"Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists." - Norman Mailer, Esquire, June 1960
The release of the Star-Ledger's big feature piece on brain injuries in MMA was met with a bit of a mixed reaction. Some felt it covered ground that needed to be covered, others felt that the conclusion that participation in MMA comes with risk of brain injuries was a bit obvious.
There was also a bit of controversy in the wake of the article. Instead of the expected concerns over the article's conclusion, much was made of the idea that the newspaper itself had committed several journalistic sins in the pursuit of a sensational story.
New Jersey area fighter George Sullivan was one of the featured individuals in the piece. His harrowing battle to cut weight opened the article and his inability to remember his room number after the toughest win of his career closed it out. He's the perfect embodiment of the fighter struggling on the fringes of the big time. He's good enough to constantly be a phone call away from the UFC, but fighting for what amounts to peanuts on the regional scene while taking extreme risks to cut weight and get punched in the head.
He's also a big personality, willing to talk and with a backstory perfect to be the human interest star of a feature piece.
"My name is Robert Hinckley and I am legal counsel for George Sullivan. As you may be aware, The Star Ledger recently published an article focusing on the MMA community in New Jersey. Of particular focus in the article was my client, Mr. Sullivan. In speaking to Mr. Sullivan, he is understandably upset regarding how he was portrayed and is adamant that several factual mistakes were made in the article." - Letter to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board
That paragraph opened a letter sent to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) days after the release of the article.
The three-page letter (which can be read in full here) details a laundry list of issues Sullivan has with the Star-Ledger piece. He sees the article as an attempt to paint the sport in a negative light, accuses author Matthew Stanmyre of everything from misrepresenting his intentions to flat out fabrications.
Sullivan says that the amount of weight he cut, featured in the dramatic open to the feature, was overstated. The stories about him taking two dozen blows to the head (and another twenty to the body) twice a week in sparring were also incorrect, he only spars once a week and doesn't take that many shots.
And the wall...
"During one savage sparring session with a bigger fighter, Sullivan says, his head was rammed through the drywall at Kurt Pellegrino's Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Belmar, the gym where he now does most of his training. Later that day, Sullivan says, a friend found him wandering through Target with deodorant in his hands.
'I don't even remember it,' Sullivan says. 'I was brain dead.'" - From the Star-Ledger feature by Matt Stanmyre
This story of Sullivan being put head-first through a wall in training has taken on a strange, shifting significance in the wake of the story.
In his November 13 letter to the NJSACB, Sullivan said he was joking when he told Stanmyre the story of being put through the wall and that it was actually his partner's shoulder which broke through the drywall during a sparring session. In speaking with Bloody Elbow's Stephanie Daniels on Thursday, Sullivan said "They focused on one night where we were horsing around in a mat zone we weren’t supposed to be in, and ended up going through a wall. It was taken out of context, and it wasn’t anything serious or concerning. He wasn’t even there for it, but he focused so much of that article around an incident that wasn’t even a real part of training."
Daniels also talked about the incident on Thursday with Kurt Pellegrino, who described the incident as "George and Liam McGreary were doing wrestling drill or maybe it was light sparring. Anyway, in my gym, there are zones for sparring, and those zones have wall mats that go up the wall to cover the sheetrock. That’s specifically my rule. They were over in a zone (Mat 3) where there weren’t any wall mats. They were drilling a shot, and forgot where they were and ended up going through the wall."
"Things were twisted and rearranged, some things were even reworded. Some of the things Matt did in this article are just terrible. I honestly can’t believe it. I’d hate to be his pillow, and have to have that guy rest his head on it every night. It must be an awful thing for his pillow." - Kurt Pellegrino speaking with Bloody Elbow.
Pellegrino is not happy with the article. Sullivan is one of his top fighters, and he feels he was made to look like a fool.
But he also feels they were sold on participating in the article under false pretenses as he told Daniels for Bloody Elbow, "They came in and basically said, ‘We’re trying to help legalize MMA in NY.’ That’s what Matt (Stanmyre) said. They wanted to come in my gym and follow around one of my guys. I was just trying to help out and do whatever I could for the sport that I love."
Pellegrino continued, "When they came in, we talked about fighting, and what it’s like to be a fighter, both the highs and the lows. They said they were going to do a six month documentary, and wanted it to be on my gym, how they loved us here; ‘We love you guys and your gym. We love George. We’re basically going to follow George and tell his story.’"
To Pellegrino, it was taking advantage of a young fighter who wanted to help and wanted the attention that came with being a part of a feature article, attention that could have helped advance Sullivan's career, "George is a great fighter and one of the Top 170 pounders outside of the UFC, but he’s never had this kind of coverage. He’s never been in the limelight like this. He wanted to give them a great feature and he wanted to help push MMA forward, because again, we were under the impression this was an effort to get MMA legalized in NY."
The idea of being sold on a different story was something that came up with multiple sources. Some claimed they were told it was a story about New Jersey's place as the first state to regulate mixed martial arts fully. Others said they were sold on the idea of a feature that would help get the sport legalized in New York. Charlie Brenneman's manager said that they were sold on the idea in late 2012/early 2013 of participating based on an article about Charlie's life after having been released from the UFC.
For these people, the idea that the story became something about the lows of the sport was a shock.
To Star-Ledger editor-in-chief Kevin Whitmer there was no misleading of fighters, as he explained to Bloody Elbow. He stressed that if someone was contacted in late 2012, the story wasn't yet in place and certainly would have evolved as the work was put in.
"If we'd done these things why haven't we gotten calls from anyone? Why has no one called into the editorial desk to voice these concerns?" - Star-Ledger editor-in-chief Kevin Whitmer, speaking to Bloody Elbow.
The Star-Ledger is New Jersey's biggest newspaper. But not only is it widely read, it is a paper of influence. "It's the politician's paper, the one all the politicians read" one source explained.
The sudden flurry of personalities from the story stating they were misled or misrepresented hasn't caused the paper to back off their story in any way.
So far, the "MMA" community isn’t doing nearly enough. That much is clear from Star-Ledger sports writer Matthew Stanmyre’s disturbing special report on this rising blood sport, published Sunday. In stark detail, it captured the dangerous practices of fighters, such as extreme weight cutting to prepare for bouts, and the failure of anyone involved to properly monitor for serious brain injuries.
These are unnecessary risks, and fighters deserve better policies to protect themselves. Even in New Jersey, which has one of the strictest sanctioning bodies in the nation, oversight for MMA is lax. Professional fighters are required to submit brain scans only once every three years, which is not sufficient to catch the early warning signs of brain damage, medical experts say. And amateur fights for beginners can be just as dangerous as pro bouts.
In a phone conversation with Bloody Elbow, Star-Ledger editor-in-chief Kevin Whitmer said he wanted to go "point-by-point on Sullivan's letter to the NJSACB:
On the weight cut, we have two people who stood at every weight with him for two days. We have him calling out the weights on the scales. We were with him in the sauna with photo and video as he goes down pound by pound, ounce by ounce. Calling out his weight to the tenth of the pound. And all those weights and the time stamps on everything was documented in Stanmyre's notes. And Mills was there with photo and video.
Two, the description of the sparring sessions being misrepresented. We have dates with an interview on June 12, with Sullivan. We have the transcript of the quotes when he talks about his head going through the wall, we have him talking about wandering around Target, we have a lot of profanity that was cut out of the transcript. And, six days later, we have an interview with his fiance repeating the story about his head going through the wall and him being punch drunk. All of that is in the transcript.
Subsequent to that, Sullivan took Stanmyre to the spot in Pelligrino's gym with the drywall and showed him the hole in the wall.
Next point, it's not accurate to say sparring sessions with twenty or more shots to the head and body are common and I only spar once a week. We have photos and video of him sparring twice a week in August. And we kept a log -- kind of like fight stats -- on what he was taking in the sparring sessions we watched. Matt has all of this logged.
The big point, I think, in all of this. He says that Wulkan gave him a full neurological exam. We have hundreds of frames of photos, we have Sullivan on video tape two days after the fight being if his head was checked and he does not hesitate and is adamant that only his hand was checked. And that entire interview is on video and now he's changing that story.
Going back to him not remembering his room number. The photographer and reporter both walked out of the ring from a post-fight medical exam back to his room and went into the room with him. They'll tell you what happened as he was leaning against the wall, they'll tell you what happened after he was back to his room and they'll tell you what happened in the elevator.
So, going back to this..safe to say, we were surprised with the claims he made in his letter, Brent. Knowing what's in our notebook, what's on photo, and what we have in video.
"I hope the Ledger realizes they just ruined any chance they ever had of doing anything else in the MMA community." - George Sullivan, speaking with Bloody Elbow
Any claim that this is an easy story to figure out is foolish.
Among a variety of sources, there were theories of what happened. They ranged from an anti-MMA agenda at the Star-Ledger to the UFC and/or NJSACP pressuring the fighters to say they were misrepresented in an effort to make the sport look better.
The truth is likely nowhere close to either extreme. The Star-Ledger stands firmly behind their story. Speaking to multiple people at the paper, they insist that tapes, notes, video and photos were all reviewed in the wake of Sullivan's letter and that the reporting was solid with no one having been misled or misrepresented.
Sullivan tells Bloody Elbow that he's speaking out on the alleged offenses to clear his name and the name of the sport he loves, "I just want people to know that I would never hurt this sport. This is my life, and it’s been the life for many others. For me to think that I was helping, only to find out that it was twisted into something to take shots at MMA, well, that broke my heart. It made the athletic commission look like something they’re not. They are actually amazing. I’m just wanting to clear my name and the sport of this mess."
Pellegrino similarly feels as though his sport and his student were disrespected, "I want to apologize to Dana White and the UFC for this reporter taking advantage of one of my fighters and making the sport look bad. That feature tried to make him look like a white trash, brain dead idiot. George is nothing like that. He’s a very intelligent guy. He holds down a full time job, one he’s had longer than most of the guys in my gym have even been training. That guy is Mr. America next to me. What they did to George was disgraceful."
The sides have hunkered down. The paper believes the journalism was done right, the subjects say it wasn't.
Maybe Mailer had it right...