For all of the remarkable stories that came out of UFC 199 – Michael Bisping finally becoming champion, Dan Henderson’s scintillating knockout, Diaz-McGregor 2 and the return of Brock Lesnar – the story that has overshadowed it all ironically has to do with an MMA journalist who reports news to mixed martial arts fans.
MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani was escorted from UFC 199 and banned for life from the promotion after he correctly reported that Brock Lesnar would return to the UFC for a fight at UFC 200.
The news of Helwani being forced to leave The Forum in Los Angeles, along with videographer E. Casey Laydon and photographer Esther Lin, spread like wildfire and dominated the conversation as multiple websites, including non-MMA outlets, covered the story.
An emotional Helwani flew solo Monday on his popular YouTube show, "The MMA Hour," and offered up his side of what took place at UFC 199 and the chain of events that led to him being banned for life.
“I hate the fact I’m not talking about Michael Bisping and him finally winning the UFC middleweight today,” a tearful Helwani began while suggesting it was never his aim to be the news; all he wanted to do was accurately report it. He waxed poetic about the significance of all the events and regretted his story overshadowed UFC 199.
Helwani said he heard rumblings about Lesnar’s imminent return and immediately sought to get confirmation from multiple sources because he was also aware the UFC had been holding a spot for another fight.
“The last thing I want to do is sit on news,” Helwani said in regard to confirming with multiple sources at 5 p.m. PT that Brock Lesnar was close to being announced to fill the final slot on UFC 200. “If you’re sitting on it, you’re not doing it right.”
When the story went live, social media lit up with speculation as to whether it was true or not. But Helwani is one of the most reliable reporters in MMA journalism and takes great pride in the accuracy of his reports. He reiterated multiple times during the show that he wasn’t looking to grandstand and simply wanted to do his job to the best of his ability, no different than an NBA beat writer breaking the news of a lauded free-agent signing with a new team.
“That’s my role, I go get news,” Helwani said. “I’m not trying to steal anyone’s shine. If I have news and sit on it I’m not doing my job.”
Shortly before the main event, Helwani was approached by a high-ranking UFC official and asked to go to the back and meet with UFC president Dana White. Helwani stated he was uncomfortable going alone and asked Laydon to accompany him. When he got to the room, Dana White was waiting for him with a message.
“Dana and his team, ‘You’re out, get outta here. You’re done and we don’t want you here anymore. Go to Bellator,’ ” Helwani revealed. “I asked why and White said that I was too negative. I asked how is what I’m doing any different than all the other great sports journalists out there?"
Helwani was then informed that Zuffa LLC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta made the call and White was following through. Helwani stated that he has had a strong relationship with White and wasn’t totally sure if White truly felt that Helwani did anything wrong.
“I felt deep down inside that he didn’t want to do that to me but he was doing what he was told by his partner,” Helwani said. “He may have been upset that I beat him to the punch [on announcing the Lesnar news].”
Helwani said that he, along with Lin and Laydon, were escorted to their vehicles and told to leave the premises.
Although this could have been the end of the story, Helwani decided to contextualize his relationship with the UFC and Dana White. Helwani would go on to document his time as a former employee of Fox, the UFC’s broadcast partner, and some incidents where Helwani felt that the organization wasn’t pleased with his method of journalism.
One incident he outlined in particular had to do with a physical altercation with someone from the UFC, but he refused to go into further detail. Some of the stories included passing up a TV deal with Fuel TV because White advised him not to and being offered a position on "UFC Tonight" in 2011 under the condition that his check needed to come from the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa. The latter didn’t sit well with Helwani.
“I wanted to be unbiased and not tied to Zuffa,” he said. He would accept the job, while maintaining his position at MMA Fighting, after wrestling with the idea. But he said he came to terms with it because the financing would only be filtered through Zuffa from Fox. But this then led to a rocky relationship where Helwani was on the brink of being terminated several times. One incident was because he showed up to a rival promotion’s media day, which led to Helwani being blocked on social media by all of the UFC’s accounts. But the straw that may have broke the camel’s back came earlier this year when Helwani interviewed UFC welterweight Rory MacDonald and MacDonald revealed he planned to test the market as a free agent. Shortly after, Helwani was fired from being a personality for Fox’s UFC coverage.
And now with this incident, everything has come full circle.
Helwani often had to hold back tears over the course of the two-hour show and reiterated the fact that he didn't think he did anything wrong.
“Maybe what happened to me can shed some light to the rest of sports media,” he said. “Don’t ever be afraid. If you’re confident and right, just report it, there should be no repercussions.”
As the show closed, a tearful Helwani professed his love for sports journalism and his goal to be the MMA version of Howard Cosell.
“I love journalism,” He said. “But to think I can’t do that anymore at this age is a hard thing to digest. I didn’t leak anything. I would never defy that trust. I was just reporting the information that I had and I’d do it all again because I don’t think I did anything wrong."
Helwani went back to an earlier interview he had with Rich Eisen, who asked him if he thought about covering another sport, but the dedicated MMA journalist made it clear that he’s here to stay.
“I’m not going anywhere. It’s going to take a lot more to get rid of me.”