The UFC in 2014: Welcome to Jonestown
I’m not sure how this happened, how I ended up sitting around listening to the Jonestown death tape, yet this is a place that I ended up. If you are somehow unaware of Jonestown then you’ve missed out on one of the crazier cult stories in history. The gist of Jonestown (formally known as Peoples Temple Agricultural Project) was that it was a cult led by Jim Jones that ended up living on a compound in Guyana, which was actually called Jonestown. They are perhaps best known by a visit from Congressman Leo Ryan, who led an investigation into Jonestown and was murdered while leading a group of the former cult members who were looking to leave Jonestown. That incident led to a mass suicide led by Jones where 909 members died.
The Jonestown Massacre has led to a lot of cultural references, with the biggest one perhaps being “drink the Kool Aid,” as the cult members drank from a metal tub of Flavor Aid, Valium, chloral hydrate, Phenergan, and cyanide, including women and children. Jim Jones himself, though, did not drink the Kool Aid, he was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Jim Jones maybe wasn’t as true of a believer as he thought he was.
Rediscovering the Jonestown Massacre and all of the events that led to it came at an odd time for me. The UFC seems to be coming apart at the seams at the moment, drawing some strange parallels to a cult, much like Jonestown. On February 27th we saw the Nevada State Athletic Commission ban Testosterone Replacement Therapy, then in the early morning hours of February 28th the UFC issued a statement on Fox Sports 1 which was purported to be from Vitor Belfort, in which he opted to drop out of his title fight with Chris Weidman at UFC 173 due to not being able to use TRT.
The precipice for this series of events, though, was due to the ESPN Outside of the Lines piece by investigative reporter Mike Fish and UFC’s #1 enemy, Josh Gross. The official stance on this is that the Nevada State Athletic Commission called for the February 27th meeting a week prior to it, which was before the ESPN piece was released, so that it had “no bearing” on the decision. This, of course, is not true, as the UFC had to of been well-aware that this piece was going to run and that it was going to be impossible to avoid it. This was not just another Josh Gross hit piece, this was Mike Fish, who has been nominated two times for the Pulitzer Prize and whose voice carries weight in the sports world.
They, apparently, were not true believers in the UFC.
It has long been theorized that the UFC has many strings to pull within the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the swift action taken by the NSAC in this case to avoid a public relations nightmare seems too clean, too scripted to take as mere coincidence. In fact, people like Zach Arnold have been banging on this drum for quite a while now. Just a month after Keith Kizer had resigned, the NSAC moved to ban TRT in MMA after the UFC was set in the targets of mainstream media for being possible enablers for “dirty” behaviors from athletes.
Of course, it didn’t stop after TRT being banned. In the wee hours of the night Vitor Belfort was quietly pulled from his title fight with Chris Weidman and replaced with Lyoto Machida. No one makes announcements at 1:15am, especially when hours before, they announce that they’ll be making this “huge announcement.” Fridays have long been used by companies to issue bad news, but usually in the evening when most of the media had gone home and by the time Monday rolls around the news cycle will have washed it away with little incident. In the UFC’s case, though, they are trying different tactics to wash this story away.
The funny part of the whole thing is that Vitor Belfort didn’t seem to agree with the statement that “he” issued to Fox Sports 1. In fact, he didn’t issue the statement, but his “legal counsel” issued it. It seems that Vitor Belfort was a liability in this whole TRT mess and that they wanted him out of the spotlight for the time being, as nearly every story on the planet earth that ran about Nevada’s TRT decision used a banner photo of Vitor Belfort. Vitor had to go. For better or worse, Vitor Belfort, who was told that his TRT usage was fine and legal, has become the public fallguy for the whole ordeal.
The UFC was pushing a narrative that they were the good guys here, that you have to believe in them and their crusade for good.
What’s interesting is that the UFC has never had a clear stance on TRT usage. Dana White might imply that he’s always been an opponent of TRT, but the facts do not line up with the narrative. In fact,he has been quoted in the past saying that TRT is “great,” “fair” and “legal.” Sure, his tone over the past year or so has been that TRT is not good, but this has mostly come after increased scrutiny from the media over the issue of TRT. The UFC was fine with making money off of fighters using TRT up until the media decided that the usage of TRT in MMA was ridiculous and out of proportion with other sports.
Of course, this is nothing new for Dana White and the UFC. Over the past few years the UFC has felt more and more like a cult than a sports league, as Dana White stands at his podiums dictating what is the right and wrong way to enjoy or write about the UFC. Let us not forget Dana White’s crazy, closed-door meltdown on select members of the MMA media earlier in February where White challenged and berated the media for their coverage of PED usage in the UFC.
The UFC’s relationship with the public is beginning to feel like that of an abusive one where you either fall into line or are ostracized from the club. In most circumstances this would not be a huge deal, but the UFC holds a monopoly on the sport’s top talents, meaning that you simply cannot go and watch Bellator and expect to get the same enjoyment. That enjoyment, though, seems to be less and less of late with the UFC. The increasing number of events has led to a much more bloated roster full of lower-tier talents to pad the events and ensure that every event is as long as the last one.
I’ve already covered in the past that the UFC expects a lot of money from its fans, while creating an atmosphere where missing a single event or fight would make you feel like a “bad fan.” There is no denying White’s marketing prowess with Fight Pass; “If you are a fight fan, UFC Fight Pass is for you.” This has long-been how Dana White has marketed the UFC and dealt with dissenting opinions; you fall into line and like what we feed you or you are not a real fan. You are not a true believer.
I’ve long been an outspoken critic of these practices, not out of a place of hatred or disdain, but more out of concern. As an MMA fan for almost twenty years now there is no doubt that the sport has changed for both the good and the bad, with some of the bad being difficult to ignore. Dana White did a tremendous job of getting the UFC to be a part of the discussion when it comes to sports, he got the UFC’s foot in the door for coverage on ESPN, Sports Illustrated and major outlets with his brash, in-your-face attitude. The thing is, in 2014 Dana White is no longer a viable tool for the UFC’s expansion. He is a blunt instrument and the UFC no longer needs to beat people over the head, instead they need precision and control.
Dana White is very publicly beginning to fray at the edges now; overworked, overstressed, over criticized and with the weight of an entire sport continually on his shoulders. He’s just the tool, though, the mouthpiece and the blunt instrument used by Lorenzo Fertita to guage public opinions or to take the brunt of the criticism when it comes to making unpopular decisions. Yet Dana White remains the strong Jim Jones figure in the cult that is the UFC, painting the dissenters as non-believers who look to destroy all that they’ve built. To put it bluntly, he’s beginning to go a bit mad.
As I was listening to the famous Jonestown Death Tape and reading as the MMA world was, as a few prominent journalists put it, “on fire.” The parallels were becoming more and more clear to me. Being a fan of the UFC means being a true believer, while criticizing the UFC means that you are an outsider. Just like Jim Jones told the members of Jonestown that those on the outside would lie about Jonestown and looked to destroy it, that is how Dana White paints the picture of the world that the UFC resides in. Those, like Josh Gross, who have been ostracized from the UFC family play off like those that escaped and exposed Jonestown; they are the enemy who never really belonged, they are looking to destroy the UFC.
We as fans are supposed to ignore the increased amount of money that we are to sign over to the UFC, supposed to ignore the increase in the number of fights, cards with a sharp decrease in quality, and fighters receiving lower paydays. The company has felt static for years, resistant to change or new ideas, the same change and new ideas that helped to push the UFC from the dark ages into the sport that it is today. Just like Jonestown was founded upon the principles of freedom to worship in a way that felt right, mixed in heavily with socialism, the UFC was founded upon the idea of being a fan-friendly product with high levels of fan interaction and feedback. That all feels lost now, though, as the company distances itself from those principles and alienates more and more fans with each passing event. The organization that the people helped to build, promote and rise into prominence has taken a turn now, looking down upon those people who helped to make it into a success and painting them as “bad fans.”
It has become increasingly difficult to publicly criticize the UFC for its poor business practices — such as how it treats its fighters and fans — to the point where criticism leveled at the UFC is often written off immediately as an attack upon the sport. Everyone who dares to criticize the UFC is bitter, has a vendetta, or something to gain from the UFC’s implosion. The truth is, many people are just fans of the sport and want to see it continue to grow, yet have to watch the sport stagnate along with the UFC and this attitude of “us vs. them” that only serves to polarize the fan base. The only thing is, those fans who are pushed away and seen as dissenters tend to not come back, they are just lost. They escape Jonestown.
It’s time for the UFC to stop running “White Nights” to test the loyalty of fans and media, to stop asking them to drink the Kool Aid and instead recognize that those people are there to not only keep them afloat, but to act as a mirror to show them their reflection. Unchecked power turns into madness and madness becomes something a lot worse in the end. The UFC right now is akin to a cult with those at the helm suffering from delusions of grandeur, while the whole sport is held hostage and asked to repeatedly drink the Kool Aid or else be ostracized as non-believers.
“It’s all over, it’s all over. What a legacy, what a legacy.”