A name now synonymous with MMA, Ariel Helwani has becomes one of the industry’s most widely-recognisable figures. The simple fact that he boasts significantly more Twitter “followers” (circa 66,000) than 80% of Zuffa-employed fighters underscores his power, prominence and popularity within MMA circles.
He has become most renowned for his stellar work as an ever-present interviewer, gaining unrivalled access to fighters, executives and personalities at UFC events, and also for his topical online show the MMA Hour. His rise to prominence has proven equally as meteoric as LHW sensation Jon “Bones” Jones. Within a matter of years, both men are at the top of their games.
Some have labelled Ariel an instigator, a trouble-maker, a sh*t-stirrer. All of these affectionate appellations are all inextricably linked to one indisputable fact; he’s a great interviewer. Nick Diaz said it best when stating that Ariel is "just doing his job", which is essentially to capture compelling insights and revelations from fighters. This inevitably entails posing questions aside from the generic “So, are you going to keep this one standing?”
There are others who perceive Ariel as the embodiment of a mainstream Zuffa-Zombie but it’s verisimilar that such detractors have been consuming a rather sizeable portion of sour grapes. After all Zuffa are at the zenith.
It’s difficult not to admire Ariel’s ascendancy. Here is a man who has proactively carved out a career through his own endeavour and “balls”. The definition of a self-made man, he symbolises that opportunities abound within the burgeoning sport of MMA, if talent is matched by passion and perseverance. His story should serve as an inspiration to anyone with entrepreneurial MMA ideas.
Here are his best bits, in no particular order...Enjoy
Of course, the theory isn’t foolproof, but generally a picture paints a thousand words when it comes to the post-fight state of a fighter’s face. And Ariel is invariably the first fresh-faced reporter backstage to greet the battered and bruised equivalents of the combatants minutes removed from their battle in the cage.
There are numerous exceptions to the rule (e.g. Sanchez-Kampmann) in which the victorious fighter emerges from the fight with a face resembling a pepperoni pizza, but in this case, it is Quinton’s right eyebrow which tells the tale. Jonny Bones has kindly extended the eyebrow for Rampage, a spot of MMA plastic surgery from Dr. Jones.
Don’t be concerned, you aren’t watching this video in fast forward, it’s just that Matt talks inordinately fast, enabling Helwani to condense a 15-minute interview into a 5-minute slot.
Ariel’s access is so all-areas that it won’t be long before he is granted entry into the Octagon in between rounds to obtain the mid-fight thoughts of combatants. Or maybe even interviewing fighters during their post-fight shower. Sky’s the limit for this guy.
Furthermore, being the principal backstage reporter enables Ariel to capture fighters' raw, adrenaline-fuelled, instinctive and uncensored emotions/thoughts in the immediate aftermath of fights.
And it appears that a fighter is even more candid and animated when he is semi-naked, drenched in sweat and struggling for breath. Mitrione’s endorphins were running rampant here so he deemed it the appropriate juncture at which to fire his agent. And on the surface, Mitrione’s firm action seems just. I mean, could the agent not at least have secured Matt a post-fight sponsor to emblazon on a T-Shirt?
Every man and his dog seems to have an MMA radio show or online podcast these days, but only a dozen are well-known. Ariel’s MMA Hour constitutes one of the most respected in the business.
The entire Matt Mitrione-Tito Ortiz debacle originates from comments made about Jenna Jameson on the “Mitrione Minute”, a popular segment of Helwani’s MMA Hour show in which Mitrione essentially ridicules any and every fighter possible. In the testosterone-charged environment of MMA, Matt’s incendiary quips were destined to provoke a confrontation sooner rather than later. It just so transpires that Tito was the first to bite.
The “Mittrione Minute” was so polemical that it has seemingly been discontinued, with all previous traces of its existence removed from the internet. The only footage still available includes Mitrione’s trash-talking partner-in-crime Sean McCorkle, a surefire way to guarantee even more controversial remarks.
This represents an even more astonishing example of the effects of endorphins. I mean, don't get me wrong, I get a slight headrush after a hard session at the gym, but this surge of blood to the head must have been immense.
After his split division triumph with Antonio McKee at UFC 125, Jacob Volkmann revealed to Ariel that he wanted to fight U.S. President Barack Obama because he disagreed with his policies, asserting, "Someone needs to knock some sense into that idiot."
Preposterous request from Volkmann on numerous levels;
- Obama couldn’t make 155, not without compromising speed and size
- Obama refused a place on the UFC roster because he preferred the tagline “O-BAMA fights for BAMMA”
That statement resulted in a visit from the U.S. Secret Service the following week. Volkmann has since appeared on several national news shows for the comments, including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Inside Edition, and the Fox Business Network. Volkmann was also placed on administrative leave by the White Bear Lake High School, where he is the assistant head coach of wrestling. So you see, even the notion of “freedom of speech” has its constraints when talking MMA with Mr.Helwani.
Helwani appears to have forged a great rapport with 95% of the MMA luminaries with whom he has come into contact, inspiring their trust and subsequently yielding the consensus most entertaining interviews in the business.
However, fighters can sometimes prove a volatile and temperamental bunch. Whilst wanting to eschew sweeping generalisations, we are discussing fighters here, not masseurs. So yes, whilst most are civilised and charming human beings, there will be a small minority that may object to certain questions, especially if they feel on the defensive or under interrogation. And these objections may manifest themselves in verbally- or physically-threatening behaviour.
Kudos to Ariel for retaining his composure and remaining largely unfazed during this intensely pressurised situation. He may be feeling slightly unnerved on the inside, but if so he conceals it expertly, hence the consummate professional in the face of adversity. Ariel’s audacity and valiance certainly belies his diminutive physique.
Following their linguistic misunderstanding over “squashing beef”, Rampage and Helwani are progressively developing an amicable rapport, based on good, old-fashioned reciprocal piss-taking. Long may it continue, because it makes for entertaining viewing.
Thankfully as far as Ariel is concerned, he was merely subjected to a jovial embrace rather than a full-on motorboating.
Perhaps Ariel’s most tricky interview to date. Then again, having overcome Nick’s initial onslaught, it was perhaps one of the easiest interviews conducted by Ariel thus far during his young career, since Ariel hardly had to pose a question.
I realise that this opening gambit is in keeping with Nick’s own contradiction levels evidenced by sentences such as “I feel I get paid way too much money, but not enough.” That’s an outstanding paradox uttered by Mr.Diaz, juxtaposed within one solitary sentence, yet incredibly his sentiment is comprehensible.
Diaz said he only accepts to interview with Helwani under duress whilst acknowledging that Ariel is only “doing his job.” In his own understated fashion, Nick is almost giving props to Helwani. Plus, there was no posturing up as witnessed during the Rampage interview.
I’m not here to berate Nick. I like Nick. I like his anti-establishment philosophy, and the manner in which he fearlessly implements it. Not many people would squander a UFC title shot so spectacularly and remain so nonchalant.
Ironically, if Nick chose to harness the media to his advantage this would guarantee him even more $$$s. That’s the crux of the media; a mutually-beneficial relationship in which a reporter attains information/opinion in exchange for a fighter having the platform to showcase his personality and promote his brand. In layman’s terms, to ask probing questions in order to elicit compelling information, or failing that, maybe even just a response, or a grunt. It’s a concept Nick pretends not to grasp. It’s a practice which he believes merits a slap, particularly around his neck of the woods.
Just to provide the subtext for this rather amusing misunderstanding, prior to this UFC 132 pre-fight presser, Ariel had conducted a customary interview with Senor Ortiz, which yielded the following dialogue;
Helwani: So what are the holes in Bader’s game that you can exploit?
Ortiz: His takedowns, his takedown defence. He doesn’t have much of a takedown defence.
In light of this exchange, I remember empathising with Helwani when Ortiz objected to Ariel’s subsequent question of “When we talked to Tito about the flaws in your game. He mentions your wrestling. Does that surprise you given that your background in wrestling?”
Now, ok, Tito never specifically stated “wrestling” per se, but surely takedowns and takedown defence constitute a rather large portion of the wrestling facet of MMA? Irrespective, it was kinda funny to see Ariel squirm a little, which he himself even seemed to acknowledge, as attested to by his wry smile.
You know a reporter is popular when leading MMA characters consciously jump to their defence. So, mind the pun, but even during his darkest (MMA) hour, Ariel had fighters demonstrating support, including pasta-fiend Matt Serra.
Even more astounding is the fact that Dana, a man who has publicly disputed with almost every single prominent MMA journalist in the industry, stands up for Helwani. Dana’s jocular raillery with Ariel could even be confused for coquettish flirting at times.
Pretty self-explanatory. To attain the scoop on a revelation of this magnitude firmly reinforced Ariel’s position of power within MMA media.
Helwani’s working relationship with MMA’s figurehead is unparalleled amongst MMA media folk, even feeling comfortable enough to dispute Dana’s claims, whereas most appear to walk on proverbial eggshells around the UFC’s combative head honcho through fear of offending him. Granted, Dana often asserts his opinions with such conviction that they end up appearing as indisputable facts, but at least Helwani gives it a go.
The definitive boundaries of Helwani’s role are becoming blurred. Does Dana view him as a friend? Confidant? Interviewer? At times it can appear in that order.
Ariel has managed to foster trusting, meaningful and enduring relationships with highly influential MMA personalities, which can only stand him in good stead for his future endeavours. This trust enables him to elicit information which would otherwise remain undisclosed.
If Dana ever does a Wayne Rooney and undergoes a hair transplant, you can bet your bottom dollar, or even your penultimate pound, that Ariel will be at the surgeon’s front desk awaiting the initial thoughts of the newly-follicled MMA mogul.
During a recent chat with Ben Goldstein of CagePotato, this interview was cited by Ariel himself as a turning point in his career;
Helwani stated, “In Abu Dhabi, I was there when Dana had his moment. Dana and I, we aren’t best buds, we don’t go and get coffee, but he has said never said ‘no’ to me, and he always gives me the access, and as a reporter, that’s all you really want. That moment was pretty big for me, because Dana was suffering from a lacklustre main event, so he was pretty upset. He gave me the time, the video blew up, and that was kind of a turning point for me.”
The ability to maintain one’s composure when propositioned to a scrap by Quinton Jackson deserves ample acclaim. But even more impressive than keeping your cool when confronted with the possibility of Rampage’s two bungalow-shaped fists is keeping your cool when encountering the two assets of Arianny Celeste in a bikini.
Not only did this interview showcase an official world-record in cup-on-knee balancing, but it also evidenced arguably the most polemical, inflammatory invective by a UFC fighter. It sparked that much interest/controversy that some have classified it as the single best MMA interview ever. Some of Sonnen’s sentiments border on xenophobic and understandably incensed the Brazilian public at large.
This interview spawned rhetoric such as “You are an immigrant from Brazil, I am a gangster from America.” Not even the freedom of artistic license afforded to the ingenious minds of Hollywood scriptwriters would yield such spectacular lines, intrepidly expressed by the most audacious man in all of sports.
There’s a fine line between brilliance and eccentricity, so they say. Chael balances that fine-line with the poise and assurance of a professional tightrope walker. For some he epitomises genius, for others he is verging on insane. However, for everyone, he is utter, unequivocal and unadulterated entertainment. Or “the most interesting man in the world” as he was recently heralded.
Having interviewed some pretty ferocious fighters myself (prime example would be Paul Daley), I can confirm that it’s easy to be taken aback by a fighter’s fearless candour. The fact that I was caught off-guard during a phone conversation with Paul underscores just how difficult it must be to interview certain fighters vis-à-vis. Helwani received some flak off the Pride hardcore for failing to properly stand up to Chael but I genuinely believe that Ariel was equally as dumbfounded at Chael’s bigotry as us viewers watching from the comfort of our own domains.
In all honesty, this entire slideshow could have comprised of Helwani’s catalogue of interviews with Chael Sonnen, Dana White, and Rampage Jackson. Between those three colourful MMA luminaries, there’s sufficient comedic content for a feature-length movie. In fact, you probably won’t laugh as much during an Oscar-winning funny, yet you’ll still have to fork out £/$/(insert the appropriate legal tender for your country)10 for the privilege.
Back to the interview, and thankfully the camera lens proved adequate to accommodate “the largest arm in West Linn, Oregon”. Again, hinting at his pro-wrestling past, Ariel likens Chael’s posturing to that of Jesse “The Body”, which led me to browse through a few 80s Ventura compilations. Jesse had mad lyrics, don’t get me wrong, but they pale into insignificance when compared with Chael’s freestyling. A vocal duel between the two would certainly prove fascinating.
It hasn’t been established whether it was Nate’s Alchemist manager Lex McMahon who directly contacted Ariel to feature on his esteemed show, or vice-versa. However, what is certain is that a mere 48 hours following the debacle, one of the most well-publicised controversies of 2011, Nate appeared on Ariel’s MMA Hour to present his version of the events. In MMA journalism terms, that’s “big pimpin”
Most people who have followed Helwani’s progress will be aware of his pro-wrestling broadcast background. In keeping with the drama inherent to pro-wrestling, Ariel invests in, and evidently thrives upon, the theatrical element of combat sports.
Consequently, when WWE luminaries make cameos at live events, he ordinarily endeavours to acquire their thoughts. So, when Mark Calaway (as he is known to his mother) attended UFC 121 to witness the defeat of his former wrestling counterpart Brock Lesnar, Ariel opportunely grabbed a few words cageside with “The Undertaker.”
No prizes for guessing who auspiciously managed to capture the culmination of a brewing feud between Mark and Brock. This video has amassed a staggering amount of YouTube views, just south of 4 million, highlighting how an incident within MMA can appeal to a wider audience.
Seagal’s reported contribution to MMA has polarised the entire fight community. There are those in awe of the possibility that Master SS has imparted his multiple decades worth of martial arts learning onto legendary UFC fighters including Anderson Silva. There are others who remain extremely sceptical as to his self-proclaimed involvement, and fervently contend that it’s purely a PR stunt. Irrespective of whether you find the claims feasible or preposterous, or indeed whether you are ambivalent, the duty incumbent upon mister Helwani is to further quiz master Seagal in order to determine his credibility, an assignment he undertakes with gusto and aplomb.
I happen to believe in Seagal’s legitimacy, having been corroborated by the fighters themselves. But, it doesn’t matter how badass he is, Seagal still needs to wipe his glasses after dropping them in Yoshizo Machida’s cup.
Alas, he may be able to report, write, commentate, analyse and interview, but he does have certain flaws in his repertoire. In this video, Ariel does nothing to detract from the conspiracy theory that white boys can’t dance. I’ll let Helwani’s silky moves speak for themselves.
This ended up becoming an alternative and highly intellectual interview which showcased Jonny Bones’ spiritual side and firmly solidified his position as MMA’s Aristotle. “Bones” proceeded to enunciate an abstract theory regarding existential matters which served to confound most listeners. It was a philosophical monologue which exhibited Jones’ ability to cogitate above and beyond the norm, and perhaps proved esoteric for the majority of listeners, who either deemed it profound insight or nonsensical rambling.
However, who knows, in years to come we may be quoting Jones' poignant mantras, in very much the same way as contemporary philosophy students cite Aristotle.
On prematurely signing his name as “Champ 2011”: I believe in the law of attraction, and I believe that you can speak things into existence. And I believe that when you know where you're going, and you know what you want, the universe has a way of stepping aside for you.
On the butterflies in his stomach being in formation: Basically, when you have butterflies, and you feel anxious or nervous, that’s when I believe you are your most powerful. Instead of honing this power, and using it, a lot of people allow it to just consume them. So I try to get my emotions under control, and use this adrenaline to my advantage.
Two days following this interview, and a matter of hours before vying for the LHW title, JBJ was en route to meditate amidst nature when he embarked on his heroic pursuit of the GPS (not GSP, nobody could physically steal Georges) thief.
There’s nothing quite like a 5-minute interview that revolves around the finer points of imbibing one’s own urine...In another language.
In many ways, this was one of Ariel’s masterpieces, or masterpisses. Whatever.
Of course Ariel isn’t a miracle worker. So, as with a hostile fighter reticent to divulge even the most scant of details, it can also prove a struggle when trying to hold the attention of a grown-man temporarily suffering from a bout of ADHD.
Bob claims Mayweather is “a fighter who stinks his opponent out.” Well, Bob, you share something in common with Floyd, and it isn’t just the fact that you’re both obsessed with money. It’s that you just stunk out the entire Yankees stadium with your dogmatic views on MMA.
Is there a more unassuming, pleasant and humble man in MMA than Greg Jackson?
Greg Jackson just happens to find himself embroiled directly in the middle of one of MMA’s most intriguing feuds, and it evidently saddens him. On the verge of tears, this was when we first learnt that Greg wouldn’t corner either fighter when they eventually meet. In fact, it sounds like he’d prefer not to even be in the country when it finally materialises.
Sometimes members of the public are invited to hold court on the show, and Ariel simply plays the mediator. The show cannot conduct cross-checks on all callers, and the consequent lack of quality control enables some aspiring comedians to slip through the net. I also wanted to include a video of the caller that was evidently high on “life”, but it has been banished to online oblivion by the powers that be.
Whilst Ariel may not “touch” Hammer during the interview, he certainly references one of his classics “Too Legit To Quit.” How come one of the Alchemist MMA fighters hasn’t entered the Octagon to Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”, or performed a post-fight Hammer dance celebration? It would certainly pay homage to their legendary CEO. An inquest is required.
Certain interviews are worth including for one particular element, or one specific quote. Here, it’s Mayhem’s ironically-entitled T-shirt, sported with the intention of provoking Nick Diaz into a scrap.
It's not often Mr White manages to articulate a tweet-length sentence without dropping an F-bomb. But here's proof that every now and then it transpires, and that it can be even be spectacular without the emphasis of an expletive.
Discussing JBJ post-128: “Then I hear this story about how he runs out and stops a guy that just robbed some people, and waits for the police to come. I’m like ‘man’, that’s a pretty big day for a guy. Then he comes in here and dominates Shogun. You know, the only thing left to do is deliver a baby on the way home tonight.”
This has only been included on account of the fact that Ariel (as he states towards the end) was complemented by various people at the UFC Fan Expo in 2009 on his interviews with Carano. Since then, it’s fair to say that his interviews with Dana, Chael and Rampage are infinitely more entertaining, but hey who actually cares? Gina is hot.
Ariel may generally hobnob with the world’s elite martial artists, but this video also highlights that he’s highly adept at mixing it with the general public, us mere mortals who aren't able to induce unconsciousness or snap limbs. Ariel, when not being confused with a janitor or Brock Lesnar, is either humouring or enlightening the masses about MMA.
One thing Helwani neglected was to inform the two adorable middle-aged women who claimed Dirk Nowitzki would defeat Lebron James in an MMA fight via “standing on him”, that in fact stomps are no longer sanctioned by the athletic commissions. No biggy.
Helwani, in one of the rare occasions that the high-profile MMA interviewer becomes the interviewee (by John Pollock from the FightNetwork), revealed that it was the unparalleled accessibility and affability of professional MMA fighters which initially endeared him to the sport, especially in relation to the difficulty of gaining access to elite level pro-wrestlers. He fondly recalls contacting luminaries such as Chuck Liddell through MySpace. And it is not purely the possibilities of reaching the MMA superstars, but how receptive they are to being questioned and divulging information compared to their combat-sport counterparts; “I can’t say enough about how accessible and humble the fighters were to me”.
In conclusion, the proof is always in the pudding ladies and gentleman. Just ask Roy Nelson (sorry I couldn’t resist. And no, it wasn’t me that called into the MMA Hour in Interview No. 27 of this slideshow).
Anyway, the respect and admiration of industry peers (both fighters and media men) really serves to lend credibility to Ariel and his body of work. BJ Penn is acutely aware of Ariel's clout, contenting himself with a mere 1% of Helwani's future MMA earnings
I'm always delighted to plug my fellow Brits.
The UK's most prominent MMA journalist, and foreign correspondent on ESPN's MMA Live, Gareth A Davis asserts that Helwani is "a growing MMA legend" at the end of the above video. That's high praise from a man whose knowledge is evidently better than his choice of beachwear.
Furthermore, I’ll leave you with the words of my countryman, and BAMMA middleweight champion, Tom “Kong” Watson.
I quite like Ariel. He only asks the questions, and it remains the fighters’ prerogative whether to respond. Ariel is undoubtedly a bit of a stirrer, but he’s great at his job. In his line of work, a stirrer attains results. It’s no coincidence that Ariel is the man who always manages to obtain the exclusive interviews with Dana White at UFC events.
Simply put, he captures the interviews that people want to see, full of media sensationalism. He broaches the topics and poses the questions that other interviewers may choose not to through concern of offending the fighters. I saw his recent sit-down with Chael Sonnen in which Chael defamed Pride and lambasted Brazilian fighters. Whilst extremely close to the bone, people enjoy such spectacles, including myself admittedly. The evidence is clear; Ariel is now arguably the single most successful and well-recognised reporter within MMA. From relative obscurity to prominence within a short timeframe is a testament to his skill.
Follow Ariel on Twitter @arielhelwani
Follow me on Twitter @jonathanshrager