Veteran MMA journalist Ariel Helwani recently had an insightful conversation with journalist Pablo Torre where he pointed out apparent hypocrisy from the UFC regarding freedom of speech.
Helwani explained how the UFC and Dana White did not always champion absolute free speech and would previously punish fighters for offensive comments. The two even dug up an epic clip of Matt Mitrione dissing trans MMA fighter Fallon Fox – and getting disciplined by UFC for it.
However, in recent years they have taken a hard stance defending free speech no matter how controversial.
Helwani argues this shift correlates with changes in the UFC’s business incentives as the organization has grown. In particular, he points to the UFC’s record $4 billion sale in 2016 and how president Dana White has increasingly aligned the UFC brand with right-wing politics and figures like Donald Trump.
By marketing the UFC as an organization that won’t “cancel” people no matter what they say, Helwani believes the UFC taps into the sentiments of a large portion of its fanbase. This allows the UFC to generate publicity and framing that benefits its bottom line, even if it contradicts how the UFC previously treated speech by fighters and media.
As an example, Helwani details how he was personally banned from UFC events for reporting legitimate news because it upset UFC management. He contrasts this with the UFC’s hands-off approach today towards offensive speech by fighters like Sean Strickland.
Helwani concludes the UFC is prioritizing its business interests above any true commitment to free speech. The UFC protects speech that generates buzz and revenue while seeking to curb or punish speech that may hurt its brand or relationships.
The journalist makes a compelling case the UFC’s “free speech absolutism” stance is primarily a brand-building strategy, not a principled stand on rights and fairness. However the UFC frames it, profit considerations seem to dictate its decisions on what speech to permit or restrict.