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The first sign that something was amiss at Bloody Elbow arrived when the site did not post anything during the UFC Vegas 87 fight weekend at the beginning of March. That card was nothing special, but anyone who has worked in mixed martial arts media will tell you that UFC fight cards are consistently the biggest weekly traffic generators. Bloody Elbow’s silence over that weekend was an ill omen. 

Alarm bells started ringing on March 4, when posts by Tom Llewellyn and Jamie Theodosi, two writers with no previous association with Bloody Elbow, showed up on the site. The site's About Us page also featured some new language: "Now part of an independent network of sports websites covering soccer, golf, tennis, Formula 1, and NFL, Bloody Elbow is owned by UK-based publisher and tech company GRV Media." On March 5, GRV Media announced in a press release that they were the site's new owners. Bloody Elbow's founder and former owner, Nate Wilcox, confirmed via Substack that he had indeed sold the site to GRV Media.

The sale to GRV Media came together quickly, and the staff was notified when it became final in late February. At the time of the sale, Bloody Elbow was staffed by five editors and 10 contributors, none of which were full-time Vox employees or Vox Media Union members. They all lost their contract gigs, and were horrified to discover that some of the best work they had published at Bloody Elbow was being scrubbed from the site by its new owners. As a former contributor myself, I was saddened to discover not only that much of my own work had been removed from the site, but that the kind of work that had defined Bloody Elbow’s adversarial spirit was seemingly being targeted for deletion. The work that John Nash and Anton Tabuena had done on the UFC labor beat, for instance, was all gone. 

These kinds of posts disappearing from the site felt, perhaps more so than the sale itself, like the death of Bloody Elbow. The site was never your typical MMA publication, in that it aimed to be more than just a PR arm for the UFC. Nor was it a mouthpiece for fighter managers. What differentiated Bloody Elbow from most MMA sites was that it regularly covered the side of the sport that those in power would have preferred to remain hidden. If Bloody Elbow is going to be a site that doesn’t want to be a home to stories about UFC fighter pay, the ins and outs of UFC contracts, or the antitrust lawsuit launched by former UFC fighters that was settled for $335 million this week—and judging by the absence of any coverage of that story on the site's front page this morning, it doesn't—then what use is it?

That’s a question that GRV Media will ultimately have to answer for itself. For now, the Bloody Elbow’s readers and former contributors are left with their own questions. Chief among them: Why did the site as they knew it have to die this way, and what will that death mean for the future of MMA coverage?

Founded in 2007, Bloody Elbow quickly differentiated itself from other MMA websites through its independent and adversarial voice. Wilcox credits the original team of writers—Luke Thomas, Brent Brookhouse, Nick Thomas, Michael Rome, Michael Fagan, and Chris Nelson—for creating that voice.

Wilcox, who had worked with SB Nation co-founder Jerome Armstrong and future Vox COO Trei Brundrett at Senator Mark Warner's Forward Together PAC in 2006, founded Bloody Elbow as a SB Nation blog in February 2007. He brought in Luke Thomas as editor-in-chief of the site in the spring of that year.  

Bloody Elbow became a popular site within the SB Nation network over the next decade-plus, but in early 2023 things began to go sideways. The first blow came when Wilcox, who was the editorial manager nominally in charge of SB Nation sites Bloody Elbow, MMA Mania, Cageside Seats and Bad Left Hook, and the only member of the Bloody Elbow staff who was an employee of Vox, was laid off in January with 15 minutes' notice. 

Not long after that, Vox, through SB Nation, notified Bloody Elbow’s staff of independent contractors that it was shuttering the site, but keeping its MMA flagship site, MMA Fighting, as well as its other big MMA site, MMA Mania. Vox brought Wilcox back into the fold in February 2023 to manage and edit the site for its final days as a Vox enterprise. In addition, Vox kept the site online through March. During that time, Vox and Wilcox struck a deal that allowed him to purchase Bloody Elbow.  

Wilcox toyed with the idea of relaunching the independent version of Bloody Elbow as a worker-owned cooperative, but told me that the lack of time and the complicated logistics of getting the staff organized and on the same page prevented that from happening. Wilcox estimates he would have needed about three months to put the co-op together, and that was time he didn’t have if he wanted the site to remain online and publishing. “The financial opportunity with Bloody Elbow was jumping on that Google programmatic ad opportunity, and the Google Authority, but that entailed moving really quickly because we had an April 1 deadline to have a site up and running," Wilcox said.

With a plan in place, Wilcox launched what is now The MMA Draw Substack in March. Then, on April 1, the independent Bloody Elbow site went live, thanks to a tech team that had to build the site in very little time. Wilcox's idea was to run the Substack and the Bloody Elbow website simultaneously; his hope was that paid subscriptions on Substack would subsidize the website. Initial subscriptions were promising, but the numbers leveled off after a rush of initial sign-ups in the first month. Wilcox had planned for the paid subscriptions to generate 30 to 50 percent of the site’s revenue, which would allow Bloody Elbow to rely less on the Google ad exchange. That never happened. In the end, the Substack only generated 10 to 20 percent of the site's revenue. 

Wilcox says the financial cost of going independent was enormous. He absorbed those costs, which he said were in the six figures, through debt and by bringing on investors, which included a couple of Bloody Elbow contributors, some of Wilcox's friends and family members, and some friends of Bloody Elbow. 

"The investor pitch was premised on the ad revenue projections provided by our first ad partner Snack Media, which showed excellent chances of reaching profitability by mid-2023 and being quite profitable in the last quarter of 2023," Wilcox said. "We also hoped to dramatically increase revenue with subscriptions, affiliate sales, merchandise, and direct sales. We had some success with subscriptions and direct sales and managed to get the percent of revenue from programmatic ads down to 50 percent of revenue for a couple of months.

"Unfortunately our direct sales strategy was still dependent on traffic from Google and when our traffic dropped, our ‘long-term’ direct sales deals all went away after just one or two months rather than being the longer-term relationships we had planned on."

Burdened with that debt, Bloody Elbow reduced staff after a few months, cutting the number of editors from six to four, and reducing the number of writers contributing. (Disclosure: I was one of the writers let go at that time.) According to Wilcox, the editors did not see their pay cut, but the contributing writers saw "dramatically reduced pay and post counts." Wilcox says that during the entire time Bloody Elbow existed as an independent site, his only payout was a single $3,400 payday. 

Cash flow was a constant problem for Wilcox, as was providing content that Google would feature, and so would generate revenue through ads. 

Despite those struggles, the site found its footing in July and had profitable months in August and September. Then Google changed its algorithm. Tim Bissell, who served as deputy site manager at Bloody Elbow at the time, said that Google’s update was not the only thing that hurt the site. "Tens of thousands of articles and pages were broken, and looked a mess," he said, which was the result of transferring the site from Vox Media's proprietary Chorus publishing suite to Wordpress. Bissell and Wilcox also told me that a malware infection from one of the site’s advertisers caused traffic to fall precipitously. That malware attack redirected Bloody Elbow readers to a fake security scan page. The Associated Press, ESPN, and CBS were also hit by the attack. It took the site months to get its ad partners to improve their defenses against the attack. During that time, Bloody Elbow was forced to turn all ads from each partner off and on for a few days in order to narrow down where the malware was infecting the site. 

Wilcox estimated the drop in traffic at that time as 50 percent. Wilcox attempted to patch things up by putting more of an emphasis on direct ad sales rather than programmatic advertising, but the site never bounced back. Bloody Elbow limped along, and by January of this year Wilcox said he knew that he needed to sell. He reached out to potential buyers and a couple of website brokers.

Wilcox said he warned the editors at the beginning of February that he might be unable to pay them for their February work, and that he was looking to sell the site. The lack of cash flow made a quick sale essential for Wilcox. Knowing he did not have the cash on hand to keep paying the staff, and that he did not want the site to sit idle, he decided to sell to GRV Media, who was "the only entity making an offer on the timeline."

For years, Bloody Elbow was proudly and unabashedly a finger in the eye of the UFC, as well as other powerful people and institutions in MMA. Zane Simon, a senior editor at Bloody Elbow when it was sold, described the site’s utility: "What BE did, and what few others are interested in doing, is to keep track of all the pieces in the bigger picture. Who's paying for what? Who's pressuring who? What's keeping this business afloat? Who's winning, and who's losing, the financial and legal battles as time passes?"

Given the tenor of the site’s previous coverage, its former contributors have had a tough time digesting GRV Media’s decision to delete large swaths of their work. Anton Tabuena, the managing editor of Bloody Elbow for the past 10 years, said he found out that posts had been deleted via social media. "I actually woke up to your tweets talking about my latest business posts being deleted," he told me, "then got absolutely horrified to learn that they also wiped my entire 15-year body of work with Bloody Elbow." 

Tabuena was particularly mournful over the loss of the site’s coverage of the UFC antitrust lawsuit. "Bloody Elbow not only broke the news on that lawsuit in 2014, but also continued to be the main source of information from that landmark case for a decade." he said. 

Bissell said he was "surprised that the site would be sold to a company that wanted to keep the name, yet not keep any of the people or content which made that name special or relevant."

Bloody Elbow’s new About Us page lists a series of publications in which Bloody Elbow is “proud to have been featured in,” including ESPN, Fox News, The Guardian, The Independent, and The New York Post. Much of the original work cited in those publications has been deleted from the site.  

When asked by Combat Chronicles about GRV Media’s decision to scrub work from the site, Liam Curtis, the company’s Global Head of Entertainment, Lifestyle said, "Nate [Wilcox] should be directly addressing this later if you check his socials by the end of the day. I am reluctant to comment on content that was not under my stewardship in the first place." 

On March 6, Wilcox wrote on Twitter, "Stay tuned. The content is all archived and safe and I'll be reposting the best stuff GRV deleted in tranches as time and technology allows."

I emailed Curtis seeking comment on the article deletions and GRV Media’s plans for Bloody Elbow on March 7. After two follow-up requests, Curtis pointed me in the direction of GRV Media co-founder and executive chairman Vic Daniels.

I first reached out to Daniels on March 10. He replied and asked for details about Defector's audience, readership, and reach. Daniels said he would get back to me as GRV was weighing which outlets to speak to about purchasing Bloody Elbow. When I gave him my deadline, he said he would be unable to commit to that timeline since he was traveling out of the country. I emailed Daniels again on March 18. He replied to my second follow-up on March 20, informing me of a death in the family and his inability to commit to an interview.

Wilcox said GRV informed him of their intention to scrub "controversial" posts from the site, and that at one point they were "seriously considering not keeping any of the content." As for why GRV Media would delete any content, Wilcox believes that their "editorial changes are strictly driven by their business model and what they think will please the Google algorithms."

With the sale of Bloody Elbow behind him, Wilcox hopes to build up the MMA Draw. He has already posted work from former Bloody Elbow contributors on the site. 

As for how the last year has played out, Wilcox said, "I'm still in shock and will need some time to recover from the last year. I'm very proud that I was able to employ the team for a full year, disappointed at how we went out. But at the same time feel like we were crushed by the same forces that are devastating all media companies right now. There will always be a million coulda, woulda, shoulda scenarios playing in my head."

Bloody Elbow’s former contributors have no choice but to try and move on—and move past the insult of seeing the site to which they gave so much time and energy go on functioning in a way that appears antithetical to its original mission. The site recently posted a new editorial policy, which reads: "Bloody Elbow is committed to upholding high ethical standards. In the current media landscape, we believe it is more important than ever to preserve humanity in journalism and to take a responsible and conscientious approach to ensure our work does not inflict harm upon others."

"It’s funny because closing down and losing our jobs used to be my biggest fear when the site went independent," said Tabuena. "But Bloody Elbow still being ‘alive,’ but with all the work deleted and the brand we built completely ruined? I didn’t realize there was an even worse scenario possible. So if you ask me, of course I’d wish everything was handled differently."

As for what MMA media will be missing with a smaller, tamer Bloody Elbow standing in place of the original, Luke Thomas, who served as the site’s first editor-in-chief from 2007-2010, summed it up: "This is a very bad thing for the industry. Unless you're a dirtbag, in which case, congratulations. Things just got a lot easier for you."

Correction (4:34 p.m. ET): An earlier version of the story misstated Nate Wilcox's employment status.

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