The greatest thing about writing about fights and those involved in them for nearly three decades are the wonderful people you meet along the way.
Men, for example, like Stitch Duran and Burt Watson. Duran and Watson are UFC workers who did jobs that are so anonymous and so dreary so well that they became minor celebrities.
Duran is one of the finest cut men in boxing and mixed martial arts. People have been fighting each other for money for more than 100 years, and almost from the time they began, there was someone alongside to tend to them when, inevitably, they were cut.
Until Duran came along, these cut men were virtually anonymous. A few had a bit of notoriety within the tightly knit fight community, but it was mostly because of how effective they were at their jobs.
A cut man as a celebrity, though? It was a laughable notion. And then Jacob “Stitch” Duran came along and, sure enough, he became a celebrity.
The guy wrote a book on his life that has played to rave reviews on Amazon. He’s hounded for photos in Germany, where he’s nearly as big of a star as the fighters he helps.
At the Philadelphia Airport, he was signing so many autographs the day after an event that it caught the notice of a 50-something married couple.
“Who’s he?” the man asked his wife.
“Oh, you know,” she said. “I can’t think of his name. He’s that actor. He’s on TV a lot. You know him.”
He was the UFC’s cut man, until he spoke his mind and lost his job.
Duran, who was personally hired by UFC president Dana White in the early days of Zuffa’s ownership of the UFC, made public comments on Twitter and in an interview with the website Bloody Elbow regarding the company’s new uniform deal with Reebok. On Tuesday, Duran announced he’d been fired by the UFC.
@daej81 You will be the first to know that the UFC just let me go because I spoke out about the Reebok deal. Got to look for a new job!
— Jacob Stitch Duran (@StitchDuran) July 21, 2015
White declined to comment about Duran when asked by Yahoo Sports, so the exact reason for his dismissal is unknown.
What’s disturbing about it, though, is that if Duran were indeed fired for his comments about Reebok, nothing he said was particularly inflammatory.
In the interview with Bloody Elbow, the most significant point he made was that he would lose a lot of sponsorship money under the new deal.
Fighters are paid to wear the Reebok gear during UFC fights and the associated pre- and post-fight activities, but no one else is. Duran said in the interview that the cut men were informed that once the Reebok deal went through, they would have to remove all of the other sponsors from their clothing during the events.
That, he said, would hurt his bank account.
“I made really good money on that sponsorship,” Duran told the site.
Nowhere in the piece did he criticize the UFC, Reebok or the new uniforms. He even said of UFC officials, “I don’t think they did this out of malice,” in regard to the cut men losing their sponsorship opportunities.
In an interview with MMA Junkie Radio, Duran said he didn’t like the design of the vest he was given to wear because it didn’t have a place for all the equipment he carried with him into the cage.
It should be noted that UFC 189 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas was the first show in which the Reebok deal was in effect. Blood flowed freely during the epic fight card, and Duran and Mike Afanasiev did a terrific job on the cuts. So, the design of their new outfits weren’t really a hindrance to them doing their jobs.
Duran’s comments were tame, particularly in comparison to those made by some fighters, yet he lost his job.
He probably won’t ever make up the full amount of what he lost from sponsorships, but that was gone before the UFC fired him. Because he’s in heavy demand among boxers, the good news is he’ll likely replace a lot, though not all, of the money he lost by being fired.
It should come as no shock that he was fired, though. Those who run large companies don’t typically tolerate low-level employees who speak out publicly against them. UFC management certainly has not through the years.
It’s understandable on one level why White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta aren’t pleased with the public criticism of the Reebok deal.
It’s an important deal for the long-term future of the company. It’s a play to make the product more appealing for television. And when the UFC’s current deal with Fox expires, no one at Zuffa headquarters would complain a bit if ESPN decided to enter the bidding.
So White and Fertitta want not only to make certain the product’s look and feel is more palatable for television, but they want to insulate a business partner with whom they signed a $70 million deal from criticism by those they have in their employ.
It’s tough for them to say too much to the fighters, but you can bet they’re going to play hard ball with those they feel are disposable, or easily replaceable.
Firing Duran, though, was a mistake and a gross overreaction. His skills, both in closing cuts and wrapping hands, are highly valued by fighters. That should have been, though most likely was not, taken into account.
It’s not a free speech issue, though many have incorrectly brought up the first amendment. Companies have the right to control the message their employees and contractors portray publicly.
But given that Duran didn’t torch Reebok or the uniforms, didn’t rip the UFC for pulling his sponsors and pretty much just explained what happened, he didn’t deserve to lose his job.
This situation cried out for a far more moderate solution. If White and/or Fertitta felt Duran had gotten too big for his britches – and his public comments don’t seem to indicate that he had – they could simply have asked him to quit speaking to the media.
The best solution would have been to have someone call him and tell him to knock it off. They could have let him know what they found objectionable and told him to cool it.
Firing him, though, feels an awful lot like a guy getting 10 to 20 years for jaywalking.
It’s wrong, no matter how you look at it.