salary: $41,485.

This post isn’t about picking on Reneau, though. She picked up a nice bonus. Invest that wisely, then get back to teaching and push that salary into the $50Ks, and she’s on firm footing financially.

Reneau’s plan is much sounder than that of the typical UFC fringe performer you see on The Ultimate Fighter. These are the people who stare into the camera, cry a little and tell us they’re fighting so their families will have a future.

If you’re telling me that, please tell me you have a backup plan.

Reneau is both good — she’s one of the 20 best in her weight class — and lucky. That gets her one good year of solid earnings. A second is no sure bet.

So if you’re the 10th best welterweight in your gym, please do your family a favor and make sure you’ve got some way to make a living other than fighting.

Huge night for McGregor, Lawler and UFC 3.0

The UFC couldn’t have picked a better night to unveil its new look.

Let’s face it — the UFC of a few years ago was big but a little predictable. Georges St. Pierre would take people down at will or methodically jab them to a pulp. Anderson Silva would dance around a little and win with a Matrix-style move if he was interested or win methodically if he was bored. Brock Lesnar would take someone down and pound them with the giant ham hocks he calls fists.

The stars faded, and the UFC seemed to be fading with it. A lot of up-and-coming fighters were boring wrestlers who just leaned against opponents on the cage. The recurring feature on The Ultimate Fighter is now Dana White’s exasperation with fighters who show little fighting spirit but just try not to lose.

Tonight, we got a new perspective on the UFC. Part of it was the UFC’s production — new graphics, the Octagon used as a video screen, live music for the main event. Part of it, sadly, was the personality-killing Reebok gear that makes everyone look like a character in the original Rollerball, in which the corporation tried to make sure no athlete stood out from the gladiatorial spectacle.

Then part of it was a wild main card — a bloody showcase for a sport that has reached new heights of competitiveness.

We got hints early in the main card. Massive underdog Brad Pickett picked apart Thomas Almeida until the young Brazilian landed a knee that sent Pickett tumbling backward to the mat. Jeremy Stephens was also bloodied before landing a flying knee of his own.

The co-main event was an instant classic title fight. It’s hard to imagine that, just a few years ago, Robbie Lawler looked like a plodding journeyman. Now he has had two terrific title bouts with Johny Hendricks, winning the second to take the belt. Tonight, he made an utter mess of Rory MacDonald’s face but absorbed some punishment himself through four rounds. He was trailing on all three judges’ scorecards:

He might not have known he needed a knockout, but that’s what he delivered, landing a left hand that sent MacDonald down slowly, as if his ability to fight back was ebbing from his body.

Each of those fights was a compliment to the competitive spirit of today’s elite UFC fighters. We see so much mixed martial arts on television that we forget what these top-tier fighters are capable of doing.

And that led us to … Sinead O’Connor. Really. She sang for the entrance of the favorite son of Ireland and possibly my distant relative, Conor McGregor. (I’m related to the McGregor clan of Scotland, which finished third in a two-way power struggle in the Scottish highlands. Maybe some of us hopped over the water and found a better life in Ireland?)

So far in his career, McGregor’s mouth has outpaced his fighting accomplishments. He has long talked as if he already had a UFC belt, and he broke all manner of protocol by grabbing the belt at a press conference.

But when he actually earned the belt, coming back from a ground-and-pound onslaught by Chad Mendes to get the knockout late in the second round, we saw a more humble McGregor. He and Mendes showed the sportsmanship we’ve come to expect from most UFC greats. And he seemed to realize he might not have made it through the fight without the support of the massive hordes of Irish fans who wildly cheered for him.

McGregor might not be the best fighter in the featherweight division. He showed some holes in his game against Mendes, a late replacement for injured champion Jose Aldo. With a full training camp, Mendes might beat him. So might Aldo, when the champion faces the interim champion in a bout that should approach Lesnar-type pay-per-view numbers. Frankie Edgar should also be in the conversation.

And on a given night, Lawler might lose. He was down tonight. He barely beat Hendricks.

But these fighters fully deserve their belts. The fact that they’re not as dominant as Silva or St. Pierre in their primes just means we might be getting better and better fights.

New presentation. New clothes (though they need to work on that, along with the contracts behind them). New competition.

The next few years should be as thrilling as any we’ve seen in combat sports.