Helwani Part III: It’s still surreal to me
Undeground Blogger Jonathan Shrager procured an interview with Ariel Helwani, in one of the rare occasions that this high-profile MMA interviewer becomes the interviewee. He opened up on a broad gamut of MMA-related topics, and provided insight into both his personal life and personality.
Part 3 of a three part series is immediately below.
Parts 1 and 2 can be read at bottom.
Jonthan Shrager: I recall in one conversation you had on the MMA Hour, you mentioning that you were going to start training some Muay Thai. Did this ever materialize?
Ariel Helwani: So, for around 6 or 7 months, I was practicing multiple disciplines: jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and boxing. Then I moved, then I had a son, and life kind of got in the way, so honestly I didn’t have time to continue.
The main reason I did it was I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of everything. I’ve been watching and partaking in this sport for so long, and whilst I’m not an analyst per se, you have to know what the heck is happening. That’s very important. I already felt that I understood the intricacies of the sport from being a spectator for so long, but aside from that, it’s always good to be physically active.
It’s funny; I just saw Roger Mamedov, who trains Akira Corassani, and he’s part of Ricardo Almeida’s team. His MMA school is literally located four minutes from my apartment. He was asking, “Hey, when are you going to come and see us?” and I really should. It’s just, there’s a lot going on, and when I do have time to do some kind of sport, I love to play basketball. In fact, I’m going to do that later this evening. Sometimes it’s good to think about something else. For the hour that I play b’ball I don’t think about anything. I think that I’m a little too attached to MMA, in the sense that I’m obsessed with it, I can’t get enough of it. I’m constantly checking my phone, I’m forever reading up on the sport, and sometimes it’s good to do something completely different, and that’s what basketball is for me. It’s always been my preferred sport to play, even when I was in high school.
JS: Fair play. Are you a decent baller?
AH: Well, you know, I don’t like to pat myself on the back. I think I’d categorise myself as a decent baller. You know what’s funny? People think I’m a big wimp because of my slight frame, but when I was in high school, I was actually one of the biggest kids. Granted, probably because I went to a Jewish private school in Canada. It was only when I became an MMA journalist that this perception came about of me being a loser with no friends, probably because I look different to the typical alpha male of this sport. I wasn’t used to that, so I’ve been able to appeal to a whole different sector of society.
I played a lot of sports as a kid. In fact, I represented and captained Canada in the Pan-American Maccabiah games in 1999. The Maccabiah games, if you aren’t aware, are effectively the Jewish Olympics. So I like to think I’m an ok player.
If you want to know, I’m now more of a shooting guard, a small forward. I am a bit of a pest, and one of those grinder-type of players. I don’t know if you’re familiar with American basketball, but as with the New York Knicks of the 1990s, I like to dive all over the place and get dirty. Not so much finesse. More of a hard worker.
JS: Ok, I’m admittedly a basketball novice. Leaving humility to one side, is there a player you could perhaps compare yourself to?
AH: Well, when I was a kid, there was nothing I liked more than the New York Knicks. I was the biggest Knicks fan. I was obsessed. I would cry after they lost. Right now, they’re in the midst of the playoffs, and they lost last night, and it’s affected my mood greatly.
There were three guys that I patterned myself after. My top guy was Patrick Ewing, then Charles Oakley and John Starks. They were rough, tough, underappreciated, blue-collar type of players. Those were the guys I really looked up to. I always wore number 33 in honour of Patrick Ewing, or if I couldn’t get 33, I’d go with 34 in honour of Oakley. I acted like them on the court. It was silly; I idolized them. You know how you can be when you’re a kid; you can be very impressionable. They were my heroes.
JS: That’s a great insight. How did your Canada team fare in the Maccabiah games?
AH: Unfortunately we lost in the Bronze medal game to Brazil. The US was by far and away the best side. I’ll never forget: we played one very heated game against Argentina, who were the favourites on account of the fact that the Games were being held in Mexico, in close proximity to Argentina. My face smashed on the ground going for a ball in that game, and it hurt greatly. But that’s the closest thing I’ll ever get to playing in the World Cup. So much pride playing for your country.
It’s the most unique experience I’ve ever had, along with going on the “March For The Living” back in ’99 also, which is a trip I took to Poland with my high school classmates, to visit the concentration camps such as Auschwitz that were in effect during World War 2. After that, we headed to Israel for a week, and it was a trip that obviously filled with a huge range of emotions. Those were the two most impactful trips that I took as a teenager, which I often think about to this day. Unforgettable memories which I’ll hopefully recount to my grandchildren.
JS: Ok, backtracking slightly to your comments about training the multiple disciplines of martial arts. Was there one art at which you proved particularly proficient?
AH: I would say I enjoyed boxing the most. Jiu-jitsu second. I really enjoyed the science behind BJJ. The finer points and intricacies of BJJ.
JS: Ok, and in the future, would you potentially compete in a charity MMA fight against a fellow journalist if you opportunity arose?
AH: It has crossed my mind, just for fun, but no. Again, I think that would give people the wrong message. I’m not in it for that. As crazy as it may sound to some people, I don’t think it’s all about me. I don’t think I’m the story. Sometimes it’s inevitable that it will come across that way to people, but for me to compete in a MMA fight might appear a little too self-serving.
A lot of people may wonder why I came out with the “Helwani Nose” t-shirts. I know it probably adds to the impression that sometimes it’s about me. But that’s not what I’m about.
That’s what I love about this sport; the fans are so loyal, and they’ve been so loyal to me. It’s just amazing. For example, I mentioned on Monday’s show that it was my son’s first birthday, and the following day, without me bringing it up again, I received all these tweets wishing him a happy birthday. The MMA fans are caring, nice people. Their kindness blows me away. I just want to serve them, and do the best that I can.
So, I feel to compete in an MMA fight would probably be too much. And people actually requested for me to come out with a shirt. When the “Helwani Nose” idea surfaced, I thought this was the perfect idea to bring out, but I made sure that all proceeds would go to charity, because I knew people would say that I’m trying to profit off it. That’s not what I’m about. I didn’t want to take a cent from it. My father-in-law runs the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada, and I wanted to help that out, so it was a perfect opportunity.
JS: Ok, so just humour me for a second. If you were hypothetically to compete in an MMA fight, what would be your fighting moniker and your walkout song?
AH: Well, I’d probably go with “The Franchise.” That was my nickname during my early radio days. Whenever I’ve contemplated a potential walkout song, it was always “Triumph” by Wu-Tang Clan, but in my current state I think it would be Elizabeth Mitchell’s cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
JS: Ok, two vastly-differing musical approaches. Bob Marley, almost the spiritual Jon Jones approach, and Wu-Tang more aggressive, upbeat Hip-Hop entrance.
AH: Yeah, well, I used to be very aggressive as a kid, and I loved Wu-Tang, Tupac and Biggie. East Coast and West Coast rap. I’d be able to recite the lyrics to all their songs. I’d listen to hip-hop to hype myself up before playing sports. But now I’ve become a lot mellower, I’d like to think, and being a father has helped that out a lot. I like that song a lot these days.
JS: Yes, I can vouch that being a father certainly calms you down. Has there even been a time when you’ve genuinely felt concerned for your own welfare, e.g. Miller “Lucky Patrick”, Rampage “squash beef” and Diaz “209 Slap”?
AH: I’ve always felt ok, except maybe the interview you refer to with Nick (in San Diego, two days prior to the Strikeforce event headlined by Nick versus Paul Daley.) I did see it in his eyes that he was not happy with me. I didn’t think that he was going to beat me up or anything, but it was the only time I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. With Rampage, I was always sure that nothing would happen, but that one time with Nick, in the back of my mind I was wondering what was going to happen as I did not know. And, of course, nothing happened, but I could see it in his eyes that he really was not happy with me. Other than that, I’ve never been afraid for my well being.
JS: You alluded to the “Helwani Nose” shirts before. Fans donning your t-shirts at events, hotel room scoops from the UFC president, both the culmination of your meteoric ascendancy to the pinnacle of MMA media within a relatively short space of time. Is this all still surreal for you? Did you envisage this seven years ago?
AH: That’s the best word to describe it all; surreal. It is 1000% surreal. It’s surreal to see my names on t-shirts, it’s surreal to see the fans’ response, when they’ll approach me and ask for a picture. It’s a 1000% surreal because it all happened so fast. I started my blog Jarry Park in 2007, and I only actually started to get paid to do this in 2008. In no other sport except MMA could this happen, especially this quickly. It’s still surreal to me, and I’ve not lost sight of that.
JS: Given the significant growth in MMA’s popularity during the period you’ve been covering it, do you think your achievement would be more difficult if you started out today in MMA journalism?
AH: I think it is a little more difficult. I actually thought about this recently. The way it’s structured, with TV deals and more media outlets. I didn’t start this, and there are people who have been doing this long before I have, but I think I entered into it at the last possible second before it all blew up. I feel lucky; I guess I had good timing in that sense. I do think it’d be harder to do it. And, by the way, it’s very hard to break through in any sport.
In MMA, and the UFC, the access is fantastic. And also the fighters’ openness and candidness, it’s unlike that in any other sport. It’s changed a little bit now, with things like the media scrums. Before, during fight weeks, the fighter would do a scrum, and then I would be the one who’d do a one-on-one interview. And that was it, then they were done. Now’s there’s a line of people, with a whole host of people conducting one-on-one interviews. That’s great, it’s part of the sport’s evolution. Even with Dana, I was probably the only interviewer present with a cameraman for a short amount of time. Now, it’s evolved into these 45-minute scrums which people can’t get enough of. It’s changed, in some ways for the better, but one thinks back to the good old days when it was a little simpler for the fans. But I think if I started today it would be very hard. Not impossible, but just a little more challenging.
JS: Yes, I agree with that. You mention other interviewers who are now securing more one-on-one interviews with the fighters, such as Karyn Bryant. Are you a fan of her work?
AH: Sure. I work with Karyn on Fuel TV. She’s been doing this for so long, way before me. She’s been doing this since the 90s, or maybe even the 80s. She was at MTV, Showtime. So she has been around a lot, as far as interviewing or just broadcasting generally is concerned.
JS: And aside from your colleagues at MMAfighting.com who you previously cited, namely Mike, Shaun and Luke, which other journalists do you follow? Are you a fan of Ben Fowlkes’ work? I noticed you have a jovial onscreen rapport with him.
AH: I’ve never heard of this Ben Fowlkes you keep referencing. I’m not familiar with his work. But, I really like Chuck Mindenhall, I think he does great work over at ESPN.com. And Brett Okamoto over at ESPN.com.
Of course, just because we don’t work on the same site, Ben and I are still cool. He left MMAFighting to go to MMAjunkie and USA Today. It was a good decision for him and his family. I still think he’s one of the best writers in the sport.
The sport seems to have attracted some talented writers over the past few years. Some promising young writers from all over the globe. So I think MMA media has really come a long way; it’s really evolved nicely. It still has a long way to go, and I still think there’s a lot that we could do to be better, but I think it’s in a pretty good spot right now.
JS: Ok. Out of interest, where did you get your first significant break within media?
AH: Well, I created my website jarrypark.com, and the first person to recognize me was probably Dave Meltzer, who wrote about one of my interviews with Kurt Angle in the Wrestling Observer, which was great. A month later, I was invited onto Mauro Ranallo’s show by producer John Pollock. I thought that was it; I thought I’d reached the mountaintop. I was on Mauro Ranallo’s radio show; I’ll never forget it; it was Thanksgiving in the US in 2007. I thought that was the greatest thing ever. So those were breaks in a sense. But then when I got my job at MMARated.com, the first website that actually paid me to do this stuff, I would consider that to be my first break.
JS: The Undertaker famously called out Brock during one of your interviews. When auspicious moments like that are caught on camera during one of your interviews, do you just think the MMA Gods are watching over you?
AH: Oh, not only the MMA Gods, but some kind of God. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time on a few occasions. Like even being at UFC 112, being one of the few American journalists there, and Dana talking to us following the Anderson Silva-Demian Maia affair. That was huge for my career. I’ve always believed that 80% of success is just showing up. Just try to be in as many places as possible, and then good things tend to happen because you’re present. So being in the right place at the right time, not being lazy, and getting out there. And yeah, you get lucky with moments like the Undertaker interview, UFC 112, and other moments. You have to be lucky a few times, and I certainly feel like I’ve been very lucky thus far.
JS: Yes, well they say you create your own luck through hard work. Leading on from the previous question, random fight offers have emerged within the milieu of MMA over the years, such as the aforementioned Undertaker vs Brock scenario. Who would win that fight in the Octagon? How about Dana White vs Vince McMahon? Jay-Z vs MC Hammer?
AH: Oh, of course it would be Brock: the younger, good amount of MMA experience. Without a doubt. Hmmm, it seems like Vince could play a little dirty, and he’s a large guy, but Dana has that boxing background, and he’s practiced jiu-jitsu, so if it was a real fight, technically I’d have to go with Dana. I reckon MC Hammer is probably a little more athletic, but older as well. I don’t know; in that one I’ll go with MC Hammer because I feel like he’s been around the block and he’s a little more grizzled.
JS: Yes, I reckon I’d go for that trio if I were placing an accumulator bet. You previously alluded to the fact that you’re obsessed with the sport. How does the missus manage you also being married to MMA?
AH: She does a great job of dealing with that. She’s very understanding. She works just as hard as I do. When I’m not away covering MMA, I’m usually at home, which is great. Yes, MMA will be on my TV a lot, and I’m talking and thinking about it a lot, but she is really very supportive.
I’ve known my wife since I was 12 years old; we met when we were in the 7th grade. She’s been with me forever, so if I ever got a big head, or got a little cocky, she’d be the first to put me in my place. That’s very important. I feel very lucky. And one of the great things about my son is I feel that he has balanced my life, and he has given me perspective. Before my life was probably a little too weighted on the MMA side, but now I feel like I’m at peace, and I’m able to see things in perspective. I think this helps me to perform better at my job, and be happy at home, and be motivated because I’m now working for two people in my life.
JS: Lovely. Could we possibly see a line of “Helwani Nose” clothing in Cheick Kongo’s LA fashion boutique?
AH: Errr, if he wants a piece of it. But you know, I only made 150 t-shirts, I might make another 150 and that’s it. I’m not in the clothing business. In fact, my whole family, my dad and brother, are in the clothing business and they’ve helped me with the shirts as far as manufacturing them. But gosh, doing them has made me realize that I really never wanted to be in the clothing business because I just don’t like that stuff. I don’t like business; I don’t like talking money. I like asking questions, reporting. The t-shirts were just a fun thing but after the next batch I probably won’t do it again.
JS: Fair enough. Sticking with fashion, you’re renowned for sporting funky, luminous sneakers, which I’ve noticed are becoming increasingly flamboyant and garish. What’s this owing to?
AH: Haha, well you know, I thought I’d kick it up a notch, seeing as you get bored with the ones that you have. The footwear selection has evolved. But here’s the beauty of it: Unless someone tweets a picture, you won’t see it on camera. It’s only for the live audience, for the people in attendance, and for myself because I like them. I think they’re cool; I enjoy them. It’s not like I’m out there with a crazy suit or anything like that, saying “look at me.” They’re just down there, and it’s just something fun and different, and reminds you not to take yourself too seriously I think.
JS: Ok, fittingly symbolic as it’s in keeping with the phrase ‘to keep your feet on the ground.’ Did BJ Penn ever officially become a shareholder of Brand Helwani. I recall him being content with a mere 1% of your future MMA earnings?
AH: Haha, not yet, but if he wants a piece we can talk. You know, BJ Penn was one of those first guys who I was in awe of when I got into this and started interviewing the fighters. BJ Penn has the best entrance in MMA history in my opinion. I love when he comes out to that song, and his demeanour. And he was one of those guys who I was a big fan of before I started to get into MMA journalism. He’s always been very good to me. One time he insinuated that I wasn’t a fan of his; that I was a hater or something like that. That hurt me because that’s never been the case, and we cleared it up on camera at UFC 118. The interview you’re referring to was at UFC 127 before the Fitch fight. Those walk-and-talk interviews, like I’ve filmed with “Rampage” and “Mayhem,” I’d love to do one in Hawaii with BJ Penn; that would be a dream for me.
JS: And of course Conor McGregor in Ireland when the UFC returns to Dublin!
AH: Absolutely. There are others too; Nick Diaz in Stockton, and I think Rory MacDonald in Montreal would be interesting. There are lots I’d like to do. That’s what I love so much about this sport: such great personalities.
JS: They’d all be great. Finally, in the spirit of journalistic brotherhood, is there an inside scoop about anything MMA-related you can give me first?
AH: Haha, what? A story? Yeah, there are some big stories that are going to break soon. That’s all I’ve got for you.
JS: Ok fair enough, I won’t probe any further. Well thanks so much for your time today Ariel; it’s been a pleasure. And best of luck in your basketball game this evening.
AH: Thanks man. And thanks for the opportunity. I enjoyed the interview; the questions were great and I look forward to reading it.
Jonathan Shrager: On the theme of your more controversial, or in the following case, difficult interviews, possibly the only occasion on which I’ve witnessed you lose a bit of composure was during the Bob Sapp MMAHour interview. Aside from that, have you ever had to curtail an interview? Did it reach the point where you would walk the other way if you spotted Bob at an event?
Ariel Helwani: No, not at all. And again, that’s another one where I felt like maybe I got a little too emotional. That’s often my problem in life; I’m a little too emotional. On that particular occasion, he was being annoying to talk to. And all I wanted was for him to deny it, or not deny the allegations of fight-fixing recently leveled at him. I felt he was playing games, which was a little frustrating, but nonetheless I took it a little too far there, I’m the first to admit that. Now all he does is tweet me all the time. I would have Bob back on the show. He’s a very relevant part of MMA history. Do I have respect for him, and what he’s doing right now? No. Do I respect what he did beforehand when he was actually taking his career seriously? Sure, absolutely. But, for a long time, I’ve felt like he’s throwing fights, and I wanted to ask him about that. I didn’t like the way he was handling the interview. If you wanted to come onto the show to make a joke, then just let me know. And that’s kind of the reason why I was baffled by the whole “Mayhem” Miller episode. I just want to be informed of a guest’s motives beforehand, rather than agreeing to an interview and spontaneously acting all strange. And that’s how I felt Bob Sapp was acting.
JS: You allude to “Mayhem” Miller, which neatly segues onto my next question. I personally thought you handled the Mayhem Miller in-studio debacle with great poise. What was going through your mind during the infamous “Lucky Patrick” incident?
AH: Well, thank you, I appreciate that a lot. What’s going through my mind was this; I understand what you’re doing, I get what you’re trying to do. But you came all the way from the LA to do this, your first interview since being arrested, and this is what you want to show people? It’s one thing to do that the way Andy Kaufman did it on the Letterman Show, but it’s another thing to do it immediately after being in trouble with the law, and already there’s a stigma attached to you. So, I was just more disappointed. And part of me was like; Wow, does he need help? Is he ok? Because he was in character upon arriving to the studio, even prior to filming. I thought he would drop it after a while. I guess he can be ok with it, because it generated a certain amount of buzz for the movie, at least within MMA circles. Anyway, I was really happy the way it turned out, that we were able the bury the hatchet by doing that walk and talk in Central Park, which hopefully people liked. That was like a mini-saga, a 2-3 week saga. It was a good ending at least, in my opinion.
JS: It certainly was. Aside from the obvious candidates who invariably provide gold, namely Dana/Chael/Rampage/Bisping, who’s the most entertaining interviewee? A fighter who perhaps us fans wouldn’t anticipate?
AH: Honestly, there are so many. That’s what I love so much about this sport. Thinking off the top of my head, the guys who are a pleasure to talk to? Obviously, Conor McGregor is a lot of fun lately; I enjoy talking to King Mo a lot; I always enjoy talking to “Mayhem” Miller, who’s always been great to me; I love talking to Nick Diaz, it’s always an experience; I always enjoy talking to Gina Carano, as she was one of the first people in the sport to give me her time, and she has a great personality; I love talking to Johnny Hendricks, he has such a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky personality; Anderson is a challenge in itself, as is Jon Jones. I could go through every single guy on the roster and pinpoint the characteristics that render him an enjoyable interview. They’re all a challenge, and you have to approach different people in different way. So, I don’t necessarily like to arrange the fighters in an order of preference, as I don’t think it’s fair to the other guys.
JS: Are there any fighters who are better value once off-camera? Maybe a fighter who the public perceives to be unassuming on-camera, especially when compared to the myriad colourful and confident characters that exist within the MMA milieu? Somebody like Jacob Volkmann springs to mind, but then again, he called out the president during one of your interviews, so he can’t be that shy and retiring.
AH: What you see is what you get with Volkmann., as with most guys in the sport. The good thing about this sport is it’s very real, and most fighters don’t have an agenda, nor somebody behind them dictating what they say. So, the Vitor Belfort you see on-camera is the same Vitor Belfort you see off-camera. Same with Matt Hughes, and Urijah Faber. I love and appreciate that.
JS: You previously cited Nick Diaz, another extremely compelling character, as evidenced by your interviews together. I often note how Nick will commence coyly, seemingly reticent to open up or divulge, before proceeding to ramble and answer his own questions at times. Do you enjoy those types of interviews?
AH: I always enjoy them. People presume those types of interviews are frustrating, but the only mildly frustrating element of those interviews is that time constraints render it difficult to pose all the questions that I want to ask.
When I’m standing there, holding the microphone and given the privilege to talk to someone, that to me is a thrill in itself, and then, when you’re giving me the opening to ask a question, then I’m mindful not to screw it up. Ask the question in the right way, get in, get out and it’s back to the interviewee. So, you might have a guy like Nick who at times is happy to talk a lot, but you’ll encounter guys too that provide brief responses, and that’s a challenge too. The onus is then on the interviewer to get the interviewee to open up. I don’t like when people blame or criticise the interviewee. At the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the interviewer to elicit a good interview, so any criticism, good or bad, should be directed at me. Sometimes an interviewer might complain that an interviewee didn’t give them anything, but it’s your job to go out and get something, to ask the right questions, to make the interviewee feel comfortable and ultimately procure information or opinion.
So, I love those challenges. To me, there’s nothing more exhilarating than an interview in my job. I love interviewing people. I could do it all day. I love asking questions, and I’ve been like that since being a kid.
JS: How is it to interview Chael? Must be easy in the respect that he loves to hold court and pour forth, often seemingly with his own agenda, reciting rehearsed responses to his own questions?
AH: Not necessarily easy, because sometimes he won’t always your questions, so if you want to address something specific, you might have to go about it in a different way. Sometimes you don’t know which Chael you’re going to interview. So, I wouldn’t necessarily say the easiest interview, but he’s a lot of fun to interview. You know you’ll get something if you do your job right.
JS: How does Chael’s WWE-style rhetoric compare to Jesse Ventura, someone to whom you’ve previously compared him?
AH: Yes, he definitely compares to a Jesse Ventura, a Superstar Billy Graham, a Hulk Hogan. I mean, he has been known to borrow some of those guys’ lines. The proof is in the pudding, and sometimes he likes to act up.
But honestly, I like the real Chael. The Chael interview with Kenny Florian we saw recently on “UFC Tonight,” in which he’s calling out Wanderlei, discussing his loss to Jon Jones. That to me is the best Chael. He’s sincere, gracious in defeat. I love that Chael; eloquent, loquacious. He’s one of, if not the best talker in our sport.
There are different sides to him. I really loved when he came out of nowhere prior to the UFC 109 fight vs Nate Marquardt, and he started talking about Anderson sporting his pink shirts etc. It was a bit of a shock. He’d been in the sport already for so long, and he was suddenly beginning to cause commotion. It got him the fight.
The evolution of Chael Sonnen over the last few years is for me personally one of the most fascinating stories in all of sports; A guy who was a mid-tier middleweight turning himself into one of the sport’s biggest draws purely by understanding promotion, how to sell both yourself and your fights. It’s shocking to me that more people don’t follow in his footsteps, but you have to have it in you.
I know some people criticize Chael, or maybe tired of him, don’t like his style, but I have an appreciation for him and what he does.
JS: Moving on, you’re a self-described “sensitive soul.” You sometimes appear to take objection to the titles of shit-stirrer/pot-stirrer/trouble-maker/instigator, but do you acknowledge that all these appellations are simultaneously underhanded compliments? For example, Tom Watson qualified labeling you a “weasel” with the statement; “From relative obscurity to prominence within a short timeframe is a testament to his skill.”
AH: Absolutely. In the past, I may have taken certain comments to heart, got worked up about them, and read every comment that’s written about me, but I totally understand why people might say that.
I’ll tell you this. Ever since Nick Diaz called me an instigator, people say it all the time. I don’t think a lot of people understand what my job is, or what I’m supposed to do. I’m there to ask questions. Then people bring up that I’ll ask one guy something, then relay that fighter’s answer to his opponent. That is exactly what I’m supposed to do. It’d be irresponsible on my part not to get the other fighter’s response. So people who think they’re criticizing me mustn’t understand that’s what my job is.
And I don’t hide behind my computer, I don’t hide behind Twitter, I don’t hide behind my show. I’m at every event to face the music, so to speak. You can find me. If I was truly a pot-stirrer or an instigator, you would never see me. I would never be there.
So, I understand why people label me a certain way, but it’s part of the broader issue of how people perceive the media. But I can guarantee you that the people would much prefer how I approach interviewing than to simply probe fighters on their game-plans and training camps. And that applies to both the fighters and the fans. I’m just trying to conduct the interviews that I myself, as a fan of the sport, would enjoy watching.
That’s how I got into this. I was regularly watching interviews about the sport I love, and I felt that the interviewers were not doing their job. They weren’t asking the questions that I wanted to ask. Now, I’m not saying that I’m revolutionizing anything. But, as a fan, I wondered why the interviews looked unprofessional, and why the interviewers sounded like they wanted to go out and eat McDonald’s with these fighters? Why are you idolizing the fighters? I never wanted to be these people. I always idolized and looked up to the interviewers and broadcasters.
Now, I’m having an opportunity to fulfill that dream, and my instincts tell me these are the questions I need to be asking. At times the fans might think I’m instigating but my employers don’t consider it that way, and at the end of the day, they’re who I have to serve.
JS: Yes, that all makes sense. Coming from a WWE background, one thing that’s glaringly apparent is that you embrace and relish the testosterone-fueled nature of the sport? For example, I noticed you retweeting a heated twitter exchange between McGregor and Swanson.
AH: Well, that’s interesting. They’re the ones going back-and-forth. I’m just sitting there taking it all in. I do find it all interesting. It’s certainly a lot more interesting than saying nothing at all. They’re putting it out there, and I’m just putting it to the people, just as I’d tweet out an interesting sound bite from an interview.
I found this particular exchange interesting. Here you have a guy who is new to the UFC calling out two Zuffa veterans, who are responding to the new kid on the block that he should stay in his place. That’s interesting. That isn’t being an instigator. And guess what, everyone loves that. What would people prefer? What do they want me to do? What do they want me to ask? You see, that’s the thing I don’t understand. I’d love to know what they’d rather me ask. Am I not doing my job well enough? Am I totally blowing it? Should I just talk to fighters with white gloves, create the most boring interviews ever, in which I enquire about how a fighter’s day is going? Nobody ever offers an alternative, or an idea of what I’m supposed to be asking.
And, by the way, one more thing: In MMA, the fighters are idolized to the degree that they can do no wrong, as with Fedor’s hardcore fan base. I think a lot of fans are like, who is this guy? He moves like us; he talks like us. I mean, I look like everyone else; I don’t show up as a super-buff guy wearing a tight Affliction t-shirt, so I’m easy to relate to, and it leads people to wonder, why is this guy asking these questions? Who the hell is he? Who did he meet to get into this sport? And I think that bothers people. They can’t wrap their heads around it. Especially since 5 years ago, I wasn’t doing it. So I get that.
The fans love the fighters so much, and they live and breathe the sport. I love that passion. I’m the same way. So, I understand if they feel their fighter’s being wronged. But, as far as the UG goes, I saw a bunch of the UG guys waiting for Dana in Newark after the weigh-ins yesterday, and they were all very nice to me. I just think that it’s easier to criticize me than it is to criticize their fighter. And, at the end of the day, I think it comes down to them thinking, who is this guy? Why is this guy doing this? Why is this guy getting this interview? Maybe they wish it could be them.
JS: Which leads me neatly onto my next question. Your audacity to broach controversial topics certainly belies your slight frame. It’s a curious contrast.
AH: Oh yeah, people love it. For example, I had a picture in “Fighters Only” after winning the journalist award this year, and I was parodying the fist-pose that is so prevalent in MMA. It was so funny, because people were analyzing the way in which I was holding my fist and wrist, possibly unaware that I was being ironic. But that’s who I am. Maybe I do have a small wrist. But, this sport is filled with a lot of alpha males.
JS: In keeping with this theme of you mediating between fighters, Mitrione and Tito famously had a run-in following comments made by Matt on the MMAHour about Tito’s partner. Are there any fights that you believe you’ve directly (even if unintentionally) played a role in manufacturing? Were you proud of this role as unofficial matchmaker?
AH: Well, you know, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate went at it on the MMAHour prior to their fight being officially announced. Sean Shelby, UFC matchmaker, claims he was going to organize this fight regardless. That was a pretty cool moment when Ronda and Miesha were going back-and-forth. I suggested I should be the one who puts the belt on the winner, since it was a fight made on the MMAHour.
And, I will say this. There’s an upcoming fight that I believe I had a very big part in making, but I’ll leave it up to the people to figure out which fight that is.
JS: Haha, when you say upcoming, can you possibly be more specific with the timeframe?
AH: Well, it all happened in front of everyone. It was made very clear on my show, but I just don’t think people noticed it. Coming up in the next couple of months.
JS: Ok, a bit of a cliffhanger there. I’m hoping someone can inform me about this.
Part 3 of the series will appear early next week, and broaches multiple topics including; Ariel’s own training in the various disciplines of MMA, his experience representing Canada at sport, the origins of the “Helwani Nose” t-shirt range, his musical preferences, his most intimidating interviewee, the growth of MMA, those wing shoes, and some other fun tidbits including who would win in a bout between Dana and Vince.
Jonathan Shrager: Good evening Ariel from Manchester, England. Many thanks for taking the time to talk today. I’ve scoured the net to seek out any previous instances of you being interviewed, but I could only locate a handful. It appears you don’t get interviewed too often?
Ariel Helwani: That’s right. I actually don’t like to do too many interviews because it’s not about me. I want to be doing the interviews. I want to be asking the questions. I think people get the wrong impression if I’m out there constantly doing interviews. I’ve told my story a couple of times, but it’s not about me, I didn’t get into all this to be interviewed. I got into this to interview people, and therefore I don’t necessarily feel comfortable giving too many interviews.
JS: Ah, that makes sense now. I was beginning to question my googling skills. Well, the few interviews thus far have predominantly addressed your entry into, and subsequent meteoric rise within, the MMA domain, so I’m mindful to avoid a futile exercise in regurgitation on your part. Consequently, I’m going to quiz you more on events in which you’ve been involved since becoming an integral figure within the MMA landscape. The sort of questions fans of the sport, and avid followers of your work, would probably enquire about over a beer in a bar.
AH: Oh yeah, ask me whatever you want, and I’ll answer it however I want. You can go for anything.
JS: Ok, fantastic. You are invariably the first fresh-faced reporter backstage to greet the battered and bruised fighters minutes removed from their battles in the cage. What is the most gruesome injury or lesion you’ve witnessed up-close-and personal backstage at a UFC event?
AH: The most gruesome injury. That’s a tough one. If the fighters sustain an injury, they won’t come to the media directly. There are a few channels they must pass through upon returning through the backstage curtain. They must first undergo a medical, something you’ve most likely seen during a Dana White vlog. Then, they’ll either come to us on the ‘Fuel TV’ set, or they’ll head to the photography set. So, sometimes I won’t see the fighters for a considerable amount of time following their fights, by which time they’ve invariably been tended to by the medical staff, or have been advised to visit the hospital. Hence, by the time I gain access to a fighter, they’re generally in pretty good shape. Granted, there might be a few cuts and blood visible, but nothing that I would classify as “gruesome.” Jon Jones was all bandaged up by the time he returned backstage on Saturday (following UFC 159.)
I may digress a little here, but what I enjoy most about being backstage is that you get to witness a whole other side of the proceedings that the viewer at home, or in the arena, doesn’t have the chance to see. It’s a birds-eye view of the action. I vividly recall Fedor pacing up and down like a caged animal prior to his bout with Brett Rogers. Anderson Silva warming up before the Stephan Bonnar fight. GSP and Nick Diaz moments prior to their encounter. They are truly fascinating sights, and it’s a privilege to be able to experience it. You also see a lot of emotions. I remember going to interview King Mo following his victory over Mousassi, and he couldn’t stand. He was lying down in his locker room, he had just won the title and he was overcome with emotion. I love that part of it, and I feel so lucky to be in a position to witness it all. So, to bring it back to the original question, when I think of being backstage, I don’t think about the injuries, I think about those moments.
JS: You are living the dream my friend. Moving on, how would you characterize your relationship with Dana? It’s a widely-debated topic amongst MMA fans given the unprecedented level of access you seem to have to the UFC’s head honcho. In a past CP interview, you’ve stated “Dana and I, we aren’t best buds, we don’t go and get coffee.” However, this was a while back, has this changed at all?
AH: Well actually we go and get coffee every morning. Haha, no, I’m just kidding. I’d say the relationship has really remained the same throughout, and that’s pretty amazing. I feel like Dana treats me the same as when I first met him, and I give him a lot of credit for that, because when I first met him, nobody, including the fighters, the PR team or the fans knew who I was. Dana meets a lot of people, and he really treated me with a lot of respect as an interviewer and journalist. Today, we may have our moments here and there, but I don’t expect it to always be hunky-dory and rosy, we’re both coming at things from different angles, and we have different opinions. He may have an opinion of what I’m supposed to be doing, and I may ask questions that tick him off etc etc, but for the most part I cannot complain. He’s been really generous with his time to me especially, probably more so than anyone as of late, because of the all interview requests he receives. As far as our relationship is concerned, when you talk about the most powerful man, most powerful non-fighter, most powerful promoter in the sport, I really cannot complain about the relationship that I have with him.
JS: So you would consider the relationship more professional than personal?
AH: It’s a professional relationship. The only times I talk to Dana are the times that you see. We will text about certain things, if I’m trying to get a story or confirmation, or I’m digging around for something, but we don’t talk about personal life. There’s this misconception I think that sometimes I fly too close to the sun, but it’s very unfounded in my opinion. Based on what? Based on the fact that he gives me interviews? Based on the fact that I break stories here and there? I like to think it’s because I do a great job and he respects that. You know, I’m trying to work to get that stuff. But I have a lot of respect for him, I hope he has respect for me, and that’s pretty much it. We don’t get coffee together, or hang out, or do anything on a social level.
And by the way, just to point out, that’s the same for me and everyone in this sport. I feel like my relationship with Dana is no different to my relationship with Fighter X or Promoter Y. I made a conscious effort to do that. You don’t really see me going out, or hanging out with fighters. I don’t think I should be doing that. Unless it’s for work. But on a social level, you can check my phone. You can check my voicemails. I think it’s important to foster a good, respectful relationship with the people you cover, but to not cross the line. So my approach to how I handle things with Dana is no different to how I handle things with everyone in this sport.
JS: That seems a sound policy, Ariel. From my short period covering the sport, I remember fostering a good relationship with certain UK fighters, in particular Tom “Kong” Watson and Rob “C4” Sinclair, through conducting numerous extended interviews on the phone. Perhaps though, I’d cross the line by becoming emotionally-invested in fighters I’d cover.
AH: Well, fostering good relationships is a huge part of it. People tell you things in confidence, and then trust you not to go behind their back with information exchanged during off-the-record conversations. So, I have to forge positive relationships with people, no doubt about it, but you can’t cross the line. I absolutely am able to gain access to certain fighters and opportunities owing to the relationships I’ve cultivated with MMA luminaries. But in what other line of work can you receive good opportunities without having good relationships? You can’t betray people, and then still expect to be offered opportunities. All fighters have a choice whether to give you their time. Whenever I’m filming an episode of the MMAHour, or talking to people at events, essentially I’m asking for their time. So, in order to receive it, they must trust me.
JS: Yes, that’s a valid point. Ok, in light of that answer, I’m pretty sure I know the response to the following question, but I’ll ask anyway. Has there ever been any fighter who you have fostered a particularly close relationship with away from the sport? Someone who you’d go for a meal with for example, or go for a beer with?
AH: Well, first off, I don’t drink, just because I don’t really enjoy it. I may have a drink once a year. I make a conscious effort to be on my best behavior when I’m covering the events, because that’s important, and sometimes you can lose sight of it because it’s very exciting to be in attendance at the events, you meet a lot of interesting people, but you have to remember why you’re there and keep your eye on the prize. Now, do I have better relationships with some fighters, some promoters, some managers than others? Absolutely. That’s just a way of life. I mean people will know from my show, that there are guests who feature more regularly, there are people with whom I have a better rapport. But nobody that I hang around with. If you ever see me at the fights, I’m usually either alone or with other reporters. That’s just my approach. I don’t try to cross the line.
JS: That’s fair enough. I guess it was a picture you recently tweeted of Mike Ricci devouring a McDonald’s post UFC-158 that prompted my questions regarding your relationships with fighters. I misconstrued the photo, thinking that perhaps you had snapped the image personally.
AH: No, that wasn’t me. Mike Ricci took the picture and sent it to me in reference to a conversation we’d had the week prior on the MMAHour about his love for McDonald’s. My response at the time was that I couldn’t understand how a high-level athlete could eat that food. He subsequently offered to take me for a McDonald’s, and that’s why he’ll have sent me the photo. I was actually sleeping when he sent that photo.
JS: Haha, I’d love to see a video of you interviewing Mike Ricci, and being force-fed McDonald’s. Coincidentally, a friend of mine knows the longtime girlfriend of GSP, and apparently his favourite post-fight meal is also McDonald’s, if you weren’t already aware. Maybe there’s something in this; maybe Mike’s eating McDonald’s as an aspiring Canadian champion, like Georges.
AH: Haha, yeah. Obviously, they have better cardio, workout habits, metabolism and drive than us common folk, but I still don’t understand; if your body is your temple, why would you put that stuff in there? I mean, I’m just a normal guy trying to live. I don’t use my body to make a living per se, and I’m afraid of eating that stuff. Hey, I guess that’s what makes athletes so special.
JS: Whilst your reporting role presupposes a certain level of impartiality, as a proud Canadian, do you have a soft spot for your native Canadian fighters?
AH: Honestly, and I’m not just giving BS answers…No. I’ve been living in the US since 2001, so 12 years, almost half my life as I’m 30. I consider New York to be my home as much as Montreal. My son is American, and I’m currently working on getting him his dual citizenship. I love Canada, first and foremost, I’m Canadian, and very proudly so. If Canada ever competes versus the United States at a sport, I’m probably rooting for Canada. But I love MMA because it’s about the characters, it’s about the people. There could be a guy from England fighting a guy from Japan, and I truly don’t care where a fighter is from. Growing up as a fan of the sport, I just liked who I liked. There are some Canadians I don’t care for, and some Americans I don’t care for. Vice versa, there are some Canadians I really like, and Americans I really like. So it doesn’t affect if I’m pulling for someone.
JS: You previously alluded to socializing at UFC events with your media peers. Which ones in particular would you tend to spend time with?
AH: In MMA media, you tend to stick around with the people that you work with, simply because there’s a common bond there, you might not get to see them that often, but you’re regularly in contact over email. So there’s that team atmosphere, that camaraderie. Within MMA media, I’d say I’m closest with Mike Chiapetta, because I feel like we’ve been through this together, arriving a month apart at FanHouse over at AOL back in 2009, which subsequently turned into MMA Fighting.
There are a couple of other guys on the team that I really like, but I just don’t get to see them that often. Shaun Al-Shatti, it was great to see him in Seattle, the one show we’ve attended together. I’ve seen both Dave Doyle and Dave Meltzer recently. I don’t get to see Luke Thomas very often. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever attended a show together. I also hang out with Casey, who is my cameraman/editor, and his fiancée Esther Lin from All Elbows. I’ve been working with them since 2009, I consider Casey my right-hand man. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d be as successful as I am. He does half the work, and we’ve travelled the globe together, from Australia, to Abu Dhabi, to England, to Japan and everywhere in between. In the US, we went to the Olympics together. We’ve done a lot together, and I appreciate his friendship.
JS: That makes sense. Moving onto another topic, namely the recent Matt Mitrione controversy. Firstly, is the “Mitrione Minute” now firmly a thing of the past?
AH: Well, you know, it kind of was already. We did it quite a while ago, and I reached out to him following his fight in Sweden. The “Mitrione Minute” came about many moons ago, when Matt first appeared on the show prior to his UFC-119 fight vs Joey Beltran. During the interview, Matt started to ask me questions, which was cool. He has a great personality, and we had a good rapport. That was back in the day the show lasted around 60-90 minutes, and I thought it’d be fun to have a reappearing character, who’s witty and has a unique brand of humour, to regularly give us their topical take on the MMA world. And of course, because my show is called The MMAHour, but actually lasts a lot longer, it’d be funny to call it the “Mitrione Minute” since his segment would always exceed a minute.
It got a positive reception, because it was a way of seeing an MMA fighter in a different light, and there was period of time he was appearing almost on a weekly basis. Then, he began to appear progressively less; he had a lot of things going on, he was injured, he wasn’t winning fights, so it began to make less sense. After his fight against Phil de Fries, we asked him to come on the show, and he informed me that he had “A Minute” prepared, which sounded fun. Obviously, you know what ensued. Afterwards, I realized that the show has grown up to the point where we aren’t going to do something like that every week. However, if Matt wanted to do a minute, I think it’d be fun to do it on one of the show’s anniversaries, the 5th year or 200th episode, for example. So, I’d bring him back, no problem. But obviously, I’d hope we wouldn’t cross the line and upset people, because that’s not what the show’s about. You may agree with him, or disagree with him, or whatever, but I don’t want to upset people. Sometimes, if he doesn’t toe the line, it can put me in an awkward spot, because the whole point of the minute was for him to voice his monologue. I effectively became a member of the audience, like the listeners back at home. I didn’t want to interject. But, am I banning him from the show? No. Is the “Mitrione Minute” done? Well, it kind of returns to where it used to be, when we only used to do one sporadically. But, sure, it could return.
Now, Sean McCorkle tried to do it also with the “McCorkle Minute,” but I thought his last appearance was really bad, and he keeps harassing me to bring him back. But, it just wasn’t funny, and that was the case with the last “Mitrione Minute,” and I’ve said this to Matt. Even the stuff before the Fallon Fox excerpt wasn’t funny, and it used to be funny. If you want to come on the show, you’ve got to step up your game.
JS: You seem like the sort of bloke who likes to iron out any potential issues and air your feelings, hence expressing your opinions re the Mitrione suspension on the subsequent MMAHour. However, do you take any responsibility for allowing the interview to continue when it was approaching controversial waters?
AH: No, not at all, because people say controversial things. So, if someone comes on my show, and accuses somebody else of doing this or that, it’s not my job to stop them. I can ask them questions based on their comments, but they wanna say what they want to say. I’m giving them the microphone, it’s their time. They’ve been invited on the show.
Let’s take it to the most personal level. If someone goes out and starts spewing anti-Semitic remarks, I’ll still ask them questions, we’ll still go back-and-forth, and then we’ll say goodbye. If it escalates to a point where it’s completely out of control, with somebody yelling and swearing, then of course I’d intervene. But it never got to that with Matt. I asked him a couple of follow-up questions, he said what he had to say, and then that was it. So I wanted to explain to the listeners/viewers my feelings on the matter, as I was very torn afterwards, wondering to myself whether I should have said something, or whether I was right to not interject. My Bob Arum interview, in which I intervened at times, received a lot of positive feedback, but in hindsight I actually thought it was unprofessional because it’s not my place interrupt and voice my opinion, or debate with somebody when I’m interviewing them. I don’t think people understand that.
Back in the day, Dana commented on Fedor during one of our interviews, and people questioned why I didn’t stick up for him. Well, that’s not my place. It’s not what I do. People have gotten mad at me for what other people have said during interviews. Why are you getting mad at me? I just ask the questions, and the interviewee can answer it however he wants. And that’s how I view the Mitrione incident. I also wanted to say sorry to anyone who was offended by it, because it did happen on my show. But, as far as how it was handled at our end, I don’t think we did anything wrong. I saw some people at the (pre-UFC 159) Q&A claim that I got him in trouble, but I don’t know how that’s possible, as I didn’t even ask him about the Fallon Fox matter. Some people are going to say whatever they’re going to say.
JS: Your point here reminds me of the infamous Chael Sonnen interview, following which hardcore Pride fans criticized your lack of contention to inferences from Chael that certain Pride fights were fixed. I can empathise, having interviewed some really strong personalities, such as Paul Daley, that a fighter’s directness and candor can often take you aback as an interviewer.
AH: Yes, it’s true. But also, who am I to disagree with him? If that’s what he believes, that&rs