Today is one of the most depressing days I can remember in MMA. The type of day that takes everyone by surprise and leaves everyone wondering "what happens next?" I didn't want to believe it was true. Then I saw more and more people confirm my fears.
Former Olympic gold medalist Jeff Blatnick had passed away.
That's a name that I'm sure that most MMA fans won't recognize. If they do, it's likely because they remember hearing Bruce Buffer announce him as a ringside judge. However, those that have followed the sport from the early days know that Blatnick was so much more than just a judge.
Maybe it's because he rarely, if ever, made an error while sitting ringside. Or maybe it's because he never sought out the media attention that he rightfully deserved.
Before I kick off the discussion between Jonathan Snowden and myself, I'd like to include a statement from Jeff's close friend and NJSAC Counsel, Nick Lembo.
Nick Lembo: Jeff should be remembered as one of the most important figures in the growth and formation of MMA in this country. He was the Chair of the MMAC, a key drafter of the proposed unified rules, an outstanding judge, and trainer to new officials.
He was also a dear personal friend and a man of loyalty, integrity and kindness
Matthew Roth: I'm legitimately saddened by this news. Most fans probably only know of Jeff as a ringside judge, but that doesn't even come close to touching on his legacy. He was one of the biggest advocates for the sport and was partly responsible for the sport getting sanctioned in the United States.
I had the opportunity to meet him last year when I was a shadow judge at a Bellator event in New Jersey. He let me pick his brain all night about the rules and what he thought the sport needed. It's still one of my favorite moments in my short MMA journalistic career. I mean, how often do you get to talk to an Olympic gold medalist and former commissioner of the UFC?
I hope that people take a look at his contributions beyond his ringside judge chair. He's one of the most important and least known people in MMA history.
Jonathan Snowden: You'll read a lot about Jeff Blatnick in the days to come. About how he coined the phrase "mixed martial arts," before the UFC even existed, on an old UWF wrestling broadcast in the early 1990's. About how he helped the state of New Jersey stand head and shoulders above any other state in the regulation of mixed martial arts. About his long tenure as the UFC's color man, an integral and credible voice who helped teach a generation about what they were seeing in the cage.
But Blatnick's most important contributions were behind the scenes. He leveraged his personal credibility, a product of his courageous battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma and his subsequent Olympic gold medal, to help the sport of mixed martial arts. Speaking in front of athletic commissioners and regulators nationwide, Blatnick exuded competence. He not only explained the rules that governed competition in the cage, he actually helped come up with them.
Together with referee John McCarthy and current UFC vice president Joe Silva, Blatnick developed the Mixed Martial Arts Council and an early rulebook that became the foundation for the unified rules of MMA. No one did more to protect fighters and make this sport safer for the athletes who had the guts to step into the cage. He was an important and continuing presence in our sport. He'll be missed.
Matthew Roth: That's the incredible thing about Jeff Blatnick. You can talk about how he beat Hodgkin's, which is absolutely incredible, or you can talk about how he was the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman. Both of those are huge accomplishments for different reasons.
However, his contributions to MMA are likely the most relevant to the discussion. As you already said, he was the man to coin the term "mixed martial arts." He was a major advocate of the sport even in the earliest stages.
There has never been, and likely will never be, a man who cared more and didn't receive any of the recognition he deserved. In the night that I spent with him cageside, he allowed me to pick his brain about everything.
We talked about what defines a 10-8 round and how judges from different backgrounds will always have a personal bias. He was the first to tell me that he would sometimes favor wrestling and top control in a fight.
It was his honesty that really captured my attention. Yet it was his loyalty to the sport that will hopefully define his legacy in the upcoming days.
Jonathan Snowden: The best part about Jeff's contributions as a color man were his imperfections. Fans grew up together with him, discovering the sport in tandem, in real time. At UFC 4, he famously thought Royce Gracie was trying to escape out the back door against Dan Severn. Gracie, of course, was actually locking in a fight ending triangle choke.
To his credit, Blatnick made it his mission to learn more about this new sport. He got on the mat with top fighters like Frank Shamrock to learn the submission game first hand. He didn't have to do that, but his commitment to craft and accuracy demanded it. Jeff Blatnick didn't believe in doing things half way.