The world’s best MMA journalist is a man named Ariel Helwani. He went from publishing interviews on a small, homemade website in 2007 to being the front person for MMA Fighting and host of the MMA Hour and the MMA Beat, with more than a million downloads. He has won the MMA Journalist of the Year award seven years in a row and is considered the GOAT MMA reporter by many. However, even a successful career like Ariel’s has its road bumps. He was fired by FOX, banned from the UFC for life and removed from Showtime prior to the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight. Besides talking about this, Ariel also tells us how to get in contact with the biggest names, his frosty relationship to Dana White and what he’ll be doing in 10 years!
Hard work pays off
It’s Tuesday morning in New York when the Skype call is connected. Ariel is at home, dressed in a comfortable Knicks hoodie, resting from yesterday’s MMA Hour. The episodes are often up to 4-5 hours long and are broadcasted live. “I’m completely exhausted after every broadcast, thirsty and starving. It usually takes about two days until I’m fully recovered. There is no better feeling than Monday night for me. There is a sense of accomplishment, and I usually fall asleep at 9 o’clock that night. Tuesday I take a break from the show mentally. Then come Wednesday, I start to think about next week’s show and what’s going on in the news. Thursday I start to reach out to people, start booking the show. I do it on my own, and even the people who work on the show don’t know about the guests until I tweet it out.”
”WHEN I STARTED, I DIDN’T HAVE A SINGLE PHONE NUMBER, I DIDN’T KNOW A SINGLE PERSON IN THE SPORT!”
With more than 10 years in the business, Ariel have had time to collect contact information to all the biggest names and some would probably pay a lot for his phone book. “What’s important to me is to go to evets and talk to as many as possible. Not just the fighters themselves, but also the coaches, training partners, nutritionists, managers, masseuses, wives; as many sources as possible. I pride myself on being able to think of some way to get to a person. Also, I always make sure to have a professional relationship to all the fighters. I’m happy to have good relationships to all of them, but I’m not looking to make friends. For example, I have great respect for Daniel Cormier, but when we were in Boston for UFC 220, I wouldn’t go out for dinner with him, because what if Volkan Oezdemir walks by and sees me? It doesn’t look good.”
Ariel in the new studio for the MMA Hour. Photo: MMA Fighting
”When I started, I didn’t have a single phone number, I didn’t know a single person in the sport! Back then there was MySpace, so I used to write 20-30 messages per day to all fighters I could find and ask if they wanted to do an interview. I’d get 1-2 replies per day with their contact information, and since then I’ve built my network. Today there’s social media to contact people, but at the same time they get some many messages every day that it might be a bit hard. I started my website in 2007 and my goal was to have one interview every day. At the same time, I was working for Spike TV, but I had a dream of being a reporter, an interviewer. So I gave myself six months to get noticed, left my job at Spike and went all-in on the website. With three days left until my deadline, someone reached out to me and I was able to get a job. Thankfully it worked out!”
“THEY FIRED ME FROM FOX BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T LIKE CERTAIN THINGS I WAS TALKING ABOUT ON MY SHOW”
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Nevertheless, everything has not always gone Ariel’s way. About two years ago, he was fired from UFC on FOX. A few months later, during UFC 199, he was banned for life from the UFC after breaking the news that Brock Lesnar was fighting at UFC 200. Prior to the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight he was supposed to work for Showtime, but was removed in the last minute on orders from the UFC. “All of this has affected me, of course, but it affected me for the better. Every incident has made me a better person and a better journalist. The only negative outcome was that I lost money and opportunities, which sucks. But I don’t believe in licking your wounds, or feeling sorry for yourself. When these things happens, I just become super motivated. Take MayMac as an exemple, I said to myself that I would beat everyone and have the best coverage. I got sit-down interviews with both Conor and Floyd, live MMA-hours with the best guests possible, and much more. So I think I succeeded.”
Ariel interviews Conor McGregor prior to the Floyd Mayweather fight in 2017. Photo: MMA Fighting
Dana White has affected Ariel’s career in many ways and it’s well-known that they do not have the best of relationships anymore. We ask Ariel to describe it in his own words. “Our relationship is non-existing. I’ve seen him backstage, when it’s just me and him, and he doesn’t acknowledge me. In my early days no one was nicer to me than Dana. He was gracious with his time, answering my questions via text and gave me access. Then it went sideways, and to be honest, if someone asked him what the issue is with Ariel, he’ll say that I’m a weasel or something like that, but he doesn’t have a real reason, nothing happened! I was breaking stories, which is my job. They fired me from FOX because they didn’t like certain things I was talking about on my show, and for going to a Bellator media event. But they never told me not to go, or not talk about certain things. The people I was really mad at were the people at FOX, who just let the UFC dictate what they were doing and not standing up for me.”
“I HOPE THAT DANA AND I CAN HAVE SOME KIND OF WORKING RELATIONSHIP AGAIN, EVEN IF WE’RE NOT BEST FRIENDS”
”After FOX I was free of any obligations and was back to being a journalist who can just go out and break stories. That led to the UFC 199 incident, but what did I do that was so wrong? No one ever told me anything off the record, or said anything in confidence or warned me of ruining a relationship if I broke the news. I’m glad to see that they rectified it and withdrew the ban, and it’s all because of the fans. I hope that Dana and I can have some kind of working relationship again, even if we’re not best friends. I’ve reached out to his PR team and asked to sit down with him. If we’re calling it like we’re seeing it here, he has taken away jobs and opportunities from me, so I should be the one holding the grudge. He’s so rich his children won’t have to work, but I’m not in that position. Nevertheless, I don’t have any grudge against him, I really don’t. I’m open to meet and bury the hatchet at any time.”
A successful career
Ariel is known to many for always daring to ask the tough and uncomfortable questions. He himself sees it as a matter of course. “It’s a privilege to talk to these people, with such a big audience, and if I don’t ask what people want to know, I’m wasting the opportunity that I was given. No one cares about the mundane stuff, everyone wants to know the juicy stuff and it’s my job to find out. Of course I think about how to get to a tough question, how to build up to it. There’s also a way you ask certain questions, but of course you wonder how they’ll respond to it. I’d be so mad at myself if I shied away from asking those ‘difficult’ questions.”
“NAME ANY ATHLETE, CELEBRITY OR PUBLIC PERSON OF INTEREST TO THE REST OF THE WORLD AND I WANT TO INTERVIEW THEM”
We discuss different episodes of Ariel’s career and ask him to pick his greatest highlights. He mentions UFC 91 in his hometown Montreal, all GSP’s fights in Canada, covering Mayweather vs. McGregor but also the work with the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The success with the MMA Hour and the MMA Beat mean a lot to him as well. But what he says sticks out the most is the relationship with the fans that has built up over the years. “Fans who come up to me and say that they listen to the show every week; that means a lot to me. Especially nowadays when there are so many podcasts to listen to. A fan from Germany said I was like a friend to him, from having listening so much to the show. That’s the greatest honor and compliment that someone could give me! All of this was so close to not happening, so I’m so thankful!”
The MMA Hour episode 408 with Georges St-Pierre in studio. Photo: MMA Fighting
Who do you want to interview when all the greatest names have already been to your show? Fedor Emelianenko, Royce Gracie, Conor McGregor, Dana White, Mike Tyson, Ronda Rousey, Mirko CroCop are just a few of all the starts who’s been on. But there’s still a few guests left to wish for. “The two I usually mention are Lorenzo Fertitta and Gina Carano. Ari Emanuel, UFC’s new owner together with Patrick Whitesell would be amazing to interview in order to understand their visions. Then there’s a whole world of people to interview outside of MMA! Basketball players like Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson… Name any athlete, celebrity or public person of interest to the rest of the world and I want to interview them.”
“I THINK THERE IS TOO MUCH MMA, THAT THE UFC IS SPREADING THEIR PRODUCT THIN”
The future of Mr. Helwani
We are curious about the future of the world’s best MMA journalist. He has worked with MMA for more than 10 years, so we ask what he will be doing in 10 years from now. “Oh, that’s a good question… I hope I’m healthy and happy. I hope that I still cover MMA, but I would be lying to you if I said I hope I’m only covering MMA. I’d love to cover the NBA finals. I’d love to have my own interview show on TV. I really love the art of interviewing and asking questions. I want to show the world that I can ask questions to other people as well, and that I have other interests besides MMA. So I hope I get to flex my muscles and spread my wings!”
The MMA Hour with Fedor Emelianenko on the phone. Photo: MMA Fighting
”I still love MMA, but there are obviously some things about MMA that I don’t like. I think there is too much MMA, that the UFC is spreading their product thin. They don’t have the roster for the amount of events they have sold to FOX. I think they could be better at promoting, with things like posters, the commercials, the videos, all of that. They don’t take enough time to promote fights because there are too many shows. The marketing stuff interests me a lot, and a part of me wants to say ‘give me a year and let me be the promotor for an organization, I know what I’m doing!'"
We end the interview by asking four quick questions:
- Will the Reebok deal be renewed when it expires?
“No. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be another uniform. I just don’t think it will be Reebok. That’s my guess.
- Will there ever be a union with enough power to impact the UFC?
- Who wins the UFC broadcast deal?
“I don’t think it will be one outlet. I think it will be at least a couple. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s back on FOX, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Amazon. There’s also rumors about AT&T.”
- Will Bellator ever catch up on the UFC or always be 2nd?
“They could catch up, but it will be years for the gap to close, because the UFC has a 20 year head start. You never know, we thought for a long time that PRIDE was dominant. Hm, but no, I think the UFC will continue to dominate.”
Once again Ariel wins the MMA Journalist of the Year award at the World MMA Awards.
We humbly thank Ariel Helwani for the interview and hope that we can continue to consume his high quality interviews for a long time!
Text: Pelle Axelsson