NEW YORK -- The glare of the spotlight is getting brighter on both the UFC and its fighters. After years of little scrutiny from the major media or activist organizations, newly earned attention has brought consequences to both the promotion and its athletes.
Just last week, major sponsor Anheuser-Busch issued a statement warning the UFC it would take action against the promotion if it could not halt offensive statements made by its fighters.
The UFC responded with a statement saying they would mandate sensitivity training for its athletes. While that future change is still in the offing, several UFC fighters who spoke with MMA Fighting said that public conduct and language is mainly an issue of common sense, simple respect and personal accountability.
"I can't speak for anyone but myself, but the way I think it should be is to carry yourself with the most professional type of attitude and spirit as possible," said middleweight Alan Belcher, who is facing Rousimar Palhares at Saturday's UFC on FOX 3. "I think that there's a lot of people that look up to all these guys. A lot of kids, obviously. At the same time, we've come a long ways. It's the fighters that helped that. If everyone works together, we can have the kind of image we need to have. Or it can go bad real fast.
"Personally, it makes me mad when I see people acting dumb," he continued. "If you're a jerk, you don't have to show your true side all the time. If it makes you look bad, it makes all of us look bad. I don't want to meet someone in the grocery store and say I'm a UFC fighter, and have one of these other jerks make that bad impression on them before I ever meet them. It makes me look bad, my family, my business, everything."
In Belcher's opinion, it's not necessarily that the sport is dotted by a few jerks here or there, it's that there are simply some fighters trying to gain attention for themselves but going about it the wrong way.
It's a slippery slope, he acknowledged, as fighters try to toe the line of staying in touch with fans and building that base without going too far.
Several issues have played out over social media, including tweets from Miguel Torres and Forrest Griffin, the first of which led to Torres' brief firing before he was brought back. While some fighters like Belcher use Twitter for personal causes -- in his case, he espouses the charitable organization March of Dimes -- heavyweight Pat Barry says there is overwhelming negativity on outlets like Twitter.
"I get negative feedback when I win," Barry said. "I had a one-second knockout. My second MMA fight is a one-second knockout. The ref said, 'fight,' I threw a high kick, knocked the guy out before the clock even came on the screen, and people went on the internet and said I have a stupid haircut. People are going to be negative no matter what, even when I win."
Of course, that can be a sensitive area for fighters who pride themselves on their work, only to see it reduced to a 140-or-less word insult.
Lightweight Jim Miller notes that because MMA has not been in the mainstream nearly as long as established sports like football and baseball, its athletes may not be as refined across the board. While he personally tries to carry himself in a way that is an example to his children, he realizes there are others out there who grew up with the belief that MMA is a counter-culture sport, making it acceptable for fighters to have extreme views, and sometimes even offensive ones.
"If guys are still carrying that over, with the mainstream, FOX and all that stuff, this is the time to change it," he said. "We're in the public eye more, in a lot more houses. I personally want to be treated as a world-class athlete. That's what I want. The fact that I get inside a cage and punch somebody in the face, and get punched in the face, bleed and all this stuff? It doesn't matter. That's just my craft. We've had the pressure in the past to be sometimes a little bit absurd just to get attention, but hopefully that shifts. We need some time to make the changes."
Heavyweight Lavar Johnson points to the personality types driven to fight professionally as the root cause of some of the issues that led to Anheuser-Busch warning the UFC about fighter behavior.
"If you hang out around them long enough, you'll see there are some wild characters, some jokers," he said. "To get in the cage is crazy enough as it is. Two grown-ass men fighting in a cage, you have to admit, is a little bit crazy. Some of these guys have screws loose."
But the bottom line, all of them agreed, is that each fighter has to be responsible both to himself and the sport. As it spreads and the audience grows, the athletes must mature, too.
"As a professional, you do have the responsibility to conduct yourself as that, and to be a role model," Johnson said. "Even if different people have different senses of humor or different views on the world, or even if this stuff is meant to be a joke and not to offend someone, they just have to watch what they say."