Well, this is awkward. Weeks after noted cutman Stitch Duran was fired from his position with the UFC (shortly after speaking to Bloody Elbow about losses incurred by him and others in his field under the UFC's new Reebok deal), UFC exec Lawrence Epstein is now issuing a full denial as to just why Duran was let go from the company.
Shortly after his firing, Duran told Bloody Elbow explicitly that the UFC had made it clear to him that his dismissal was directly tied to his negative comments about Reebok. "I got a call and basically was told that they - and they didn't throw names out - but they don't want you to work any more UFC shows based on the article regarding the Reebok deal."
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And since those comments were made, that's been more or less the official story on it. UFC commentator Joe Rogan reiterated the story on a recent episode of his podcast: "So, anytime someone like Stitch gets fired because he said something about, 'Hey, this deal kinda sucks for me because I'm not making as much money,' they fire him."
Dana White didn't contradict that narrative when asked why he didn't personally handle Duran's dismissal, instead claiming that if he and Duran had been real friends, Duran would have come to him with his complaints, rather than airing them publicly.
Even Reebok representative Michael Lunardelli didn't offer any contradictions to the idea that Duran was fired over his comments about the sponsorship deal, when asked about the situation on the MMA Hour:
"I actually talked to Stitch before anyone in my own organization....I did. I just called him man to man. I got his phone number and dialed him up myself. I was on the road and just said, 'I'm going to call him and talk to him, see what's going on'. We had a great talk. We talked for about 40 minutes or so. It was man to man, just between him and I. It was a good discussion. It was great, I wish none of this happened, but it did and again, it's not something that's in our control.
"I had a very brief conversation with [UFC President] Dana [White]. Dana was great about it as he always is. He's like, 'That's not for you guys to worry about. That's between us. You guys shouldn't be taking any heat for that. Basically, that's our situation with our cutman. We're handling that'. That's basically what he said. That was it. You gotta find your place here. There's a place where you can speak up about things, and there's a place where you can't. We're focused on what our job is."
All of which makes Lawrence Epstein's recent comments about Duran's firing to the International Business Times seem like an especially dramatic shift from a story that had been pretty well accepted and spoken to by all parties involved:
"Unequivocally, his comments had nothing to do with him getting let go. I can't be more firm on that. There are a variety of reasons that he was let go, but nothing to do with his comments on Reebok," Epstein said. "He's trying to paint this thing as, he said some stuff about Reebok and as a result, he was let go. It's just not true. That's not the reason why he was let go. I can't be more clear on that."
Epstein's comments came as part of a larger story on the influence of sponsorship money in low paying sports, a landscape where the UFC is currently front and center alongside USA men's track and field.
With the general narrative on Duran as well established as it seemingly had been, Epstein may find himself having to be a lot more clear as to just why Duran was let go if he wants to downplay criticism of the UFC's partnership with Reebok. Especially since right now he seems to be the only one taking this stance. Bloody Elbow has reached out to the UFC for elaboration on his comments, but has yet to hear back at the time of publishing.
UPDATE: The UFC has responded to Bloody Elbow's request for clarification on Epstein's comments with the following statement:
"Jacob ‘Stitch' Duran has not been banned from UFC and he is free to corner any athlete if they choose to pay for his services. We want to provide other cutmen the opportunity to work UFC events. UFC certainly respects Duran's experience and accomplishments as a cutman, and wishes him the best. We will not comment about the other reasons that lead to the ending of his independent contractor agreement with UFC, other than to say it had nothing to do with his comments about Reebok."