Interviewing Ariel Helwani, MMA’s most illustrious interviewer, Part 1

Monday, May 13, 2013

I recently procured an interview with MMA media extraordinaire, 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 furthermore provided insight into both his personal life and personality.

The in-depth interview will be released in 3 parts exclusively on the UG over the forthcoming week. Part 1 encompasses multiple topics, previously unaddressed by Ariel, including his access-all-areas pass into the UFC, his relationship with Dana White, his policy towards fostering relationships with the fighters, his relationship with fellow MMA media members, the recent Matt Mitrione controversy and part of his philosophy towards interviewing. Enjoy, and thanks for taking the time to read.

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’s what he believes. And I’m asking him for the interview, so I’ve no responsibility to stick up for anyone, except myself. If someone’s going to come at me and accuse me of something, then I think I should stick up for myself. Or my family, of course. But other than that, everyone can say whatever they want in my opinion.

JS: That’s fair enough. Have you had any subsequent contact with Matt since his suspension? Are you guys cool?

AH: I have. I’ve talked to him a couple times, and he’s moved on. He has a fight booked already against Brendan Schaub. And we’re cool. We were never not cool. He’s totally fine with me, and there are no problems. The fact that he got the fight so quickly probably made it easier for Matt to move on past the episode.

This is the first in a 3-part interview with Señor Helwani. Look out for Part 2 on the UG this Friday, in which Ariel discusses some of his most fascinating interviews, including Bob Sapp, the Mayhem Miller “Lucky Patrick” incident, and Nick Diaz, the evolution of Chael Sonnen’s persona, he responds to those who claim he’s an “instigator”, how his WWE background translates into the MMA milieu, and instances in which he’s played the role of unofficial matchmaker.