If you've read a mainstream story about the Ultimate Fighting Championship or seen one of the television specials on cable news, you've probably encountered this public relations gem: we didn't run from regulation, we ran towards it.
UFC President Dana White used it as recently as UFC 145. It's a clever way of separating the current UFC—the one White runs so successfully—from the wild west days of what John McCain called "human cockfighting." It's meant to provide distance between Keith Hackney's unrepentant assault on Joe Son's groin and the sport millions watch on Fox and FX.
Unfortunately, this clever bit of fiction has a dual role—this obfuscation has nearly erased former 1984 Olympic gold medalist Jeff Blatnick from UFC history. And that's really unfortunate, because no one has done more to protect fighters and make this sport safer for the athletes who step into the cage.
Blatnick, who passed away at the age of 55, was an important historical figure in our sport. More than just the voice of the Octagon, a presence in the broadcast booth from UFC 4 in 1994 to UFC 32 in 2001, Blatnick was also an integral architect of the sport that he would later name "mixed martial arts," the UFC's first commissioner and a powerful advocate for a carefully regulated sport.
Before Blatnick, only Japanese wrestling fans were familiar with "MMA." In the rest of the world, for years, we all called cage fighting "no holds barred" or, more often than not, NHB. It was the accepted nomenclature, written in stone. Until Jeff Blatnick made it his mission to change it.
No holds barred, he thought, presented the wrong image, drudging up primitive combat between thugs in a bar. Street fighting. The past. With cable systems and states banning the UFC right and left, that old imagery had to go.
"When I first started with the UFC, at UFC 4, we didn't really have a good name for all of this," Blatnick told me in a 2009 interview for The MMA Encyclopedia. "Some people called it NHB, for no holds barred, but I just called it fighting. But then (UFC Vice President) Joe Silva reminded me of something I had said when I was broadcasting the UWF-I events from Japan. They were like the UFC, but a work. My broadcast partner was Al Rosen and he asked me what we would be seeing in the ring. I said all they were doing was mixing the martial arts.
"They were doing nothing illegal, everything was allowed under the rules of a martial arts discipline. That was even more true of the UFC. No one had ever combined the martial arts like this. I coined the phrase mixed martial arts and it stuck. I grabbed it, used it, and that was how we sold it. It wasn't NHB, which had a stigma. It was MMA."
As the UFC's commissioner, beginning in 1998, Blatnick was a tireless advocate for MMA with regulators and television executives all over the country. His 1984 gold medal brought with the sport no small amount of credibility. He provided the rest, speaking honestly and passionately about a sport he had come to love. The UFC had, despite their own best misinformation campaign to make the sport seem more edgy, had always had rules. Now they needed those rules to carry the blessing of state athletic commissions.
"SEG had no need for an athletic commission to sanction them for years," Blatnick remembered. "It's not that we didn't want rules, it's that most athletic commissions only had boxing and wrestling in their bylaws. We didn't fall under their purview. We weren't responsible to anyone. But when the New York legislature kept us from going into Niagra Falls (in 1997), that was the moment (former UFC owner) Bob Meyrowitz realized that if MMA was going to move forward, it would have to be with the sanctioning of each state. It's not that fighters were expendable and he suddenly realized they needed
to be protected. We had always cared about the fighters. We just needed to convince the politicians."
Convincing the politicians and cable companies, it turned out, was easier said than done. But it was a job Blatnick saw through until the end. By the time he left the UFC in 2001, the sport had been given the stamp of approval in Nevada. It was the dream Blatnick had doggedly pursued for three years.
Before the UFC could convince politicians they were a risk worth taking, however, they first had to create a safe atmosphere and environment for the fighters. In other words, to establish a set of rules and a code of conduct. For the UFC, it was a three-man effort from three of the UFC's unsung heroes.
"The UFC created a manual," Blatnick told me. "We covered everything from conflict of interest for the judges and referees to the basics of how to regulate the sport. The job was given to me, but I had a lot of help from John McCarthy, Joe Silva, and many of the fighters themselves. I wanted to get a handle on what people thought the right way to do things was.
"What is the right length of a round? How could we balance the rules to be fair to both grapplers and strikers? It all came together cleanly and we formed the Mixed Martial Arts Council. From there we had to change things as fighters pushed the envelope. When Tank Abbott tried to throw Cal Worsham over the fence. When a Japanese fighter grabbed his opponent's glove and almost turned it inside out. When Mikey Burnette grabbed Pat Miletich's shorts for almost an entire 15 minutes.
"Anything that popped up, we had to address. Things you never thought of, like Phil Baroni licking Matt Lindland's face. Finger in an orifice. As fighters pushed the envelope we had to respond."
In the end, Blatnick and company had a solid set of rules. They were good enough for New Jeresey's Larry Hazzard, head of the New Jersey athletic control board, which became the first major state to regulate the sport of MMA. When the Unified Rules, used in Nevada and around the country, were adopted some months later, they were essentially a carbon copy of the Mixed Martial Arts Council Manual Blatnick had spearheaded.
"The only real change they made was to eliminate wrestling shoes," Blatnick said. "They wanted standards and uniformity for all the fighters so they didn't want some people in shoes and some without them. The rest was almost verbatim from the scoring system to the fight rules. It was essentially the MMAC manual. People in the know, they know where it came from.
"They were our rules, but they didn't belong to me. People were promoting MMA shows before I ever came around. I didn't create them from scratch. We just wanted to create a fair balance between grappling and striking and we wanted to protect the fighters. And I think we did a good job. We must have because they are still using our rules today."
MMA is a careful synthesis, the product of a careful balancing act: Between striking and grappling. Between extreme violence and safety. Between sport and spectacle. It's a combination of elements that could have easily blown up in everyone's face. That didn't happen—in part thanks to Jeff Blatnick.
Too long in the shadows, Blatnick deserves his share of recognition. He's one of a handful of men and women who helped build this sport from the ground up. His contribution to the growth of mixed martial arts, his tireless work and sweat equity, made it possible for the sport to grow and thrive under White's leadership.
Jeff Blatnick deserves a place in the UFC Hall of Fame, alongside McCarthy, Silva, Rorion Gracie and other architects of this sport. I hope we seem him there soon.
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