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Many lessons to be learned from the Jon Fitch crisis

Jon Fitch is back in the UFC after a 24-hour window of free agency and my faith in the sport is restored. That’s correct, I had lost a little faith in MMA after watching a fighter with an 8-1 record inside the Octagon get cut.

I lost a little faith watching a guy disposed of like a piece of trash even though he had been nothing but a professional during his Zuffa tenure.

I lost a little faith seeing a hundred-million dollar company take out their anger towards the American Kickboxing Academy and Zinkin Entertainment on poor old Jon Fitch.

Sports is a business and MMA is no different than professional baseball, football, or basketball. However, the unfortunate situation involving Fitch being let go from the UFC for reasons unrelated to competition served only to momentarily compromise the integrity of sport.

The Fitch firing never should have happened, but it did. The dismissal was too public to take back but given the circumstances, the best scenario as far as a remedy has now transpired. Fitch is back where he belongs and cooler heads have prevailed with both sides talking again in hopes of averting a further crisis.

Despite the situation being worked out, some fans are not happy and I’ve come across e-mails and forum messages blasting Fitch for allegedly comprising his principles. I have a simple response to that line of thought, which is: Are you kidding me?

Let’s remember, the reason why so many fans were upset in the first place was because there wasn’t a strong secondary option for Fitch. What made the cut hurt was that a fighter of Fitch’s caliber wouldn’t be able to continue on a stage that could rival the one that the UFC provides. The uproar over the situation wasn’t about Fitch leaving the UFC; it was about him no longer being in it. So now he’s back and we should all feel a sense of relief.

If there was a strong competitor to the UFC, then Fitch wouldn’t have been released in the first place. If this situation hadn’t been resolved in this manner, Fitch would have continued fighting but would have done so in front of less people and for less money. Fitch didn’t deserve such a fate. This isn’t a Randy Couture or Tito Ortiz situation; are people not forgetting that Fitch didn’t want to leave the UFC in the first place? Fitch was angry but he was angry about no longer being in the UFC. Do people not realize he had the rug pulled out from underneath him? Leaving the UFC was the last thing he wanted so cut the guy a break.

And before anyone suggests Fitch compromised his integrity by rejoining an organization that treated him so poorly, please bear in mind that we do not know what terms he is returning under. For all we know, Fitch may have received financial remuneration in exchange for cooperating with the UFC in order to help make all of the bad press go away. And the licensing deal he initially didn’t want to sign that he has now signed? How do we know that what he supposedly signed yesterday was the original deal he had been offered?

Sadly, we’ll likely never know the true terms that Fitch is returning under. If the UFC made it worth Fitch’s while to take them back, it’s more than likely that all parties have been sworn to secrecy as not to give other agents and managers future leverage.

Fitch is playing ball now and in doing so, he’s supporting the UFC like he always has by allowing this patch of horrible PR to be viewed from a rear view mirror. But while this situation is in the past, the fact that it never should have happened in the first place cannot be overlooked. While the UFC’s frustration in working with AKA and Zinkin had been building for months, the decision to cut Fitch came off like a knee-jerk reaction.

While listening and reading some of UFC president Dana White’s emotionally charged diatribes, I did not get the feeling that what was taking place was calculated. It was madness without any sort of method and that is unacceptable from a company with a market cap as big as the UFC’s. And don’t tell me how other companies in MMA have acted unprofessionally in the past because the UFC has always strived for something better.

White’s tirades coupled with the news that Fitch worked out his UFC issues with Zuffa CEO Lorenzo Fertitta instead of White has prompted many to speculate that Dana was solely responsible for the situation. There’s a theory that Fertitta performed damage control yesterday and cleaned up Dana’s mess. While that may be the case, I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think a company makes a politically charged decision such as cutting an 8-1 fighter over a management dispute without consulting its majority ownership.

But perhaps I’m not the one who is naive. To suggest that Ferttita had no advanced warning of Fitch’s impending release is a suggestion that defies logic. He had to have known. I don’t buy this notion that White is the sole power broker in the UFC, as my theory has been for quite some time that White is nothing more than attack dog. Dana does all the neccessary dirty work while the Fertittas continue to come off smelling like roses so they can walk the streets of Vegas with their heads held high. If true, it’s an effective strategy and a strategy that must be considered as a possibility when trying to crucify White for what transpired this week. Zuffa utilzied the good cop/bad cop dynamic with Fertitta and White while trying to negotiate the PRIDE buyout so it wouldn’t surprise me if this was yet again the case. To only hold White accountable would be irresponsible.

But I am not making excuses for White. His radio appearance on “The Carmichael Dave Show” earlier this week was not one of his proudest moments. White was angry and stressed out and in no condition to be doing any public speaking. At times, he came across as a man on the verge of losing it. He’s no doubt overworked right now but that’s nobody’s fault but his own.

To hear him complain about the sacrifices he makes on a daily basis with the expectation that his employees should repay him by going along to get along is insulting. Does he not understand that he isn’t the only person in his company making sacrifices? Zuffa is understaffed and everyone in that company that I’ve ever encountered is nothing short of a go-getter. And how can White be so flippant about the sacrifices that a fighter makes on a daily basis? The injuries (short-term and long-term); the toll on a fighter’s personal life brought about by long training camps; weight management and not being able to enjoy food; and the overall lack of security (no health benefits provided by employer, no 401K, no worker’s compensation, etc.) is a lifestyle all successful fighters must endure.

Look, no one has to be a fighter and the life of a fighter is one that individuals choose on their own. But they are making the choice and White has become a multi-millionaire thanks to that choice. White needs to go see a shrink so that he can stop using public forums as a therapy pit because he doesn’t have an exclusivety on hard work and sacrifice. When Dana White travels the world, he does so in a private plan while the rest of us poor schmucks fly coach. Your life isn’t easy Dana but there is no use in venting in public because you’re not going to evoke much sympathy from working class stiffs like us.

In addition to working on stress relief, White also needs to bring in someone to handle talent relations. UFC Vice President Joe Silva has the title, but he is more of a matchmaker and talent scout. When it comes to face-to-face negotiations, it’s White who is at the forefront when it comes to the bigger deals.

From my perspective, a man that is as emotional as White is ill-equipped to handle the role of chief UFC negotiator. The UFC is a business and the daily struggles they encounter are not unique. What is unique is how White oftentimes decides to air his laundry in such a public fashion. Zuffa would be well-advised to dip into the ranks of mainstream sports and find an experienced chief negotiatior that has worked in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or Major League Baseball. These major dustups with the likes of B.J. Penn, Randy Couture, and now Fitch are not helping the sport grow and eventually it could come back to haunt the UFC.

Additionally, the UFC should spend the money to hire Wall Street executives who can tag-team with White in regards to business development. If White learned the art of delegation, he might not actually have to spend so much time away from home and might actually be able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The problem is that it’s a matter of trust. White simply doesn’t trust anyone else to perform many of the tasks he’s performing. But this isn’t 2001 anymore; the UFC has arrived. It’s time to run it like a Fortune 500 company and not a niche business.

But as bad as this situation was, there is one silver lining, which is that Fitch is going to be a bigger star because of this. Sadly, he received more exposure over this debacle than he did when he took Georges St. Pierre to a five round decision in what was one of the gutsiest performances I’ve witnessed from a fighter. Who knew that it would take something such as getting fired to help Fitch finally become a household name?

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