Eight days ago the unthinkable happened as Swedish MMA superstar Alexander Gustafsson was in the midst of his final preparations for fellow European standout Gegard Mousasi at UFC on Fuel 9. Gustafsson slipped during wrestling training and propelled himself face-first into the surrounding cage.
In the aftermath he was shaken, embarrassed and the proud new owner of a large cut under his left eyebrow. About to compete in front of his countrymen for the second time, Gustafsson was crushed, telling fans in a statement:
I am extremely sorry for this and I feel for Gegard Mousasi. I also suffer with the fans who have been looking forward to this event and this match.
News began to spread over the weekend that Gustafsson would not be able to compete. As fans processed the shock, a single voice, purportedly one of calm reason, came to the forefront of the discussion about what to do next—that of UFC president Dana White. Using his favored media proxy, MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani, White attempted to ease fans' fears.
"Gus is still fighting! It's April fools," he told Helwani. "Stay of twitter and the net today!"
Of course, that didn't end up being true. Despite White's casual nonchalance, Gustafsson's bad cut wasn't going anywhere, and it wasn't an April Fool's joke at all. White must have known that Gustafsson was cut by the time he spoke with Helwani on Monday—after all, media insiders and even most fans, thanks to the great Swedish site MMA NYTT, had known for a full day at that point.
But instead of honestly discussing the situation, the UFC chose to deflect and delay, costing themselves crucial credibility. The Swedish MMA Federation had already examined Gustafsson's cut over the weekend and declared with complete confidence that they would be cancelling the fight this week, saying the odds were "99% he will not be medically approved."
Yet, like Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber, Dana White was apparently left with only one thought: "So you're telling me there's a chance." They, in fact, were not. They were clearly saying Gustafsson was out.
As a fight-game veteran, White should have seen the cut and known immediately that there would be no fight. But he's so used to being told "yes" at this point in his life that "no" doesn't process. And it's made him a shaky source for UFC fans.
Rewind to October of last year. As widely reported at the time, UFC fighter Jeremy Stephens was arrested at his Minneapolis hotel for assault charges stemming from an altercation in Des Moines, Iowa. White responded to media reports that Stephens' fight with Yves Edwards that night would likely be cancelled with righteous anger.
"OMFG!!! YES Jeremy Stephens is fighting tonight! At no point did ANYONE from UFC say he wasn't," White wrote on Twitter. "Some media jackasses said he wasn't."
Stephens didn't end up fighting that night. Nor should the UFC have bent over backwards to try to spring him from jail to compete in a cage fighting competition that very night. But that's a story for another day. For our purposes here, it was another sign of the degradation of trust between the UFC brass and their loyal fans. Dana White's word wasn't always bond.
The paying audience is finally catching up to the fighters and managers who have known you can't always take White at his word for years. Karo Parisyan was one of the first who was promised a title shot that never materialized. Since his assumption of unfulfilled No. 1 contender status, plenty of others have been proclaimed top contender, only to see the UFC renege on its promise when something potentially more lucrative came up.
Ask Anthony Pettis, the former WEC lightweight champion. The UFC built an entire show around guaranteeing a title shot to whoever won a bout between Pettis and Ben Henderson. When Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard fought to a draw, Pettis was dropped from the equation. More than two years later he's yet to compete for a UFC championship.
Pretty much every serious contender in the light heavyweight class has suffered through similar shenanigans. Look at Gustafsson. If you'll note, he wasn't scheduled to fight Jon Jones for the belt. He was in against newcomer Mousasi, despite a promise from White late last year that his fight with former champion Mauricio Rua would be for a shot at glory.
"If Alexander can beat Shogun, he'd get the shot. If Shogun wins, he gets it."
That was White in December, ages ago in the hyperactive mind of the UFC president. After all, just months prior, in August, he had made a similar promise to competitors on the UFC on Fox 4 card in Los Angeles. He promised that the light heavyweight who emerged from that show with the most impressive performance would get a title opportunity.
That man ended up being Lyoto Machida. But that was when White needed a gimmick to help draw fans to the show on Fox. Once those tickets were sold and televisions turned on, all bets were off. Everything in the UFC is based on emotion and very much in the moment. And because there is no athletic architecture, opportunities come and go at a whim.
Machida, for example, saw his title shot vaporized when he refused to cash it in on just a couple of weeks notice as an injury replacement for Dan Henderson. That angered White, a man who expects an instantaneous "yes" from anyone in his employ, whether it is in their self interest or not.
Instead, Machida ended up in yet another title eliminator with, wait for it, Henderson, who lost his opportunity to a knee injury. At the moment, Machida is the current top contender for a shot at the winner of the UFC 159 bout between Jones and Chael Sonnen. Anyone who believes that is written in stone, however, simply hasn't been paying attention.
Bloody Elbow's Josh Nason put it best when White yanked a title shot out from underneath Carlos Condit in 2011, giving it instead to Nick Diaz:
White needs to be careful about promising things, supporting those promises and then changing his mind. There are times I wish he would simply say that title shots are given on a 'what do we need' basis. It's been that way for a while, we all know it and have benefited from that attitude. Drop the pretense of rankings or that shots are earned. They are given and can be taken away based on simple business needs.
The fight promotion has been a shady place since the first time someone knew they could make money off it. Perhaps I'm too idealistic to think that word is bond these days, but myself and others took White at his word and you can see where that got us. It's not the first time it's happened and unfortunately, it probably won't be the last.
And so here we are. Fans and media members, even the most steadfast ones, aren't able to trust the UFC when it makes announcements or proclamations. As The Classical's Tim Marchman points out, it's an organization shrouded in secrecy.
Its chief decision-maker when it comes to making fights, vice president Joe Silva, isn't available to the press. The owner also eschews most media. That leaves White, a minority owner with just a small part to play in day-to-day operations, to make each and every press appearance, often in a combative, bombastic style that ends up being completely and totally wrong.
Earlier, my colleague Jeremy Botter argued that it's time for the UFC to modernize its drug testing procedures. I stand with him in this but add another potential change to the list—it's also time for the UFC to adopt a more transparent approach to its media relations and matchmaking.
That would eliminate the need for White to make so many unfulfilled promises. It would leave less mystery to the process, allowing fans to get excited, rather than skeptical, when the UFC makes an announcement. It will bring back trust and eliminate much of the spectre of professional wrestling and boxing, the two pursuits the UFC is most often compared to, rarely in a flattering fashion.
The sport can't stand as a serious athletic pursuit without a more open, formal and logical approach to title contention and matchmaking.