Last week, we saw two sides of Dana White at play. The side that will undoubtedly support a fighter in his time of need, and a ruthless promoter determined not to let anything affect his ability to put on the card UFC had scheduled. Usually these two sides operate independently of each other, but last week’s UFC on FX 5 card saw the two intertwine in an extraordinarily puzzling evening for viewers at home.
As most MMA fans are aware, UFC lightweight Jeremy “L’il Heathen” Stephens was arrested the morning of his scheduled fight on that evening’s card. He was wanted on charges of felony assault in Iowa and is currently still in jail awaiting a hearing on whether he will be extradited to Iowa to face said charges
The fight was scheduled for the Fuel TV prelims, and White insisted Stephens’ fight with Yves Edwards would take place regardless of the fact that Stephens was incarcerated at the time White was giving his guarantee. During the telecast, White took the opportunity to rail against the MMA media, who he insisted had the story wrong, despite the fact that no reputable source had listed the bout as anything more than in jeopardy.
Of course, the bout didn’t end up taking place as Stephens remained behind bars. At the post-fight press conference, White again used his soapbox to take aim at those who he felt at wronged him, this time it was law enforcement officials who he couldn’t cut a deal with to have Stephens released to fight.
This is the intriguing duality of White. He does appear to genuinely care about the welfare of his fighters and his reaching out to them in time of need is not uncommon. When Quinton “Rampage” Jackson went on a starvation and energy drink induced joyride along the sidewalks of Orange County with his truck, White was on the scene as quickly as he could be to bail Jackson out and get him the assistance that he needed. On the very same card that Stephens was to fight on, White gave Dennis Hallman his show and win money along with a plane ticket home when it came to his knowledge that Hallman had suffered a breakdown during weight-cutting related to family and child-custody issues.
But his insistence that the Stephens bout take place was both shocking and awkward to the viewing public. While his frustration was understandable that two of his undercard fights were falling apart so close to the event, would transporting Stephens directly from jail right into the octagon really be the right answer?
Stephens was arrested for a violent crime, not unpaid parking tickets. While he is undoubtedly entitled to due process, once can assume that his mind was somewhere other than his fight with Yves Edwards that night. In a sport like MMA, an unfocused athlete is someone that can sustain serious injury. If he had paid Hallman due to mitigating circumstances, wouldn’t it have made sense to do the same for Stephens and Edwards, immediately cancel the fight and reschedule when both fighters would be in proper physical and mental condition?
The other factor that White either failed to consider or deemed unimportant was the reaction of “the rest of the world”, the majority of the population for whom MMA is not their raison d’etre. The UFC, under White, has fought long and hard against the stigma of UFC fighters as thugs and criminals, and the sport as “human cockfighting”. He and the rest of the UFC brass have done a great job in doing so. But how much of that work would be undone if his plan to spring Stephens directly from jail into the octagon had come to fruition?
Can you imagine the field day MMA critics and the mainstream media would have had with such a scenario? It would have confirmed every uneducated and ugly stereotype that the MMA non-fan has of the sport. If Dana bristles at media criticism now, can you imagine how apoplectic he would get when every subsequent news article lists UFC as “bailing out criminals to fight”? Wouldn’t that give New York all the ammunition they need to continue to keep MMA out of the state? Wouldn’t that galvanize the Culinary Union and other politically-motivated enemies of the sport?
Instead of railing against the authorities, Dana White should thank them from saving him from himself. While I can’t fault him from standing behind a fighter in time of need, this is one instance where he needed to take off his promoter’s hat and look at the greater welfare of the fighter and indeed the sport itself.