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Matt Mitrione's two-week suspension raises questions about UFC's punishment

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The announcement on Wednesday night that Matt Mitrione would be fighting Brendan Schaub in a heavyweight battle on July 27 in Seattle, Wash., took most people who closely follow the sport by surprise.

It was only 16 days earlier when the UFC had announced Mitrione was indefinitely suspended due to remarks made on the April 8 edition of The MMA Hour, when calling transgender fighter Fallon Fox, "a lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak."

"She's not a he, he's a he," said Mitrione about Fox, in the interview with Ariel Helwani. "He's chromosomally a man. He had a gender change not a sex change. He's still a man. He was a man for 31 years. 31 years. That's a couple of years younger than I am. He's a man. Six years of taking performance de-hancing drugs, you think is going to change all that. That's ridiculous?"

The UFC reacted swiftly to Mitrione's remarks. It announced the suspension before any real controversy had brewed past the point of early rumblings. But it was a hot button issue, that has had many in the industry walking on egg shells, fearing a backlash if they said the wrong thing. In the case of the UFC, it has strongly courted the gay and lesbian media, and were on strong terms with them because of the company's positive portrayal of Liz Carmouche as the first openly gay fighter in company history back in February.

Letting these comments go without any company reaction would not only give more ammunition to the company's political enemies, but also undo work they had done with organizations who they were friendly with. Only a few hours after the show aired, the UFC issued a statement.

"The organization finds Mr. Mitrione's comments offensive and wholly unacceptable and--as a direct result of this significant breach of the UFC's code of conduct--Mr. Mitrione's UFC contract has been suspended and the incident is being investigated."

But in hindsight, it wasn't quite a suspension. Not only did Mitrione not miss a scheduled fight, but his turnaround time between his 19-second knockout win on April 6 over Philip DeFries in Stockholm, Sweden, and his fight with Schaub, 16 weeks, would be the shortest of his career. It's also less than the usual time between fights of most in the UFC.

UFC President Dana White on Thursday defended the disciplinary action by stating the real discipline was a large fine, although he would not say how much he was fined.

"We fined him," said White. "A lot. Enough to make him call me 40 times and ask me not to fine him that much."

But why announce a suspension when his next fight would be announced so quickly afterwards?

Apparently the suspension was simply to give the company enough time to investigate what happened. Once the investigation ended, the decision was made to levy the fine, but not keep the suspension.

However, the company never said anything about the suspension being lifted until after the announcement the match with Schaub.

And it's not like Mitrione vs. Schaub is any kind of a major fight that the public clamored for. It has its story, two heavyweights who have good power, who both came from NFL backgrounds although Schaub never got past training camp and Mitrione was only a marginal player. And both started their UFC careers together as housemates on season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter reality show in late 2009.

The fight is slated for prelims on FX that will take place before the next FOX network show. Mitrione (6-2), is a 34-year-old heavyweight who moves well for a big guy and has improved greatly in recent years. But he's likely to never to be top level fighter because he started his career at an older age, with no background in striking or wrestling.

All promotions are going to bend over backwards if there's a money fight at stake or it involves a major star, but this qualifies as neither.

"In other sports, a suspension means you lose games," said White. "He's not fighting right now anyway, so he's on suspension. We didn't suspend him for three fights, two fights. He was fined and he was put on suspension. (The) suspension meant we're going to look into this thing and we're going to talk with him, because when these kinds of things happen... how this works is my twitter starts blowing up. `Did you hear what he said?' 'Did you hear what happened?' That's normally how this happens. I don't normally hear, I don't normally watch everything that goes on." He said in this case the public relations people came to him and explained what had happened.

"I got to get the whole crew together, look at what was said and put together a game plan on what we're gonna do," said White.

Other UFC officials said that a media release would be forthcoming to further explain the situation.

White said Mitrione said something stupid and has since apologized for it, although the apology was private.
"If I make him do it (publicly), it's not real," said White. "Then he's not really apologizing."

Others in UFC explained the situation saying he was already fined, but if they kept him away from fighting, it would be the equivalent of being fined twice, and that Mitrione had been contrite.

White wasn't happy with Mitrione's remarks, but had some sympathy, given he once made remarks in a tirade that included homophobic slurs, which got him in significant hot water, and he immediately apologized and has never used those slurs publicly since.

"We're all going to make mistakes," said White. "But how are you going to handle yourself after you make a mistake?

"He did apologize," said White. "If that's his opinion on the situation, he doesn't like that someone who used to be a man, who is now a woman, can fight other women. I don't disagree with him. It's different if you're a runner, pole vaulter, or a swimmer. This is a contact sport. I'll leave it to the athletic commissions, doctors, scientists. But the bone structure is different, hands are bigger, jaw is bigger. I don't believe a man who used to be a woman should be able to fight a woman."

The issue here isn't whether the punishment isn't significant enough for the crime, so to speak. The UFC has had in the past, and probably always will, have athletes, who when doing interviews on controversial subjects or getting rolling in promoting fights, who will say things that may offend someone.

If Mitrione is apologetic, the way UFC handles this should be more about sending a message to its athletes that anything that comes across as hate speech, or being bigoted, will not be tolerated.

The question is whether an announced suspension that disappears quickly, an apology that nobody hears and a fine that's unannounced serves that purpose. This isn't about throwing the book at Mitrione, if he truly feels bad, or about the fine or the suspension.

If the fine money is used as a donation to a cause fighting hate crimes, and he publicly, by his actions, makes it clear he not only regrets what he says but chooses to make amends for it, that's a lot more significant than if his next fight is in July instead of a few months later.

But at this point, too many people are only going to see it as UFC announced a suspension for an athlete, and not only isn't he missing any games, but he's back on the field faster than usual.