Interviewing Ariel Helwani, MMA’s most illustrious interviewer, Part 2

Friday, May 17, 2013

This is Part 2 of a three part series of interviews conduct by Jonathan Shrager with Ariel Helwani.

 Part 1 can be read HERE.

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.