ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, has significantly upgraded their MMA coverage, adding the sport's best reporter, Josh Gross, to their team. Gross has covered the sport of MMA for more than a decade, traveling all over the world to bring fans the stories no one else could, or in some cases were, willing to. First for the beloved Full Contact Fighter and later for Sherdog and Sports Illustrated, Gross fearlessly reported the news of the day, with bylines time stamped from Japan to Mississippi, all in search of MMA excellence.
Gross is one of a handful of reporters on Zuffa's enemies list. He's barred from events and any official media coverage and bringing up his name can elicit profanity from the UFC brass. That wasn't always the case. In fact, Gross was once so respected by UFC President Dana White that he was offered a job running the editorial portion of the official UFC website. How did Gross go from a job offer to a blanket ban? The answer is complicated.
Before entities like ESPN were interested in MMA, news, rumors, and information were carried to a small but loyal group of hardcore fans by independent websites like Sherdog, MMA Weekly, and publications like Full Contact Fighter. It was a true grassroots movement and UFC owner Dana White seemed to appreciate the effort of these groundbreaking reporters and fans. At the UFC 52 press conference White gave a shout out to many of the stalwart few who had followed the UFC through the good times and the bad. Mere months later, things had changed.
The media sites who had walked a long road with the UFC were out, replaced by the corporate media du jour. No one was sure exactly what happened or why. Rumors circulated that Sherdog, MMA's leading website, was banned because of a dispute with the UFC over DVD sales. Of course, that doesn't explain why other media like Weekly and Full Contact Fighter were also banned at the same time.
Others suggested that White didn't appreciate the depth of the site's coverage, considering it a betrayal when competing promotions were given the same number of column inches as the UFC. No one knows for sure and requests for comment have been met with either silence or a cryptic 'You know why they were banned."
One thing we know for sure: Gross and others weren't banned for "spoiling" the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter. That show hadn't even been filmed when credentials from the hardcore MMA sites were pulled. The fallout from that infamous Gross podcast, however, may have permanently colored the relationship between the reporter and the UFC.
Gross's spoiler was the shot heard around the world. MMA fans and media alike debated the propriety of the move, with some suggesting that his revelation of the season four finalists was payback for White revoking his credentials. While Gross wouldn't discuss many of the issues in this story, he was willing to go on the record with an explanation for his TUF spoiler:
Some have said I did so in retaliation because we did not have access. It's easy to appear that way, but in reality I reported the finalists because season 4 wasn't a game show. It had legitimate implications for the sport, with winners being crowned No. 1 contenders in two divisions. I thought that was newsworthy while acknowledging many people may not want to know, so I included it at the end of a podcast after warning listeners to turn down their volume. It was never splashed on the front page of Sherdog.com. Never even mentioned there. But, of course, I can't do anything about controlling the dissemination of news once it's out.
It remains to be seen if Gross will be welcomed back to the UFC now that he's flying the ESPN flag. He was denied credentials repeatedly while representing Sports Illustrated, one of the most respected sports outlets in any medium. Regardless of credentials, he will continue providing a mix of fantastic features and interviews and remain steadfastedly above the politics of the industry, a nice counter to Franklin McNeil's "UFC insider" approach. While McNeil soaks in the "official" UFC, Gross will provide the view from a distance, allowing him the freedom to report on the sport generally. This is a great move for ESPN, a great move for Gross, and whether Dana White recognizes it or not, a great moment for MMA journalism. MMA is a serious sport deserving serious coverage - and today ESPN has confirmed that to the world by hiring the best.
[UPDATE 1:33 p.m. ET] Dana White responds via Twitter:
@BloodyElbow it amazes me this guy gets hired. Scary!!!