Whenever I hear the term mixed martial arts, I will always think of Jeff Blatnick, who passed away earlier Wednesday after complications from heart surgery at the age of 55.
It was in 1998 or 1999, most likely UFC 18 on Jan. 8, 1999, and the UFC was in serious trouble at the time. Virtually every cable system in the country had banned airing the pay-per-views, which meant unless you had a satellite dish you couldn't see them. Blatnick, due to his sports world credibility of overcoming cancer to win an Olympic gold medal, had started as an announcer and had just been named commissioner of the UFC, a title he took very seriously. He and current UFC matchmaker Joe Silva worked together on the first UFC rule book, and on the original judging criteria. He was also the television announcer, a role he had since UFC IV in 1995.
At the time, I was a UFC judge.
The show, held in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, La., was over and we were in Bourbon Street in New Orleans, with Silva and my future wife, and ran into Jeff. He said to me, "Don't refer to the sport as No Holds Barred anymore, it's mixed martial arts."
NHB was the term all the reporters at the time used as the name of the sport, aside from some Brazilians who stuck to native terms like Vale Tudo or Luta Livre. I had known the term mixed martial arts from Japanese pro wrestling matches in the 1970s, the most famous of which was the Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali match in 1976.
It's possible that's where Blatnick got the term, since before UFC, he had announced for a pro wrestling company called UWFI, which had done some pro wrestler vs. boxer matches and called them mixed martial arts matches.
Blatnick's main role was, among other things, to get the sport regulated by the major athletic commissions as a prelude to getting it back on pay-per-view, which was the main revenue stream. Without it, the sport had no hope of surviving at any kind of professional level in this country.
He explained the difficulties with the key people in the cable television industry, who had started banning UFC between 1996 and 1998, taking what had been a flourishing pay-per-view product and putting it on the edge of extinction. No Holds Barred, he said, gave people a bad connotation of what it was, and felt it was a negative. Mixed Martial Arts, the idea of combining techniques from all the various martial arts forms with that of wrestling, was really what the sport was, he would say. Blatnick had so much respect from everyone in what soon became the MMA business that it was a quick and painless transition.
Unfortunately in his role, being UFC commissioner was like he was constantly hitting his head on a wall. No matter what he said, it was never good enough for the cable television industry. He could explain that it was safer than boxing and kickboxing due to the grappling involved, cite the lack of serious injuries, and it didn't matter. Everyone would talk to him since he was Jeff Blatnick. Nobody would listen.
The usual answer he was given was to get the sport regulated in Nevada first and then come to us. One major TV industry powerhouse outright told him that he didn't believe this was a sport even before listening to Blatnick's pitch.
It's funny looking back at this period. Marc Ratner, a current UFC Vice President, was the Executive Director of the Nevada commission at the time. Lorenzo Fertitta, the current UFC co-owner and CEO, was a voting member. I believe another voting member was Glenn Carano, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback whose daughter Gina would years later would become a superstar in the sport. But they weren't ready for it at the time.
Blatnick's work did help get the sport regulated in New Jersey in 2000, where the current unified rules came into play. Fertitta and brother Frank Fertitta, along with Dana White, purchased UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group in early 2001. With Fertitta's connections, Nevada voted to regulate the sport in 2001. It got back on pay-per-view everywhere later that year, even though the UFC was forced to sign a deal so one-sided that it was helping bleed them dry in the early years.
At about that time, the new owners decided to go in another direction with the announcing and Blatnick eventually was no longer part of the promotion. At times he expressed some bitterness, but as time went on, he understood what they were doing, and Blatnick had solidified his own role in the sport. He sometimes announced smaller shows, but mostly was one of the most respected judges, working shows all over the country for every major promotion. He had just gotten licensed in the state of Washington and was to be part of the judging team for the UFC show on Dec. 8 in Seattle on FOX.
He and I had many talks before shows about problems with judging, him saying the problem were too many unqualified judges, me saying it was both unqualified judges and a scoring system that needed minor modifications.
Blatnick was one of the major news stories coming out of the 1984 Olympics. He was the NCAA Division II heavyweight wrestling champion in 1978 and 1979 at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He began specializing in Greco-Roman wrestling, a sport that at the time, no American had ever won a gold medal in. In 1980, he made the Olympic team and had hopes of medaling after capturing the silver medal at that year's World Cup. But that was when President Jimmy Carter called for an Olympic boycott since the games were in Moscow, Russia, and many countries pulled out over the fact Russia had invaded Afghanistan.
But in 1982, his career was over and his life was in jeopardy, as he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. They had to remove his spleen and his appendix, and he underwent radiation therapy.
Somehow, he battled back, and made the Olympic team in 1984. This time, the Russians, who were powerhouses in Greco-Roman, were the ones boycotting the games held in Los Angeles. A small super heavyweight, Blatnick was 240 pounds without cutting. He was actually the same size and smaller than many of the guys at the time competing in the 220-pound weight class. He relied more on technique and, especially, conditioning, largely because he had to, because he could not lock up and win by matching power.
He made it to the finals, where was giving away at least 35 pounds to Thomas Johansson of Sweden. The match itself wasn't all that memorable compared to the scene when the buzzer went off to end it with Blatnick ahead 2-0. He and Steven Fraser that week had become the first two Americans to capture gold medals in a sport that our country was considered novices in.
He sunk to the mat like he was praying, thanking God for giving him this moment. Because of his story, he was one of the most covered athletes coming out of those Olympics, and the most popular among the athletes themselves. The U.S. team voted to have him carry the flag at the closing ceremonies. After the games, he was getting a lot of work as a motivational speaker.
He could have retired on top at that point, but while the gold medal may have told some people he was the best in the world, it didn't tell him that. Few would ever taint his story of overcoming cancer to putting the asterisk on his win by saying some of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers weren't there that day. But in his mind, he hadn't proven he was really the best. He would freely admit, long after he retired, voluntarily, that he didn't believe he was really ever the best in the world, only that he had won the tournament over the people who were there on that given day. But he was training to prove that he was in 1988.
Unfortunately, the cancer returned, requiring chemotherapy throughout 1985 and 1986. Still, he came back again, and competed at the world class level as late as 1987, but wasn't able to make the Olympic team in 1988. Even healthy, it was a huge longshot he could have won given that was the beginning of the Alexander Karelin dynasty.
He had become an amateur wrestling announcer, and did some Japanese pro wrestling as well, when he was hired by UFC since they felt they needed someone who knew wrestling in the broadcast booth. He didn't know what to make of UFC at first, but when 180-pound Royce Gracie used a triangle to beat 260-pound Dan Severn, a wrestler who was a contemporary and something of a hero to Blatnick, he became intrigued by it. In the days before UFC events he broadcasted, Blatnick would be rolling around on the mat, sometimes with the Gracies, often with Frank Shamrock, to learn what he didn't know.
Blatnick never lived to see his one of his goals, to see MMA, the sport he named, legalized in New York and running in Madison Square Garden.
At the time of his death, he was a volunteer wrestling coach at local Burns Hills High School in Ballston Lake, N.Y., near his home in Clifton Park.
News of his death was like the worst body shot, knocking the air out of the MMA and amateur wrestling community.
Most in this world knew him as a guy who once won a gold medal a long time ago. Many older fans remembered him as announcer, and the moment on his first night seeing the sport live, when football legend Jim Brown went off on him as Gracie put out Severn with a triangle. Blatnick didn't think Gracie had anything as he locked on the move, that almost nobody in the crowd or watching on pay-per-view that night had ever seen before.
There are a lot of things to remember Jeff Blatnick for. But everyone, whenever they hear the term MMA, should in the back of their mind remember they owe him a debt of gratitude.