By Zach Arnold | January 20, 2012
If you’re looking for an MMA audio interview-of-the-year candidate, look no further than this very lengthy interview with John Barr of ESPN’s Outside the Lines. If you have a long commute or some down time, it’s well worth taking 90 minutes out of your schedule to listen to the whole thing.
I obviously won’t transcribe the entire interview here, but I will give you some key summary points from it.
Mr. Barr said that the issue of fighter pay in the UFC was initially raised internally by ESPN producers after Zuffa bought out Strikeforce. He says that, at that moment, everything you read in the dot-com piece started being researched. The reaction to the piece, according to the reporter, has been very different than the kind of feedback they get when covering other sports & controversial topics. The value of the lengthy audio interview Mr. Barr did is more about his tone & surprise more than his actual comments. He emphasized how surprised ESPN was by UFC’s aggressive PR push back to the piece and that ESPN management advised him not to get into tit-for-tat warfare with online fans/radio shows. The most interesting characterization he had about MMA fans is one I always talk about whenever I write anything neutral or negative about Zuffa or MMA in general — I call it the ‘beehive mentality.’ According to him, the reaction they got from UFC supporters attacking the story was angry that the promotion was being criticized. As far as things escalating & deteriorating between ESPN & MMA fans and ESPN & UFC, Mr. Barr made this revealing comment.
“I would hope that it would not come to that and I would hope that things would quiet down and that we’d all just move on with our lives. Will we continue to cover the sport of Mixed Martial Arts? Uh, yeah, I don’t think there’s any question that we’re going to.”
As for what John Barr said during the interview, he left it all on the table in regards to his dealings with UFC and some of the statements they’ve made about him since the Outside the Lines piece aired on Sunday morning.
The first 30 minutes of the interview are about what % figure ESPN was able to estimate for how much UFC paid out to fighters. Mr. Barr said the low end estimate was 4% and that the number most bandied about was 10%.
Claim: Both Matt Serra & Chuck Liddell refused to go on camera for ESPN story
“I’m glad you mentioned Matt Serra because anybody who’s been following the hubbub, if you will… I’m not sure if Dana said it during a press conference, I’m not sure what the context was but at some point he said that we actually went to interview Matt Serra, put him on camera, and that when we didn’t like what he was saying that we decided to pull the plug on the whole thing. I’m going to give Dana White the benefit of the doubt and just say that he was misinformed. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that he’s lying because I can tell you flat out we never put Matt Serra on camera.
“I’ll tell you what happened. We had contact with his agent, his agent set up a meeting. I’ve never actually met Matt Serra. A producer that I work with closely on the television story that aired on Outside the Lines, Greg Amante, went to meet Matt outside of his gym on Long Island. We had no idea what we thought about this subject, we didn’t know if he was a guy who was thrilled with his pay, a guy who was upset, we had no idea. We just wanted to hear from the guy. And, you know, Greg had a pretty, well, first of all Matt was about a hour of late. But when he did show up, Greg had a good shot with him but he said it was bizarre. He said he was really guarded, every time he mentioned the issue of pay Matt got sort of evasive, you know, he said it was almost like somebody had spoken to him before we showed up.
“Well, look, it’s one of those things that, you know, I don’t, again, I don’t know Matt. I’ve never spoken with Matt but that’s what I’m hearing from a guy who I worked with who I trust, that was his read on the situation. Matt didn’t want to go on camera, OK? He didn’t have any interest in it, that was made abundantly clear to Greg. So, this suggestion that we put Matt on camera and then pulled the plug because we didn’t like what he was saying… it just didn’t happen, you know, and the suggestion that we did that with other fighters? Believe me, heh, I would have LOVED to have heard from more fighters on camera. As I said to Lorenzo (Fertitta) in person, if you have fighters who are thrilled about their pay, what… show me where to go, you know, I’ll be there tomorrow with the camera. But I got to tell you, people just didn’t want to touch this…
“There were fighters who we spoke with who are current champions and former champions who… you know, told us that, you know, if they were to speak out about this kind of stuff it would be the end of their careers. You know, there was one former champion who I can tell you is beloved within the sport who told us that if he were to speak about it it would have a negative impact on his current business and I don’t want to tell you what his current business because that would kind of narrow down the, you know, the focus a little more on just who this guy was or is, rather. But, there’s just this concern that, you know, if you’re in it…
Claim: Why fighters are afraid to speak out about UFC pay levels and the ‘culture of fear’
“Fighters basically broke down into three groups. There’s the guys who are in it and, you know, none of the current guys would attach their name to any quotes. There’s the guys who aren’t in it who want to get in it. Those guys won’t talk, either. And then there’s the guy who have been in the UFC but are no longer in the UFC and they want to get back into the UFC and those guys won’t speak, either, and then there’s I guess a completely another group, a fourth group of guys who have a business that is somewhat dependent on their continued good relationship with the UFC establishment and those guys are difficult to approach as well.
“So, there’s all sorts of challenges and on some level the UFC’s in a good spot because you wind up getting guys who, you know, in their minds and in their characterizations often have baggage. Does Ken Shamrock? Absolutely, he has baggage. Did we report that eh had been engaged, that he was involved in a lawsuit with Zuffa? We did. Did we do it within the context of the story? No. Bob Ley mentioned it after the story but we got the information in there. We actually received a letter from UFC’s attorneys not after the piece ran but after a short tease of the story ran and there was one little comment from Ken Shamrock in that piece and I’m not sure who saw that and who decided to pick up the phone and call the lawyers but as soon as somebody saw Shamrock they had their attorneys send us a letter and… look, to be fair, yeah, we should be mentioning that Ken Shamrock was involved in a lawsuit with the UFC and he lost and he owes them legal fees. Does that make what he was saying wrong? You know, I’ll leave that up to others to decide. I know what I heard from over two dozen fighters not named Ken Shamrock, so… I felt pretty comfortable with airing what we did as far as what Ken’s comments were.
“Look, there’s definitely a culture of fear that exists and I don’t know that people do fully appreciate that. Dana White is a, look, he’s a passionate guy. He’s obviously incredibly driven and, you know, he’s a large reason why that company is where it is today. The people who are really close to the situation give Lorenzo Fertitta more credit as far as his business acumen but there’s no question if the sport needed a bulldog to go out and just be relentless in his pursuit of growing the sport they found the perfect guy in Dana White.
“But, yeah, to your point about intimidation tactics… you know, look, we interviewed Monte Cox who has been around the sport forever, who has staged hundreds of his own smaller promotions, who has several former champions and 16 guys in it now, he’s got like 70 fighters I guess in his stable now… he’s been cursed out by Dana White over the phone. It’s almost like I don’t think you can be an agent or a manager with a fighter in the UFC and push the envelope and not meet some level of heated resistance at some point. You know, (there are) any number of managers who have stories about heated profanity-laced exchanges with Dana White.”
Theme: UFC management and MMA fans need to grow a set and be able to take some heat, Zuffa/MMA writers & getting credentials
“It’s clear to me that if the UFC really wants to mature as a sports entity, it’s going to have to be able to shoulder and weather the criticism. I live in Philadelphia, OK? You know, probably outside of New York, maybe Boston, I can’t think of a more passionate fan base in terms of, you know, columnists who are critical of the local sports teams, sports radio hosts who bring it every day with no holds barred, pardon the expression, critiques when you know the leaders of their local sports teams don’t call those shots the right way. Heck, there were people calling for Andy Reid’s head after the third week of the season. But those columnists go to press conferences every week, multiple times a week, they go into the locker rooms and talk to players, they’re not banned. You know, they’re big boys, they can take the slings & arrows. You know, if you want to really prove that you’ve arrived then put up with it, you know? That’s my take.
“If every story that comes out that’s mildly critical or takes a critical view of what you do if every story is to be responded to by somebody coming out with a series of half-truths and, you know, what was rather telling when UFC put two videos out. One of them was a 10 minute video that included interviews with Chuck Liddell, who by the way wouldn’t talk to us for our story, Matt Serra who by the way wouldn’t talk to us for our story, and Forrest Griffin who we never contacted. But it also included several clips from the interview that I did with Lorenzo… I didn’t tall them up but I think he may have made 10 to 15 salient points during the course of that UFC-produced video and easily 7 of them were either in the TV piece that we did or the dot-com piece that we did.
“Look, we’re not, it’s not our charge to do your public relations. You hire people for that. I had a news director years ago who told me, ‘PR people distort the truth, you report the truth.’ You know, that sounds like, you know, I’m trying to say I fight for truth, justice, and the American way but at the end of the day that’s all we want, that’s what we try to get at — the TRUTH. I know people are out there just convinced that we have this agenda and there are some people that are the conspiracy theorists who think (UFC) signed a deal with FOX so ESPN’s out to get them! And that’s convenient and it fits into somebody’s paradigm but it’s just not the way we work, you know?
“I can tell you, I can reel off the last dozen stories I’ve done, there have been stories that have been critical of the NFL. We did a piece recently that was critical of the quality of NBA officiating. We put hundreds of millions of dollars in the NBA’s pocket every year, you know. This is not about that. It’s about journalism, it’s what we do, and this is a story that we thought was important to do. Heck, we don’t cover Mixed Martial Arts enough, you know, and the few times we do it we get blasted for not doing it in a way that essentially would have us be nothing more than shills of the UFC. That’s not the kind of reporter I want to be.”
Addressing claims that ESPN selectively edited interview video to make UFC look bad & Dana White’s grudge against ESPN
“People can see it on Youtube if they want to watch the whole bloody 47 minute thing but I shook Lorenzo Fertitta’s hand and this was after he told me why Dana White won’t do any more interviews with ESPN and I said, ‘look, I hope this isn’t your last interview with ESPN, we really appreciate you making the time,’ and I do and I know… you know, I do think it’s important for us to have access to these guys if we want to cover them and cover them in a meaningful way. And, as I said earlier, I think it will go a long way in helping that company define itself as far as the maturation process is if they can demonstrate that they are not impervious to criticism. They need to… you know… I think it would go a long way in adding to the credibility of their product if they were able to withstand a critical analysis from the outside from time to time.
“Look, [Dana] wasn’t a big fan of ESPN to begin with. He’s still hacked off about a profile that our friends at E:60 did about him some months ago. You know, a very fine reporter Tom Farrey who I work with who I respect a lot did that story. He’s still upset about that and that was the reason cited for Dana not agreeing to not do an interview with us, it’s just the lingering… I guess ill-will he feels towards ESPN because of that feature. I actually thought that the piece was pretty fair, you know… I thought it was a pretty accurate reflection of a guy who… is, you know, at times profane, at times always passionate… and just… you know, one could argue an extremely aggressive and one might even argue ruthless businessman. But, what are going to do?
“Yeah, I’ve never received (feedback) like this, but it is what it is. It’s not going to change how I do what I do. At the end of the day, if you wake up and feel good about what you’ve done and if you feel like you’re true to your moral code, that’s all that really matters, you know. There could be 3,000 people on ESPN.com ripping me for being a lousy reporter, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to buy any of it. You’re never as good as they tell you are and you’re never as lousy as they tell you that you are. Like I said before, you throw out the Russian and the American judge and you settle for what’s left.”