Like many kids, I was first introduced to sports by my father, who can still rattle off decades-old batting averages and starting lineups. But in lieu of the typical devout, provincial fandom, I was raised to appreciate the finer points of sports--the breaking of a record, a freak statistical occurrence, or an epic comeback. We feasted on basketball, football, and baseball, with occasional forays into hockey, boxing, or tennis, and devoured entire Olympics whole.
From an early age I was captivated by the little I knew (and the large amount I assumed) about athletes’ personalities. This was surely brought on by my mother, a psychotherapist and a sucker for any heartbreaking, against-all-odds halftime story. Our dinner table discussions often involved the psychoanalysis-by-committee of an endless cast of troubled and tormented athletes; we shared a collective soft-spot for the misunderstood, the temperamental, the fatherless, and the substance-abusing. But our discourse was not unique; deconstructing the psyches of high-profile athletes is practically a national pastime. One reason the Tiger Woods scandal was so captivating is that it went against everything we thought we knew about him. And before LeBron James finally won a ring, fans and media alike had collectively diagnosed his hyper-competitive DNA-deficiency. “What a shame that he’ll never be like Jordan or Kobe,” we all said.
The Internet and an always-on sports news culture have exacerbated this phenomenon, granting us unprecedented off-the-field access to athletes, an all-you-can-eat buffet of armchair sports psychology. We can follow Twitter meltdowns in real time, catch endless replays of a coach losing his cool at a postgame news conference, or watch Skip Bayless suck any number of athletes into an ill-fated shouting match.
While athletic commissioners and governing bodies have scrambled to regulate social media and levy fines for publicly addressing taboo subjects, their efforts remain largely cosmetic: Band-Aids awaiting whatever PR trauma lies around the corner.
But the UFC and its brash president/mouthpiece, Dana White, have taken the exact opposite stance, harnessing the power of social channels to tirelessly promote and celebrate, warts and all, the collective cult of personality that is MMA. While such an approach has not always cast White or his fighters in the most professional of lights, it makes for a fascinating, all-access fan experience and has undeniably contributed to the UFC’s meteoric rise.
As the first sport to come of age in the digital era, the UFC has provided its fans with an all-access pass for all the missteps, hyperbole, scapegoating, and hypocrisy that accompanied a two-decade growth from unregulated bareknuckle brawling to a multi-billion dollar global sports empire. While the UFC has long since ironed out many of its regulatory, procedural, and production wrinkles, with Dana White at the helm, it remains delightfully immune to any glossy, corporate PR makeover. He is loud, blunt, emotional, vindictive, foul-mouthed, and as polarizing as any athlete. Dana White is to league presidents what Mark Cuban is to owners.
To fully appreciate just how openly the UFC conducts itself, compare its media policies (or lack thereof) with those of the NBA. David Stern is quick to trumpet his athletes’ widespread Twitter adoption and their subsequent follower counts, but he has in no way served as a catalyst for the phenomenon (he doesn’t even have a Twitter account) and has imposed usage restrictions around games and fined players for complaining about officiating or committing other NBA press conference faux pas. Dana White, on the other hand, openly incentivizes UFC fighters to promote themselves on Twitter, while building up their follower counts and interacting with fans. He frequently takes to Twitter to complain about officiating during UFC fights, while also talking trash with fans and soliciting fight predictions from celebrities, much to the delight of his over 2.4 million followers. Petty barbs aside, he uses the medium as effectively as any brand to promote a product in real time.
But none of this would matter if that very product itself didn't deliver. And while each UFC event showcases an increasingly diverse and talented roster of mixed martial artists, the days between fights offer no shortage of entertainment. Every week seems to bring with it a new injury or failed drug test, leaving the UFC perpetually scrambling to schedule and reschedule fights, while offering opinions on the fly regarding various athletic commissions, regulatory bodies, and legal testosterone levels. What is so fascinating is how much of this information is disseminated as it unfolds. Where the NFL or MLB might hold closed-door meetings and let lawyers read neutered, claim-free statements to the press, Dana White is openly lambasting titleholders for turning down fights (Jon Jones, Anderson Silva), eviscerating trainers who dare advise their fighters against his wishes (Greg Jackson, Cesar Gracie), and speculating as to the sanity of fighters (Jason Miller, Nick Diaz).
To be fair, the entire MMA community has been psychoanalyzing Diaz in recent weeks, as his signature rambling pre- and post-fight monologues have touched on topics as diverse as steroids, marijuana abuse, regulatory conspiracies, and tax evasion–a potpourri that would send David Stern into epileptic convulsions. In a sport with such compelling, extreme personalities, Nick remains its greatest enigma, largely because his immense talent has placed him in many high-profile fights and, therefore, in front of many microphones. He might have offered an uncharacteristically muted performance against GSP inside the Octagon, but damn if he didn't make a spectacle of himself up until the fight and soon afterward, without so much as a slap on the wrist from the UFC. Nick is loud, brash, contradictory, curses like a sailor, and says whatever he pleases. In other words, he is a lot like Dana White.
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