Michael Bisping during Comic Con Experience in 2016. | Shutterstock

“Never apologize, never explain” is one of those old maxims that’s been attributed to so many historical figures that we can never now be sure who said it first.

It could also be the perfect tagline for the UFC, such is the organization’s infatuation with upholding “free speech,” and by extension ESPN, its exclusive $300 million-a-year broadcast partner.

Neither has commented on an incident from Saturday’s pay-per-view UFC 298 event in Anaheim, when analyst Michael Bisping said “that’s f***ing gay” live on air.

The hot-mic moment happened after the former champion, who has been in hot water for homophobic language multiple times in the past, thought he was no longer being broadcast, though it seems at least one feed was still sharing his words.

He had been singing the praises of new undefeated featherweight champion Ilia Topuria, who had just conquered Alexander Volkanovski in the headline bout.

“15 and 0, undefeated, 13 stoppages, what a guy, what a night,” said Bisping.

He wrapped up, and after a long pause, he chastised himself for speaking too enthusiastically, throwing in the pejorative to seemingly remind the bros back in the studio that his admiration of Topuria doesn’t go beyond the stats.

It’s all schoolyard-level stuff that quickly went viral on social media accompanied by the requisite crying-with-laughter emojis.

In the grand scheme of UFC homophobia — not least the recent diatribes by Sean Strickland — it’s not worth losing much sleep over or bothering to “cry harder” as the trolls would demand.

One clip shared was from the feed shown by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, but considering the mic Bisping was holding was ESPN-branded, you could be forgiven for thinking it might warrant at least an acknowledgement from the network. The simplest ‘sorry’ wouldn’t be the hardest word to say.

After all, ESPN was confident enough to fire former employee Kelly Stewart in 2021 for nine-year-old tweets that contained homophobic slurs.

Some UFC fans tweeting about Bisping’s blunder claimed that “cancel culture” would catch up with him too.

“Bisping did nothing wrong, he better not be punished for this, it’s his greatest commentary moment of all time,” said one.

Don’t worry, I doubt he’ll be punished. The chances of any sort of public criticism coming from ESPN, let alone a sanction, seem to me to be zero. As Cyd Zeigler wrote last month about Strickland:

When Outsports reached out to ESPN for comment about his clear, obvious homophobia — his next fight is live on ESPN+ PPV — the company said they “are not commenting.”

My personal translation: “Give us your money and don’t you dare ask us about the horrific, hateful comments from the athletes who are making us said money, especially given how other parts of our company are catering to the LGBTQ community.”

That seems — to me — to be the message.

Sean Strickland is interviewed by ESPN’s Jon Anik during the UFC 297 weigh-in in Toronto in January. | Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

When Outsports reached out to ESPN for comment on Bisping’s language, we were told he “was not employed” by the network on the night. The optics of the network logo on his mic cube didn’t get a mention.

Last year, Bleacher Report got hold of fighter Eddie Alvarez’s contract with Zuffa, which was previously UFC’s parent company.

The clauses around conduct referred to “commonly accepted standards of decency, social conventions and morals” while the only mention of the word “discriminatory” was linked to clothing and tattoos.

It read as if “standards” had been deliberately left open to interpretation.

When outrage over anti-gay language is high — such as when Charles Radtke and Manel Kape both used the homophobic ‘f****t’ slur in the octagon at UFC 293 in Sydney in September — it’s left to the fighters themselves to express regret and blame it on their emotions, thus absolving the organizations themselves of any sense of responsibility.

“We make mistakes… He [Radtke] came out and apologized on his own free will. We didn’t tell him to do anything,” stressed Dana White, a man of volition, not of virtue.

Back in the 1990s, the UFC used to revel in its anything-goes approach to the MMA game, proclaiming “there are no rules” in its fights.

Of course, there were rules — biting, eye gouging and strikes to the groin were not allowed — but as the profile of the sport got bigger and the money rolled in, everything else got tightened up for reasons of athlete safety and fair competition.

Since 2000, the UFC has used the 31 Unified Rules of MMA, one of which bars the use of “abusive language in the fighting arena.”

That’s the contrast now in UFC. Say or do something homophobic in the heat of battle or its immediate aftermath and you’ll be expected to clear up the mess, for the “good” of the sport.

But outside the octagon, what amounts to decency is a matter of opinion and to concede any culpability whatsoever is seen as weak.

So if you never apologize, and never explain, saying “that’s f***ing gay” can soon become a commonly accepted standard too — even if you’re one of the voices of an ESPN broadcast.

Michael Bisping, eh? What a guy. What a night.

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