Longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson became the latest athlete to go public with his grievances about his UFC bosses Monday, posting a detailed recounting of his ongoing frustrations to Imgur.
In it, Johnson discusses the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing surrounding his next title defense, for which flyweight contender Ray Borg, bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt and former 135-pound champ TJ Dillashaw have all been floated as opponents.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main targets of Johnson’s vitriol are UFC President Dana White and head matchmaker Sean Shelby, who the fighter accuses of using "bullying" tactics throughout their conversations. Johnson also rails against the UFC's apparent apathy about promoting his fights and what he sees as the disrespect he's been showed throughout the negotiating process.
At least some of Johnson's anger is believed to be in response to White's recent appearance on the UFC's company-controlled Unfiltered podcast, where he called Johnson's refusal to fight Dillashaw "insanity," via MMAjunkie.
"For years, I have been a company man and kept quiet, accepting fights, doing as they asked and always remaining humble and grateful for the opportunities provided to me through mixed martial arts," Johnson wrote in his statement. "Unfortunately, UFC's mistreatment and bullying has finally forced me to speak out."
Johnson later doubled-down in a fiery appearance on Monday's The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani (warning: NSFW language in video):
Johnson certainly isn't the first fighter to take issue with the UFC's hard-nosed management style and in recent years, more and more recognizable names have singled out White as the prime target of their complaints. Considering last year's sale of the UFC to Hollywood megatalent agency WME-IMG for more than $4 billion, the rising tide of fighter discontent raises questions about White's bombastic, sometimes obnoxious persona both backstage and in front of the cameras.
Joining me to discuss exactly what all this means is fellow Bleacher Report lead writer Scott Harris.
Chad Dundas: Scott, for longtime observers of the UFC, very little of what "Mighty Mouse" alleges in his recent statement is surprising. Because of that—even though all we have so far is his side of some of this story—much of it has the ring of truth.
We've known for years that the world's largest MMA promoter takes an iron-fisted approach to every negotiation. White himself has made a cottage industry out of being a swaggering loudmouth.
For a long time, you could argue that was exactly the sort of public leadership the UFC needed, as it fought for acceptance and airtime in the mainstream sports landscape. But now? It seems to me perhaps that approach is no longer useful.
Because while not much of what Johnson says is shocking, it is surprising that it's Johnson saying it.
This is a guy who has been a rock for the UFC since winning the 125-pound title in 2012. He's fought at least twice a year every year since, while amassing 10 consecutive title defenses and blowing away the rest of the best flyweights in the world.
Along the way—by his own admission—he's made few waves. Until now.
And really, if Demetrious Johnson is publicly ripping you for the way you've treated him throughout his career? Brother, you've got problems.
Scott, we can talk about Johnson himself in a minute, because his position inside the company is an interesting one.
Firstly, though, what are we to make of White and the UFC getting called on the carpet by one of their most successful champions? And in the era of the "new" WME-IMG-owned UFC, does this macho negotiating style actually do more harm than good?
Scott Harris: You're absolutely right about the nature of the statement. The content wasn't surprising. What was surprising is that someone went on the record, and very, uh, thoroughly at that. White's treatment of fighters is usually described in whispers, thanks entirely to the treatment itself.
As for said treatment, yes, it has run its course. Put aside how grating and off-putting it is. Put aside the bully tactics. After all, White's personality is not exactly unique in the world of MMA or beyond—cough—Trump—cough.
Let's instead make a business case for White—or, to be more precise, against him. Generally speaking, White's stated basis for denying Johnson's demands (according to Johnson's statement) was that flyweights don't "sell" or "draw." That is accurate, but only to a point.
Cards headlined by Johnson and other lighter-weight fighters do not perform well in TV ratings or pay-per-view buys. But that doesn't mean flyweights and men's bantamweights are devoid of value to the company. These divisions are not loss leaders or personal vanity projects. Clearly, White and other UFC leaders did not establish these divisions out of love for these fighters. Perhaps Johnson can't sell one million pay-per-views, but he is still a champion and he still draws eyeballs and darn sure delivers the goods, as evidenced by the fact that he just tied the UFC record for consecutive title defenses and has never lost as a flyweight. At the very least, he makes a strong card stronger.
And there's where White's tactics appear to fail a basic cost-benefit analysis. Why would you ever alienate your own champion? And not only a champion, but the top fighter on the UFC's own pound-for-pound ranking? Aren't WME-IMG and the UFC in the business of making and promoting stars? How does this advance that cause? Where else do you see a top official make a disgruntled athlete where there wasn't one before, for absolutely no discernible reason beyond ego? Maybe White isn't unique, but his tendency to let his little head make decisions for his big head certainly doesn't benefit the UFC's bottom line. In the scrappy early days, when the UFC needed a tough and loyal ally, this made sense. It doesn't anymore.
Chad: The idea that a guy like Johnson "doesn't sell" drives me crazy. Here's a man with a legitimate blue-collar success story—Johnson worked in a factory while his UFC career was just getting started—who has painstakingly built himself into perhaps the best mixed martial arts fighter in history while putting up a 26-2-1 record since 2007.
He comes preloaded with a fanbase outside the UFC's usual fight audience, as Johnson is something of a well-known figure in the video game-centric Twitch community (whatever that is). He's a smart, thoughtful family man who enjoys a sorcerer's apprentice-type relationship with his coach, MMA pioneer Matt Hume.
On top of all that, the dude spits hot fire pretty much every time anybody puts a microphone in front of his face. After defeating Wilson Reis in April, Johnson got on the mic and literally declared that he is a better fighter than beloved legends Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva ever were.
You can't sell this guy, UFC? Really?
And that brings us back to White.
Through his 16 years as UFC president, it has seemed like the company only understands one way to promote its fighters. Either they come pre-made in the badass Chuck Liddell/Brock Lesnar/Ronda Rousey mold or the UFC can't seem to figure out what to do with them.
Now that we're nearly a year into the WME-IMG era, shouldn't we see evidence that things are changing? If there was one thing the bona fide entertainment giant seemed like it could improve on in this sport, it was promoting fighters and building stars.
So far? I don't know that we've seen any evidence of that.
Scott, what's the end game here? During his appearance on The MMA Hour, Johnson said he'd be willing to continue working for the UFC if they could all put this ugliness behind them.
Does Mighty Mouse carry on being the Octagon's most dominant champion? Or is this a deal breaker of a situation?
Scott: When it comes to the UFC's history of making stars, an old quote from The Simpsons comes to mind: "We've tried nothing, and we're all out of ideas!" That definitely applies to Johnson, and in the case of White's purported behavior, they've tried less than nothing. He failed to adequately promote Johnson, then blamed him for the shortcoming.
However, I do want to be fair here. Johnson spent a good chunk of his career taking a very guarded stance opposite any microphone. He tended to lapse into cliches and general blandness, though he did turn that around after Conor McGregor's emergence cemented once and for all the indispensable role personality plays in MMA success. (And while I personally find his fighting style electrifying—and 15 stoppages in 26 wins demonstrates that—some people fairly or not do find him boring to watch.)
Anyway, to your question about the end game, the UFC owners have a few choices. They can find some way to part ways with Johnson, they can mediate some kind of resolution between Team White and Team Mouse, or they can part ways with White.
To date, outside of some staff layoffs, the WME-IMG brain trust has been basically invisible, at least to the public. They seem content to let White be the face of the company. What kind of ROI [rate of investment] do they believe they are getting on him right now, I wonder. Can they really believe there is no one, literally no one else, who can do what White does? White has institutional knowledge, no question; he is the institution. But at this point, is that a good thing? So much has been made of WME-IMG's buttoned-down approach to governance. Does White fit that approach?
I imagine White will stay, that cooler heads—whomever those heads might actually be—will prevail. But until WME-IMG leaders step forward and fully imprint their own stamp on their $4 billion investment, this kind of dissonance will continue. That wouldn't be surprising. The surprising part may come, as it did today, when more and more athletes come forward to challenge it.