It is, whether or not it is to your taste, one of the biggest sports stories of the 21st Century: the invention of a new game from scratch, and its progression from the fringes to the mainstream.
When mixed martial arts first appeared it was as a kind of kids’ fantasy tough-man contest – what would happen if you put a great judoka against a sumo wrestler, or a bar-brawler versus a karate master, without any rules to rein them in?
The first Ultimate Fighting Championship was a pay-per-view curiosity, and it was not for the faint of heart. In those days, more people than not agreed with the late senator John McCain, who famously labeled it “human cockfighting.”
But from those down-market beginnings emerged a sport that was eventually cleaned up, put into a caged octagon, codified, regulated, sanctioned and brilliantly marketed.
The face of MMA, Dana White, once claimed it would eventually be as big as the National Football League. It’s not quite that, and it probably never will be, but the UFC – a brand, not the whole sport, though it has achieved commercial dominance – has become part of the everyday conversation, featured on network television and all-sports networks, an international, multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
While that evolution was happening, a kid in Montreal decided that he wanted to become a sports journalist – and decided that self-invention was the way to go. Instead of taking the time-honoured route via newspaper sports sections (which, it turned out, were already on the clock) why not head to Syracuse University, the alma mater of so many great broadcasters? Rather than pursuing a personal passion for the National Basketball Association, why not attach yourself to this brand-new thing that was under-covered, that hadn’t yet spawned its own community of insiders, that was ripe for the picking?
Ariel Helwani started out in a DIY world, survived the comings and goings of various broadcast outlets during MMA’s infancy, faced down the all-powerful White (who has a tendency to treat all journalists as though they are either chattel or the enemy) and achieved his teenage goal: to become “the Howard Cosell of MMA”, an authority for a vast audience most of which isn’t old enough to remember who Cosell was.
His is a great story of guts and perseverance, and it doesn’t end there. On Christmas Day, Helwani was the sideline reporter for the NBA’s broadcast of the game between the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics. It’s been a bumpy, circuitous route, but his destination is now in sight.
In the latest episode of Open Invitation with Stephen Brunt, Sportsnet’s award-winning journalist sits down with Ariel Helwani, whose battles while covering MMA have all occurred outside the Octagon.