Now that he is no longer attached to ESPN and doesn’t have to worry about its business relationship with the UFC, Ariel Helwani feels very comfortable talking about his time with “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.”
During an appearance on Monday’s edition of “The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz,” the MMA journalist spoke at length about his time at ESPN and his rather rocky relationship with Dana White. The UFC president has never been Helwani’s biggest fan, most notably kicking him out of UFC 199 and banning him from all future events after Helwani accurately reported about Brock Lesnar’s UFC return. (The ban was later lifted.)
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That incident occurred in 2016 while Helwani worked for MMAFighting.com, but White didn’t warm up to him after he joined ESPN in 2018. Earlier this year, White called Helwani “a douche” in response to Helwani’s criticism of former MMA fighter Gina Carano, who had received intense backlash for controversial social media posts comparing the current political climate to Nazi Germany.
Helwani’s three-year contract with ESPN expired in June, and he decided to pursue other opportunities with Vox Media, Spotify, Substack and BT Sport. But Le Batard wanted to know if it was truly Helwani’s decision to leave ESPN, or if White played a role in his exit — not completely inconceivable considering ESPN and the UFC agreed to a five-year, $1.5 billion deal in 2018 that gave ESPN the company’s entire rights package.
His full response:
“So, I can’t answer that question with yes or no, but I will explain it like this. From the moment it was made public that I was joining ESPN — unbeknownst to me on my life, on my kid’s life — I didn’t know when I was hired by ESPN, I didn’t know that they were in talks with the UFC. I had no idea. At the time, they really had, like, one MMA guy on the staff. I thought, ‘All right, the sport is growing, Conor McGregor, they want to beef up the coverage.’ I had no idea about the other stuff. And then if you recall — and you can go back and look — initially they signed them to a 10-card deal, ESPN+ only. And then I was like, ‘All right, they’re not the sole, exclusive broadcast partner. I can live with that.’ And then it became the whole freaking thing, and then I started to get nervous. So from the moment it was made public in mid-May that I was going to ESPN and, at that time, it had already been out that they had signed this deal with ESPN, the UFC did, Dana White tried to get me not even to make it to my first day. I mean, he raised hell to try to stop me — my first day was June 15 — tried to stop me [from getting to] the first day. Now, to the credit of a lot of the executives there, they all said no. They all had my back. They gave me shows. They gave me opportunities. But, for the next three years, it was one roadblock after the next. It was one issue after the next. It was all kinds of stuff.
“I’ll tell you a story. I’ve never even shared this story. When I would be at events, Dan and everyone — and let’s say it’s the weigh-ins, right? — and there’s a desk there and I’m doing something beforehand, but Dana White is coming as a guest in 30 minutes or something. I would have to be escorted out of the venue because, per his request, I couldn’t be in his vicinity or his line of sight. So here I am, on the set of a company that I work for, and security, the nicest people in the world who are embarrassed that they had to do this, would tell me, ‘I’m sorry, Ariel. We have to walk you out.’ You know how that makes someone feel? ‘We have to walk you out of the venue because Dana White doesn’t want you in his line of sight.’ I said, ‘I’ll sit right over there. I won’t even look at him. I’ll look at my phone. What are we doing here?’ So that’s the kind of stuff that I had to deal with. I couldn’t go backstage. I couldn’t do a lot of other stuff.”
While Helwani has no “ill will” toward anyone at ESPN, he did admit that he was “disappointed” by the offer he received after his previous contract expired.
“For the record, they did give me an offer, and it was an offer that I think a lot of people covering MMA would be thrilled with,” Helwani said. “At the end of the day, there was an offer that I had to turn down. They could have easily said, ‘Thanks for your time. Let’s just go our separate ways.’ But they did give me an offer. It was not an offer that I felt was fair or that was what I was looking for or even reflective of the work that I had done for the past three years. I was 100 percent disappointed by the offer. It was not what I was expecting.”
The 39-year-old added that he never expected to only work three years for ESPN, but he feels everything “kind of worked out.” Helwani is now more “free” and “independent” as an MMA reporter.
“[White] probably thinks he ran me out,” Helwani said. “He’s probably — in fact, I know he’s celebrating that I’m not there anymore, but I would argue that he did me a massive favor as a result of all of his complaints over the past three years.”
You can watch Le Batard’s full interview with Helwani below.