Shooting the messenger is a time-honored practice, especially in MMA. But this is a new one.
Earlier this week, the World Series of Fighting promotion stepped jauntily out of its network-television debut and straight into an ill-kempt dog park. A report from Bloody Elbow's Brent Brookhouse revealed that one of WSOF 11's undercard competitors, Dustin Holyko, carried not only a lengthy rap sheet but an association with white supremacist or neo-Nazi culture. Holyko sports several questionable (and quite visible) tattoos, including the Nazi "SS" symbol and the phrase "white pride." That latter one is always ambiguous, too. What if he just likes unusual tigers?
To its credit, WSOF promptly released Holyko after the report surfaced. Good on the WSOF for that. Never mind the fact that a cursory skim of the public records or Holyko's, what's that thing called, Facebook page could have prevented this whole affair.
Never mind that; back to what actually happened. The release was swift but the action was sullied by subsequent words from WSOF vice president and match maker Ali Abdelaziz. Abdelaziz asserted in an MMAJunkie article published Tuesday that the promotion, despite the lapse, had no plans to institute background checks on prospective fighters.
Abdelaziz then took the opportunity to lob some viscera toward Bloody Elbow for not giving WSOF brass the heads up on its story:
We don’t do background checks on people. But if something comes up, and it’s something we need to know about, I believe us and the media are all part of the team. If the guy who wrote the story knew about the information, he should have told us before the fight. I know it’s not his job, but to protect our sport and grow, if anybody has information about this kind of behavior, they should let us know.
In the final sentence of this quote, Abdelaziz employs a rhetorical crutch that is all the rage these days. I'm no debate-team captain, but it basically involves saying that you're not saying something, then saying that something. In this instance, he uses that loophole-to-nowhere to criticize those involved in the Holyko report for not bringing said report to WSOF officials before publication, you know, for the good of the sport.
I don't want to say that criticism is wrong, but it really does achieve a substantially high level of incorrectness.
I believe Abdelaziz when he says they were unaware of Holyko's history before signing him just as I believe that some basic due diligence would have stopped this problem before it started. I also believe WSOF is a good promotion that does good things, signs good fighters and is healthy for the sport. But these comments provide what is, to me, an unsettling glimpse into the MMA elite's perception of the media: something between a deep sense of entitlement and a broad lack of understanding. Possibly both.
Forget about the obvious quality and credibility risks that come from an excessively cozy reporter-subject relationship. Though that is a critical principle of journalism and a serious concern in MMA—the UFC has been a line-blurring trailblazer in this area—it is not evident in this particular case. The problem here is more nuanced.
In one breath, Abdelaziz rejects the idea that the WSOF conduct background checks, then expresses the expectation that the media should do so for them. He's not asking for cooperation; he's asking for free labor. Not just carrying the messaging water or anything as conventional as that, but performing real, actual promotional operations.
Is this an isolated comment that simply didn't come out right? It doesn't seem that way, as he goes over his expectations in significant detail.
Does the WSOF really need the media to protect it from itself vis-a-vis the people with whom it contracts? Have reporters brought these execs problems before on a pre-publication basis? Is this a common belief or expectation among MMA promotions? Is the media so distorted that their sources openly think of them as employees? Does someone want to get Ali Abdelaziz some coffee? Does anyone know how he takes it? Should we email him?
I'd like to think I'm no Pollyanna on this topic. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you believe dicey media relationships begin and end in the MMA bubble, it is you, bro, who are being naïve. Wherever you land on the topic, this comment is so audacious in its disregard for and misunderstanding of the role of those jotting down his words that it warrants a bit of a spit-take.
A pretty high-profile guy is attempting to outsource not just accountability, but the actual duties of running a promotion. That's a blur too far.
Such things are not the media's job. Sorry, no buts about it.