Media Relations

By: Jake Rossen
Aug 4, 2008
Despite being more than a week out from his Saturday showdown with Kenny Florian (Pictures), UFC lightweight contender Roger Huerta (Pictures) was already sticking his chin out and risking damage -- not to his face, but to his career.

On two separate occasions, Huerta -- who has been anointed the sport’s Latino Hope -- mumbled disgruntlement with his paycheck signatories. In a cover story for Fight! magazine (bombastic exclamation point theirs), he expressed incredulity that the UFC had allegedly given him only a 50-dollar per diem for a press tour; the second snafu involved production staff editing prefight hype comments to make it seem as though Huerta was dismissive of Florian’s chances in their fight. The 20-1-1 lightweight also had thoughts on the UFC’s pay scale (low), and the lack of lucrative sponsorship opportunities.

In other words, Huerta won’t be breaking his back towing the company line anytime soon.

It’s rare for athletes of any rung on the hierarchy to complain openly about management, even if they have sufficient reason to. Don King siphoned millions from athletes like Mike Tyson and Terry Norris, but the allegations and insults didn’t start flying until years later; few ball players circulate negative comments about team owners. Public criticisms, if they’re voiced at all, are filtered through management or other third-party quotes.

Of course, even if they feel slighted, all of these men can dry their teary ducts with the stacks of hundred-dollar bills populating their nightstands and coffee tables. Money has a predictable way of assuaging any bitter feelings. For some MMA athletes, respect is often seen as a salve for the lack of a seven-zero paycheck.

There’s some degree of irony in the fact that Huerta likely sees the seller’s market in the sport as a safety net for his commentary -- if the UFC doesn’t want him, someone else will. He may also be convinced of the fact that Zuffa’s investment in building his “brand” is not something they’ll be eager to let another organization capitalize on.

Huerta’s PR rebellion has a downside, though: No matter how many MMA promoters bid for his services, none have the kind of long-term security offered by the UFC. While other companies bleed money like a hemophiliac wielding an errant nail gun, they have a stable future. While others are desperate for any kind of charity-case network deal offered to them, the UFC has a longstanding and harmonious relationship with Spike. And on and on.

It’s telling that several former employees of the Pride promotion have only recently come forward to complain of suspicious backstage machinations, late booking, threats to cut contracts unless they fought injured -- things that would give an athlete just cause to call every paper in town were swept under the rug until Pride’s well was dry. Why? Because the athletes couldn’t walk across the street for a similarly sized paycheck. In an era of the UFC headlining circus tents in Dothan, Ala., Pride was the only real show in town.

Now, Huerta likely figures that if his talk results in some scorched-earth retaliation, he can head to any number of umbrellas. Problem is, none of them hold any promise of staying open for long. Elite’s ratings plummeted 43 percent on CBS, a pattern likely to continue when -- not if -- poster hulk Kimbo Slice loses; Dream is having ratings woes of their own in Japan; Affliction is being improbably generous.

It’s not nearly as expansive and competitive an MMA world as the media thinks. Not in the long term, at least. There’s only the illusion of it.

If the UFC’s Dana White boxercised a wall after reading Huerta’s comments, he should probably consider the idea that he was the precedent for candid MMA commentary. Men like Bud Selig and David Stern aren’t often the brunt of complaints because they discuss athletes in professorial tones; White, in contrast, has referred to men under his employ as “knuckleheads” and “the dumbest human being I’ve ever met.”

If you’re allowed to give as good as you get, Huerta was actually a model of restraint.

What fighters owe companies is a base level of voiced respect: If there are contractual issues or management conflicts, it’s in good taste to keep those discussions behind closed doors. Likewise, promoters should refrain from publicly lambasting current or past employees.

MMA may have outgrown high school gymnasiums, but there are times when the dialogue hasn’t.

In Brief:

The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Morrissey was the latest mainstream journo to scratch his head at the current popularity of MMA. (As with most naysayers, it’s a head covered in gray hair.) In his Aug. 4 editorial, “Boxing Beats the Heck Out of MMA,” Morrissey proclaims that MMA isn’t as violent as boxing and therefore pales in comparison because “it’s the blood we’re after most.” What refreshing psychosis.

Morrissey also questions the uneven records of popular MMA athletes, citing Randy Couture (Pictures)’s 16-8 mark. Unlike boxing’s paper tigers, I cannot recall a time in which the UFC handed Couture a free pass in any fight, which would likely explain the discrepancy between his numbers and that of a Roy Jones, Jr., who was fond of brutalizing refrigerator repairmen in his HBO heyday.

As a film for MMA purists, “Red Belt” (Sony Home Video, Aug. 26) fails miserably. Writer/director David Mamet depicts prizefighting as a corrupt and sadistic practice where literally tying an opponent’s hand behind his back is the zenith of pay-per-view spectacle.

As a meditation on the philosophy of martial arts, however -- particularly the existentialism of Mamet’s beloved jiu-jitsu -- “Red Belt” succeeds beautifully. The owner of a financially drowning dojo, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, spouting rhetoric like Rickson Gracie (Pictures) on amphetamines) thumbs his nose at competitive athletics, but an errant bullet initiates a series of events that finally force his hands around someone’s throat.

Mamet eschews most conventions of the genre, but the film would’ve been better served by something approaching realism in the staged fight sequences -- especially since the climactic bout in the aisle is a gi-clad technical wonder.

Still worth watching, particularly if you secretly wished that Alec Baldwin’s snake-eyed “fixer” in “Glengarry Glen Ross” knew his triangle chokes. Compared to the other MMA-themed movie of the summer DVD season, “Never Back Down,” it’s practically Shakespeare.

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