It’s been a deplorable start to 2023 for MMA fans.
Less than a week into the calendar year, and the biggest stories to date have been Dana White slapping his wife, Phil Baroni (allegedly) murdering his girlfriend, and Ilia Topuria engaging in a bar fight.
It’s a pretty crazy run of bad press when Topuria, who appeared to at least try to ignore the man clearly provoking him at a bar in Spain, comes out looking the better of the three.
Topuria’s not exactly known for having a level head, after all.
Still, with or without the Topuria incident in the mix, it’s a very bad time for MMA. And especially for the UFC.
The UFC’s 2022 year closed out with a number of scandals, including an ongoing federal investigation into fight fixing and betting irregularities, a judging scandal that resulted in immediate changes to California combat sports regulations (despite neither of the fights in question actually taking place in the state), and the boneheaded decision by three of the promotion’s former champions to take a (presumably) all-expenses paid vacation to that hot, hot tourist destination of Chechnya, to attend the birthday party of murderous dictator Ramazan Kadyrov’s son.
When I mentioned the braindead Chechnya excursion taken by Justin Gaethje, Kamaru Usman, and Henry Cejudo to a Russian ex-pat friend of mine, the suggestion that the trio be criminally charged was the immediate response. Russians know damn well that Kadyrov is bad news. Anyone following MMA in recent years does as well, as the pampered Putin crony has attempted to use the sport to boost his popularity at home.
The U.S. State Department recently weighed in on the matter, telling the New York Times that they were “aware” of ties between UFC fighters and heavily sanctioned dictator Kadyrov.
Given a number of Kadyrov’s family members, including children, wives, and cousins, are also on the sanctioned list, criminal charges aren’t entirely out of the question for anyone caught associating with the family.
But really, that’s just so 2022. 2023 has ushered in a whole host of problems for the UFC and Dana White, in just a matter of days. White immediately got ahead of the domestic violence story, as video of him slapping his wife (yes, in response to her slapping him, for those that must keep score) had just begun making the rounds. He took a somber, apologetic tone in a video interview with TMZ, stating “You’ve heard me say for years, ‘There’s never ever an excuse for a guy to put his hands on a woman,’ and now here I am on TMZ talking about it.”
White later added that “This is one of those situations that’s horrible. I’m embarrassed. It’s also one of those situations that — right now, we’re more concerned about our kids. We have three kids, and obviously, since the video popped up, we’ve shown the kids the video, and we’re more focused on our family right now.”
“People are going to have opinions on this, and most of the people’s opinions would be right, especially in my case. You don’t put your hands on a woman, ever.”
Dana White is essentially saying all the right words here. But what speaks volumes is what he is not saying. Were this any fighter under the UFC promotional banner, it’s likely some sort of suspension would be dished out, if not an outright cut. Luis Pena suffered that fate not too long ago, though the company (and to be fair, rival Bellator MMA) was more forgiving with the late Anthony “Rumble” Johnson’s transgressions. But with White, it’s unclear if any sort of punishment will be handed down — despite his status as the face of the promotion, and most recognizable figure in the sport today not named Conor McGregor.
Even worse, video of White slapping his wife — who has come to his defense, stating that this was a one-time incident between her and her husband — comes in advance of the launch of Dana White’s Power Slap league. Yes, weeks before the launch of his slap fighting endeavor (a hilariously bad idea even before this incident), White managed to get caught on camera slapping his wife.
Given his name is on the product, broadcast partner TBS has a real problem on their hands. Just how do you market a slap fighting promotion operated by a guy all over the news for slapping his wife? It’s darkly comical, in a sad sort of way.
TBS did not response to a request for comment for this story. But the addition of the Phil Baroni arrest, for the alleged murder of his girlfriend in Mexico, just compounds problems. Not 24 hours after news of Baroni’s arrest broke, former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett opened up and gave some insight into the Baroni of recent years — and it wasn’t pretty. Erratic behavior, unchecked emotions, and conduct deplorable enough that Barnett had to block the “New York Badass” on social media left the heavyweight of the opinion that Baroni was suffering from CTE.
That’s not the sort of story you want circulating just before, again, you launch a slap fighting league that is essentially a CTE buffet, with unprotected blows to the head the linchpin of the sport.
If you wanted to sum all this up as a simple meme, there’s always hold my beer, which is pretty much what 2023 uttered before showing 2022 just how much worse things could get. And there are no easy answers here, either: White may be closer to the end of his tenure as UFC President than ever before, but it’s unlikely he’s ready to step away, and there’s no clear indication that a successor is even in place. Hunter Campbell, maybe.
TBS has no doubt invested at least some money in Power Slap, and can you realistically short-change all the athletes and staff involved over the drunken stupidity of one promoter? Cancelling the entire show may not be reasonable, no matter how popular a decision it may be with slapfighting’s detractors (of which, quite frankly, I am one).
So what is Dana White and crew to do? If you came to this column looking for justice, or even answers, you came to the wrong place. Power ahead is likely what they will do. Maybe, though this is doubtful, a brief sabbatical and some soul searching for Dana White, who now has his family to answer to.
Maybe, just maybe, this will trigger the UFC, and parent company Endeavor, to come up with an iron-clad Code of Conduct that applies not just to fighters, but management as well. One that is actually used on a regular basis, not just a whim. Ari Emmanuel certainly talked a good game during Kayne West’s meltdown last year, urging corporations to cut ties with the singer, who made numerous controversial statements aimed at the Jewish community.
Is Emmanuel ready to walk the walk, and crack down on UFC President Dana White, knowing that the MMA promotion is Endeavor’s biggest moneymaker?
It’s doubtful, even if that’s what should happen.
What is more likely to happen? The next scandal will arrive, pushing January’s hangover-like spate of bad behavior to the side, soon to be a distant memory as whatever more pressing calamity lands in the headlines. Maybe the outcome of the ongoing betting investigations, and the fate of James Krause, will hit the spotlight.
None of that seems like a great alternative, mind you. When it comes to the UFC, it feels like there’s a rocky few months ahead.