Coverage of an ever-evolving Ultimate Fighting Championship has almost always centered on action inside the cage. Understandably so. Morphing from unregulated contests pitting single-disciplined any-weight fighters into licensed bouts across nine weight divisions under standardized rules, so much has obviously changed the past two decades that today’s Octagon hardly resembles the home of Royce Gracie or Tank Abbott or fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants promoting.
Yet despite its progress, particularly after Zuffa took control of the promotion in 2001, the Wild West perception of UFC persists. That's due in large part to Dana White, the dominant voice and face of a company now estimated to be worth a couple of billion dollars (or, roughly 1,000 times more than he and the Fertitta brothers paid to join the mixed martial arts business), whose template as an executive awash in profane, inane outbursts meshed uniquely with his stance that fighters could almost always rely on UFC support, no matter how badly they screwed up.
Those days could be over, for him and them, following the latest stage of UFC's evolution. Because embedded in the promotion's new fighter conduct policy, a copy of which Yahoo! Sports published Tuesday, is essentially the future of the company.
It was only 11 months ago when White suggested a code of conduct was entirely unnecessary for the UFC. Instances of fighters running afoul of the law, or expressing offensive words in public, especially on powerful social media platforms, were best handled by him -- as he saw fit.
“We're dealing with human beings and I don't even know how you could” enforce a conduct policy, an incredulous White explained to reporters in May 2012.
"You take it case by case and you deal with it as it should be dealt with."
That thinking was problematic.
Fighters remained unclear on what was right and what was wrong, and because we’re talking human beings, dumb, sometimes illegal stuff is bound to happen. As public figures associated with the UFC, lasting damage to the brand wasn’t such a stretch. (The Culinary Union in Las Vegas tweets out almost daily reminders.) It only confused matters when discipline was doled out differently for similar offenses -- though if there was a trend it suggested moneymaking stars rarely suffered the brunt of UFC’s arbitrary brand of justice.
Rightly so, media, fans and even fighters protested.
To its credit, Zuffa listened.
In January, UFC announced incoming (r)evolutionary conduct standards, similar to those enacted by major sports leagues, which would clearly define the difference between what was cool, what wasn't, and how the bad stuff would be dealt with.
UFC's legal head honcho, Lawrence Epstein, echoing White, suggested the policy would aim to discourage much of the nonsense the promotion coped with from fighters over the years, though it wouldn't go so far as to police their opinions.
"Some people believe in God," White said at the time. "I don't, and I've been public that I don't. Everybody is going to have their own opinions. If I got crucified and beat down because I don't think there's a god, c'mon man. This is America and everyone is going to have their own opinions."
We have the right to express opinions about our government without repercussion. Not so when it comes to private business, gender, ethnicity, religion, or who’s best to sleep with. That's not how the world works, especially when television networks and sponsors and corporate money are involved. With this version of UFC immersed in all of that, the ability to adjudicate case by case just wasn't an option anymore.
Opinions can be witless, which is fine. But swirl witless with mean spirited and you get what Matt Mitrione was putting down about transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox this week during an online radio appearance with MMAFighting.com.
Which is why despite saying speech wouldn’t be policed, when “Meathead" Mitrione opened his mouth and spewed what he did, UFC had no choice. At a minimum, UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told Yahoo!, “it warrants review” under the newly minted conduct policy. Sounds fair. Same goes for any act that makes UFC look bad.
There’s a long list. One that includes playing bumper cars on the freeway in a monster truck. Or assaulting someone in a parking lot. Or driving under the influence and crashing into a light pole at the break of dawn. Or getting entangled with performance-enhancing drugs. Just about anything you can imagine.
Where there wasn’t a framework for dealing with these episodes, including well-defined disciplinary and appeals processes, there is now. This represents another essential evolution of the UFC -- and by inherent extension mixed martial arts as a whole.
Raising the bar had to happen. It was overdue. So, like it did with rounds and weight classes, mixed martial arts’ top promotion did what was required.
Year after year, White says his vision is rooted in pushing UFC forward. Consider the conduct policy another major hurdle cleared on the path to UFC’s emergence as a global sports property. For that, White and Fertitta and their team in Las Vegas, Canada, Europe, Asia and Brazil should be praised.
How long will depend on how well UFC lives up to the document it drew up.