Helwani on a calling down the road less traveled
When Ariel Helwani left home a decade ago to study at Syracuse University’s esteemed school of communications, the Montreal native says he had dreams of becoming the next Bob Costas or Marv Albert. “But when I got there,” he says, “I realized everyone wanted to be the same person that I wanted to be.” Rather than follow his class pack down the path of conventional sports journalism, Helwani padded his interview skills hosting a radio show dedicated to pro wrestling and mixed martial arts.He then founded a blog with the same premise and now works as on-camera personality and writer for NBC. His podcast, The MMA Hour, may very well be the most watched (and popular) MMA show, among fighters and fans alike. Only five years removed from his Syracuse days, Helwani has become one of the leading voices on the subject of the young sport of Mixed Martial Arts. But just don’t ask him to admit it.
You recently won your second World MMA Award in as many years for best journalist. To whom or what do you attribute your success as a leading voice in the sport?
First and foremost, the fans. For some reason – and I don’t know why, but I’m really thankful for it – I have a great relationship with the fans in the MMA community. Also the organizations, the outlets, I work for (MMA Fighting and NBC Sports) that allow me to go cover these events… I believe very much in Woody Allen’s quote: “eighty percent of success is showing up.”
You cited that same quote in a recent chat with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones. In that interview, JBJ mockingly quipped: “when it comes to analyzing and reporting, you’re on top of the game. How do you stay grounded?” You didn’t answer, so I will repeat the champ’s question: How does the Al Michaels of MMA keep his humility intact?
I am definitely not the Al Michaels of MMA. Hopefully I’ll be a quarter as good as him in fifty years. How do I stay grounded? I don’t really think I’m that good. I sincerely don’t think I’m the best [but] perhaps there just aren’t as many people covering the sport, so we get a lot more attention. I’m not just trying to be humble, I truly do believe that.
However, you have been called “the best pound-for-pound MMA journalist in the world.” How to you respond to that brand of compliment?
As we all know, the pound-for-pound lists are silly, so I think pound-for-pound debates for journalists are even sillier. I’m not really sure how you can a best pound-for-pound journalist.
You’re a humble Canadian, proud Quebecer and diehard Montreal Expos fan, perhaps in that order. Are there ‘Canadianisms’ you carry with you now that you live in New York City?
I’m really proud to be Canadian, probably more so now that I don’t live in Canada. Definitely, I feel some sort of connection with the Canadian fighters and when I meet Canadian fans I can always tell just based off their accents. I love meeting them, love finding out where they’re from. Being Canadian is a big part of my identity and I think that’s what some people like about me, [that] I’m not like everyone else – I have that little Canadian in me.
I’ve heard you say MMA athletes typically enjoy talking to you and the press in general. Why do you think that is and what separates stars in the UFC from those in MLB, the NHL, NFL and NBA?
MMA fighters are the most unique and enjoyable athletes to be around because they’re honest and haven’t been tainted by the media. They’re not jaded or the kind of guys who are packaged by a publicist, so they’re going to tell it to you like it is. Part of it is the martial arts mentality. They’re not gazillionaires, not spoiled – they’re just down-to-earth, humble guys. And all of them have great stories.
You’ve been covering mixed martial arts for half a decade. In that time MMA has grown from a fringe spectacle to a mainstream sport. As an insider, has it been exciting experiencing that transformation?
Ten years ago, it [MMA] wasn’t even on Spike yet and it was hardly sanctioned in most [U.S.] states and provinces in Canada. Then you look at where we are now: Fox; it’s pretty much in every state; it’s in Ontario and Quebec. It’s come a long way and it’s been amazing to watch. In our lifetime, I don’t think we’ll ever see a sport grow like MMA has over the past decade.
Finally, UFC president Dana White has called Canada the “Mecca of MMA.” Do you see it that way, or is the country likely to play second fiddle to Brazil in future?
I definitely think Brazil is giving Canada a run for its money. However, I will say Brazil has only hosted one event in the last decade-plus; Canada has had many. In the last 12 months, it’s been Montreal [and] Toronto, twice, and Vancouver. So pound-for-pound I would still give Canada the nod.
Interview by Remi L. Roy; photo courtesy of Esther Lin