On Saturday night at the UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas, NV, fans were given an opportunity to listen in on the corner audio for one of the night’s undercard bouts, between women flyweights Andrea Lee and Viviane Araujo. What they got wasn’t any quality technical insight into the process of fighting, but instead a bigoted rant from the mouth of Lee’s coach, Tony Kelley, directed at her Brazilian opponent.
“That’s what they’re gonna do, they’re dirty f-cking Brazilians,” Kelley told Lee in response to a complaint she made over an alleged foul. “They’re gonna f-cking cheat like that. Guess what? We came to f-ck somebody up.”
Neither the UFC nor ESPN are yet to comment on Kelley’s remarks, despite the fact that Kelley is also contracted with the promotion as a fighter in the bantamweight division. That’s not a particular surprise.
In the past, UFC president Dana White has shrugged off other offensive tirades—like when Contenders Series fighter Oron Kahlon called his opponent Javid Basharat a “terrorist” during weigh-ins for their fight—by reminding fans that MMA is not a “nice sport.”
“I say it all the time. This is not a nice sport,” White told media after that incident. “This is a very rough sport. We say a lot of mean things to each other, and justice gets severed at the end of the day. Listen, when you have a situation like that, the best way to solve the problem is you fight.”
That’s an obvious copout. There are plenty of other rough sports, such as hockey, where racist comments get dealt with by more than shoulder shrugs and a dismissive wave of the hand.
The UFC’s refusal to do more than pay lip service to comments like Kelley’s—or Cody Durden’s in-cage rant where he said he had to send his UFC Vegas 43 opponent “back to China where he came from”—suggest that the promotion is far too comfortable with casual bigotry. With a fighter like Colby Covington claiming that his post-fight rant about “filthy” Brazilians after his bout against Demian Maia saved his job with the company, it’s not hard to argue that the UFC possibly even condones and encourages this type of behavior.
But, in a world where perception is often treated the same as reality, their ‘nothing is too far’ mindset might also be the reason the UFC always seems to be chasing partnership and sponsorship deals with companies that aren’t considered blue-chip brands.
It’s already been a bone of contention in the past. In 2012, Anheuser-Busch warned the UFC about some comments UFC fighters had made around that time.
“We’ve communicated to the UFC our displeasure with certain remarks made by some of its fighters, and they have promised to address this. If the incidents continue, we will act,” Anheuser-Busch said, before adding that it “embraces diversity and does not condone insensitive and derogatory comments rooted in ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, etc.”
It only seems reasonably that many other major corporations continue to hold on to that type of thinking.
While Kelley was ranting about “dirty f-cking Brazilians” the Crypto.com logo was right there next to him. They say there’s no such thing as bad press, but it’s not difficult to imagine that plenty of major potential sponsors wouldn’t feel that the cost of getting their logo in the Octagon was worth the risk of association.
While the UFC likes to portray itself as some kind of rebel outfit, those days are mostly long gone. The promotion is worth billions of dollars, and has become a weekly cornerstone for ESPN—especially on their ESPN+ streaming service. The UFC of today is, in many regards, as corporate as they come, complete with Endeavor stockholders looking for maximum return on their investment. One of the easiest ways they could likely deliver on that is to clean up their act. After all, it’s already a clear part of the promotion’s “Code of Conduct.”
That document (which the UFC seemed to have misplaced almost as soon as it was published in 2013) gives the company clear power to discipline their contracted talent for..
Derogatory or offensive conduct, including without limitation insulting language, symbols, or actions about a person’s ethnic background, heritage, color, race, national origin, age, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.
All the UFC needs to do is blow the dust off and enforce the thing.
The UFC has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, and I don’t doubt that that trend will continue. But if it doesn’t take the simple step of living up to its own code of conduct, it could also be leaving a lot of opportunities on the table.
That self-imposed limited growth might have been acceptable when the promotion was owned by the Fertitta brothers, but today, with corporate ownership expecting constant massive returns, the UFC stifling seems like it could be a lot more unacceptable.
Instead of stubbornly sticking to its guns, the UFC needs to look forward and see its best interest would be served by acting when one of its fighters steps so clearly out of line. After all, they’ve already made it clear with their recent flag ban that they’re perfectly fine stifling ‘free speech’ when they feel the need.
Bloody Elbow reached out to UFC, ESPN and Crypto.com for comment on what Kelley said during the UFC Vegas 54 broadcast. We did not receive a reply from any of the three prior to publication.