Poor Dave Sholler. What started as a prime gig for the UFC's director of publicity, running the UFC 178 media day at the MGM Grand while president Dana White enjoyed a rare vacation, ended in chaos with the set in ruins, Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones scrambling on the ground and even a single shoe flying through the air.
There's a lot to digest here. It was a moment that was bad for the sport yet good for business, one likely to enrage critics and galvanize interest in equal measure.
But first, before Cormier walked away with a single shoe, before Jones cut an Instagram video (since removed) proclaiming his challenger was "weak" and before the UFC prepared its Las Vegas offices for what will certainly be a fleet of Brink's trucks filled with cash, there was Sholler's moment of heroism.
On one side was Cormier. Olympian. Citizen. Gifted in the fistic arts. Fast approaching on the other side was Jones, the world light heavyweight champion, hate in his eyes and violence in his heart.
Sholler was not the target. But collateral damage is damage just the same. Sholler had a job to do—keep the two combatants separated at all costs. And so he stepped into the fray. It was as brave as it was fruitless. He ended up on his backside, dispatched with a two-handed shove, almost courteously, as Jones stalked.
It started gently, with Jones pressing his head down on Cormier's as the two faced off, a photo you've seen a million times before and will see a million times going forward. It was almost intimate, devoid of context. But for Cormier, the physical contact was too much. He responded with a shove to the face. Jones responded with a left hand.
And then the bodies hit the floor.
Jeremy Botter, live on the scene for Bleacher Report, sent this report:
When the brawl started, the crowd started screaming even louder than they were during the faceoff, which was already intense for Poirier and McGregor. When Jones rushed Cormier and they went off the riser, several of us jumped up to get a better view of what was happening. I saw the UFC's head of security holding Cormier back while Cormier tried to upkick Jones in the face.
While we were standing on the stage, a bunch of fans came over the barricade behind us and rushed up on the stage. MGM security was screaming at everyone to get off the stage. At this point, I moved off and went over to the side of the stage, and they got everyone under control. The fans were moved back outside the barricade. None of them were hurt, but it could have been so much worse.
It was a crazy thing to be a part of. These press conferences are usually routine, but this was anything but, obviously.
This kind of tomfoolery can have a powerful impact on a fight's promotion. For boxers Dereck Chisora and David Haye, a press-conference brawl ended in unprecedented business, the two packing 30,000 fans into a British soccer stadium. For Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, a brawl led to astounding box-office success, a then-record $54.95 spectacle that sold almost two million homes on watching the two heavyweights slug it out.
But that kind of violence can also backfire spectacularly. Jason "Mayhem" Miller attempted to use in-cage chaos to promote a potential rematch with Strikeforce champion Jake Shields. Instead, an impromptu brawl helped CBS make the decision to drop MMA from the network altogether. Miller never got his rematch. Strikeforce lost an important revenue stream.
The UFC, of course, is in no danger of being cancelled anytime soon. There's little doubt, in fact, that this incident will do anything but boost UFC 178 into the stratosphere, likely making the promotion's top fight of 2014. But it's worth noting that the infamous brawl between Miller and Shields' team was just four years ago. MMA is still very much establishing its reputation in the broader mainstream community. Could it be that the short-term gain of a single event's success isn't worth the long-term damage to the sport's reputation?
For years, proponents of the sport have tried to explain to critics and potential converts what makes it so beautiful, why it's more than just a glorified street fight. The athletes are among the most cerebral in any sport, combining diverse techniques with lightning speed, matching wits, guts and tactics in the most thrilling mano-a-mano confrontations in all of athletics.
Cormier and Jones, in particular, are both kinetic geniuses, two of the most thoughtful and gifted in all of professional sports. These are no mere bar brawlers. I hope someone reminds them of that before they embarrass themselves even further.
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