The death of Jeff Blatnick, a major figure in both the amateur wrestling community and in the development on Mixed Martial Arts, the sport he named, was due to cardiopulmonary arrest, according to officials at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y.
Blatnick's coming back from battling cancer and winning an Olympic gold medal 18 months later in 1984, made him a national sports hero at the time. He was a key figure in the early days of the UFC, as a television announcer, commissioner and in working to get the sport regulated, before the current ownership group was in place. He had remained part of the sport in recent years as one of the most well-respected judges, and also in training new judges.
He was also heavily involved in amateur wrestling, including coaching at the high school level and working as a television announcer for its biggest events.
The 55-year-old Blatnick was undergoing what one family friend described as a minor heart procedure, which is why his death came as such a shock to family and friends.
There will be a viewing on Sunday from 2-6 p.m. at Glenville Funeral Home in Glenville, N.Y. A mass will be held on Monday at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Grace Church in his home town of Ballston Lake. His burial will take place at the Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Nikita, where he was the local sports hero with both the high school gym and a local park is named after him.
The actual birth of the term mixed martial arts as it related to UFC dates back to May 15, 1998, at UFC 17 in Mobile, Ala. Just hours before the show, Blatnick, who had started as a television announcer at UFC 4 in 1994, was introduced by the promotion as the new commissioner at the fighters rules meeting.
At the time, the future of UFC was in grave danger. UFC debuted in late 1993, and over the first year, had continual growth on pay-per-view to where it had become a major player. A 1995 show headlined by Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie did 260,000 buys, a phenomenal total for an event which had no television whatsoever to promote the event. It continued to do strong numbers until being almost completely destroyed by political issues, most notably an attempt to get it banned nationwide by Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Partially due to pressure from McCain, by 1998, virtually every major cable conglomerate would no longer air the events, with only satellite companies still aboard. With pay-per-view numbers down 80 to 90 percent due to lack of availability, the events were major money losers and its future looked bleak. In the cable television industry, it was spoken like it was a given that UFC would be dead within a year.
Blatnick becoming commissioner stemmed from a meeting in 1998, where Semaphore Entertainment Group, the owners of the UFC before Zuffa purchased it in 2001, sent Blatnick and Frank Shamrock, at the time the promotion's biggest star, to a dinner to honor Leo Hindery, the president of TCI Cable. Hindery at the time was considered the most powerful political foe of the genre with the exception of McCain.
Blatnick spoke to Hindery, who responded to Blatnick that he didn't believe UFC was a sport, and that Blatnick was only a television announcer and didn't have the power to make the changes necessary for it to be a sport.
With all but a few athletic commissions not willing to regulate, UFC attempted to regulate itself, with Blatnick as the commissioner because of his credibility in the sports world, and as a response to Hindrey's remark. His background could open doors, but at the time, it was unable to open minds, because the sport's struggles got worse over the next two years.
Within the genre, events like UFC were known in the U.S. as No Holds Barred fighting. In other parts of the world, terms used included Cage Fighting, Vale Tudo, Luta Livre and Hybrid Wrestling. All events had their own sets of rules.
The term Mixed Martial Arts dates back to the Fighters rules meeting held before UFC 17. Blatnick, after being introduced as commissioner, stated that he felt the NHB term was detrimental to the future of the sport, noting that a number of moves and holds were banned, such as eye gouging, groin strikes, fish hooking as well as attacking the fingers and toes.
He told those at the meeting to use the term Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA for short. Later that night, he told the media covering the event, such as it was, that for the good of the future of the industry, to no longer use the term NHB and replace it was MMA. Because he was Jeff Blatnick, and had respect from everyone, the transition was instantaneous and with no resistance.
He also, with the help of Joe Silva, then an SEG employee, and John McCarthy, the company's main referee, put together the first UFC rule book. With some modifications, it was those rules that were used in 2000 when the New Jersey Athletic Control Board came up with what are now the unified rules of Mixed Martial Arts. Among the rules Blatnick put into place were those banning soccer kicks and blows to the back of the head, as well as putting fingers into open cuts and spreading them, which came up after the 1999 Frank Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz fight.
The only notable difference from Blatnick's original rules were banning moves like 12-to-6 elbows and knees to a grounded opponent, which were legal until that point in time.
The term mixed martial arts, used first in Japan for 1976 pro wrestling matches with Antonio Inoki against judo gold medalist Willem Ruska and Muhammad Ali, came about because of discussion Blatnick had with Silva, who later became the UFC matchmaker, a position he still holds today. They were trying to come up with a name. Blatnick, when broadcasting a Japanese pro wrestling pay-per-view event that was set up to look realistic, in a sense like a predetermined version of UFC, said how the event was mixing the martial arts. Silva brought that up that line from the show, and that's where the term mixed martial arts came from.
Blatnick was also put in charge of the Mixed Martial Arts Council, an attempt by the company to have a regulating body in place, even if it was really themselves, since most commissions refused to sanction the events.
Blatnick was a key figure in getting the New Jersey commission to approve of the sport in 2000, the first major U.S. commission to do so. Running the successful events in New Jersey, one of which was attended by key members of the Nevada commission, started the ball rolling in a positive direction. This at least gave UFC, after it was purchased by the Fertitta Brothers and Dana White in early 2001, the ability to run shows in Atlantic City, as well as the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., while being regulated by a major athletic commission.
When they established the ability to do so, Nevada agreed to regulate the sport, although the fact Lorenzo Fertitta had served on that commission was also a huge part of it. Once that happened, the cable companies rescinded their ban.