By Karim Zidan
"Stitch Duran needs to learn what the meaning of 'friend' is. Stitch Duran and I were never friends."
Those were the words of UFC president Dana White shortly after being questioned about the firing of one of the promotion's longstanding cutmen, Jacob "Stitch" Duran. It was just the latest in a string of calloused comments made by UFC's head honcho -- far from the diplomatic dialogue expected of the largest mixed martial arts organization as it attempts to mitigate a self-inflicted public relations nightmare.
What sort of nightmare? Funny you should ask.
Last month, the UFC launched an exclusive sponsorship deal with established apparel brand Reebok. It was an expansive decision on the UFC's part, as the promotion claimed its main interest was to legitimize the sport by removing the tacky, albeit characteristic, fight gear that had become an emblem of the polarizing sport. Anderson Silva's trademark black and yellow spider shorts would be no more; "Shogun" Rua's white Bad Boy shorts would be a thing of the past; and even Joanne Calderwood's hybrid Scottish kilt Muay Thai shorts were absent during her most recent fight … in Scotland.
The deal was reported to be worth $70 million over six years. Given that fighters were no longer able to entice sponsors because of their forced exclusivity with Reebok during fight weeks, many on the UFC roster were worried they would lose a significant portion of their supplementary income, as sponsorships could reach six figures depending on a fighter's worth. The UFC assured doubters that the "majority, if not all" the money negotiated in the Reebok deal would be divided amongst the 500-plus members on the roster. Later, it was discovered that the pay tier hierarchy was a questionable one at best. Fighters would be paid a standard non-negotiable cut depending on their experience under promotions like the UFC and the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC).
According to the released figures, a combatant with less than five fights in the UFC will make $2,500 in sponsorship money per fight, which is certainly a significant step down for many. Those with six to 10 UFC fight will make $5,000; 11 to 15 make $10,000; 16 to 20 make $15,000; and 21 bouts and above nets a veteran fighter $20,000. Even champions not signed to separate Reebok deals (which some, including Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, are) make a mere $40,000 for their title defenses.
Naturally, once the numbers were officially revealed in May (as the deal did not go into effect until July), fighters, fans and pundits alike openly questioned the hefty demotion in pay for a significant percentage of the roster, some louder than others. Several female fighters labeled the deal as unfair for the recently added women divisions, saying it was riddled with "gender inequity." Even featherweight champion Jose Aldo bluntly referred to the Reebok deal as "shit" and called for the establishment of a fighters union capable of supporting fighters in collective bargaining.
"The UFC brought the sport to where it is today, great, that's their merit," Aldo told Combate. "But if athletes were more united and had a union to protect them, I don't think this would happen."
Once the actual designs for the uniforms were released, Aldo went on to add that he was not impressed with the "Power Rangers" kit. Aldo remains the champion with the tensest relationship with the UFC.
Needless to say, this was not exactly the welcome, positive reaction the UFC had likely hoped for from the MMA community, much less from one of its own champions. However, while much of this could have been weathered with diplomacy, the promotion, particularly White, instead reverted back to the overused cookie-cutter statement: "People are just freaked out about change." White voiced his opinion a few weeks ago during an interview with MMA writer Ariel Helwani, during which White confirmed his belief that "everybody is happy with this."
"At the end of the day, that's all that matters, that the fighters like it," White said. "And everybody is happy with this, so far. The people that have been involved with this love it."
Several fighters had indeed expressed their satisfaction with the deal. Former WEC champion and UFC title challenger Urijah Faber went as far as to advise his fellow fighters to "stop whining" about the significant changes that they were forced to undergo. The deal certainly benefited a certain segment of the roster -- champions and stars were able to negotiate separate deals with Reebok, as well as with other UFC-exclusive sponsors such as Monster energy drink. Others may never have been able to attract lucrative sponsors and greatly benefited from the increased income early in their careers. However, few mentioned that while fighters had undergone dramatic changes in a short period of time, so had their cornermen, their managers, as well as cutmen and other on-site officials who had (surprisingly) made a substantial living acquiring sponsors on their work vests for their frequent fight night appearances on television.
This leads us back to Duran. The cutman, who transitioned along with White from boxing when ZUFFA (the parent company of the modern UFC) bought the promotion in 2001, was fired following an interview with BloodyElbow.com, in which he revealed his personal loss of income in the immediate aftermath of the Reebok deal.
It was a baffling decision, especially since "Stitch" had been quite timid in the interview and respectful to all parties involved.
"I don't think they [UFC] did this out of malice. Not at all," Stitch said. "Really, what I think is we might be doing too good of a job where they just maybe forgot about us. I also don't think they thought about or understood what kind of value we could give them."
Instead of offering words of consolation and a reasonable explanation for his grievances, the UFC opted to part ways with one of its longstanding employees the very next day with a quick, blunt phone call from administration. It was an overreaction that spurred an impressively-sized retaliation from angered fans on social media. To them, Duran's firing was the straw that broke the camel's back. A torrent of negativity was directed at the UFC and Reebok's respective social media accounts, so much so that Reebok released an official statement elaborating that it had no input on the UFC's decisions. Even Reebok was clearly alarmed with the outcry from this community it had just invested heavily in.
So how does Dana White choose to deal with the fan backlash from the Duran firing? By changing the narrative to focus on whether he and Stitch were ever actually friends.
"Stitch Duran was never my friend," White said during Saturday night's UFC on FOX 16 post-fight press conference. "Stitch Duran said I should have called him -- I have never dealt with a cutman ever. We have a department that deals with them. We weren't friends. We're not friends, and no, he shouldn't have been expecting a call from me. If he's a friend, why didn't he reach out from me?"
White's comments come on the heels of a recent Twitter tirade he embarked on during a motorbike trip in Milwaukee. He referred to questioning fans on Twitter as "morons" and "idiots," and he made several unsavory remarks relating to beauty standards and obesity -- questionable behavior from the president of a one of the largest sports organizations in the world. And given that White has been bitten before for his erratic outbursts, it was a surprise to see him openly lash out at fans again for the first time in months. One would have assumed that the recently announced $100 million class-action lawsuit filed by fighters against the UFC would have been a fantastic reason to err on the side of caution.
Instead, White continues to toe the line between the bizarre and the inexplicable, as he remains an active voice and representative for MMA's top brand. How much longer before one of his wayward, backhanded comments ushers in his eventual downfall?
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Karim Zidan was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. After immigrating to Canada to complete his education, Karim started his own Mixed Martial Arts website [The Flying Knee MMA], which he operated for three years. He now works as an associate editor for BloodyElbow.com, a contributor to SBNation.com and Sports on Earth, and the lead writer for SteveGtennis.com.