MMA’s Big Macher

A conversation with Ariel Helwani, a Montreal Jew of Mizrahi extraction whose climb to the top of mixed martial arts journalism just landed him a new show on ESPN

By Jacob Siegel|June 28, 2019 12:00 AM


Ariel Helwani has become one of the biggest names in mixed martial arts. The Canadian immigrant, who grew up in a Mizrahi family in Montreal and still wraps tefillin every morning, is a journalist, not a fighter, but he’s been a key player chronicling the rise of MMA and propelling the sport into the mainstream.

The UFC, short for Ultimate Fighting Championship, a promotion nearly as synonymous with mixed martial arts as the NFL is with football, runs on a model that combines the bracketed tournament play of league sports with boxing’s strongman rule and unshakeable illicitness, and packages the whole thing using the soap-opera-for-men narrative formulas perfected by Vince McMahon and the world of professional wrestling. Helwani understands, as well as all but a handful of people, the importance of crafting characters and storyline for selling a fight. He arrived in the scene in 2006 at a moment when MMA journalism was still shaped by a culture of message board websites run by amateurs with obsessives. As he helped bring an air of professionalism to the sport, Helwani also occasionally became something of a character himself in UFC media storylines. At different times he played both the heel and the baby face, and took his share of abuse from fighters, fans and promoters. Through it all, he stuck to a bet he’d made early on, that the UFC was going to grow and make it into the big time of sports and entertainment. That bet paid off and Helwani has become the preeminent media figure in one of the fastest growing sports in the world with a multibillion-dollar industry behind it.  

Just less than a quarter century after the UFC launched with an inaugural show that saw one competitor’s tooth get kicked out of his mouth on camera and invited comparisons to human cockfighting, the cleaned up, rebranded organization sold in 2017 for a reported $4 billion. Helwani, meanwhile, recently landed himself a prime gig on ESPN hosting both his own signature show, The MMA Hour, and a new venture with recently retired professional fighter Chael Sonnen, “Ariel & The Bad Guy,” just as ESPN [1] inked a major, first of its kind partnership deal with the UFC. 

A few days before my telephone conversation with Helwani, at a fight organized by UFC competitor Bellator, the main-event winner, whose victory came by a close majority decision, gave a plaintive lament for his post-fight speech questioning whether he still had the killer instinct necessary to win. The vulnerability shown by that fighter, a soft spoken Canadian named Rory MacDonald [3] whose affectless blank-eyed stare had once earned him comparisons to serial killers, was still on my mind when I spoke with Helwani.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What an incredible post-fight statement from Rory. I’ve thought a lot over the past couple of years going back to Conor McGregor’s [4] first loss to Diaz and Dominick Cruz’s [5] loss to Cody Garbrandt about how no other sport has inspired such poetic and brave losers. The honesty is incredible.
AH: That’s actually the reason why I love covering the sport so much. I mean, I’ve seen a gazillion fights and I get excited for the big ones but what truly keeps me coming back for more is the authenticity of the athletes. When would you ever hear someone speak like that after a game? It just doesn’t happen. Rory is a unique guy because he always tells it like it is consequences be damned. I fall in love with the sport again when I see Dominick Cruz show up and stand at the press conference, or when Conor shows up. That’s why I was so critical of Ronda [Ronda Rousey [6], a former Olympic medalist in judo and the first UFC women’s bantamweight champion] because what I wanted Ronda to know is that no one thinks less of you because you lost. Everyone loses in the sport. Some of the best fighters in the sport have double-digit losses on their record. I gain more respect for fighters off of losses than I do off of wins, especially the ones who handle them with such grace and class. It’s a fascinating thing to hear Rory speak like that. I really respect him but it’s a little bit sad because you’re seeing the fire in someone slowly die out. To steal a word from the Jewish culture it takes a lot of chutzpah to speak that honestly and freely in front of your boss, in front of your promoters, in front of the paying customers and just tell it like it is. I thought it was commendable but I’m sure the people at Bellator weren’t too thrilled.

How’s the new ESPN gig treating you? And how do you feel things are going over there?
AH: I like it a lot. Honestly, when you start something new there are challenges. I was coming from a job that I had for nine years with a lot of the same people and now you come to a very big company and things are done a little differently and you’re kind of the new kid and you’re trying to prove yourself.  I’m very proud of the fact that I made it— it’s ESPN. If you would’ve told me in seventh grade that a Jewish kid from Montreal would be working for ESPN, I would have said there’s no way. Like, how’s that going to happen?

I’m curious about how the Helwanis wound up in Montreal. Can you tell me about that?
AH: My father is from Alexandria, Egypt. That’s where he was born. And my mother’s from Beirut, Lebanon. My father’s lineage I believe is originally from Syria but he grew up in Egypt. My dad in his late teens moved to Lebanon and my mom grew up in Lebanon but they never met each other there. Then in 1967 my dad and his family moved to Montreal. It was just a lot easier to get a visa to come to Canada as opposed to the United States. In 1973 my mom moved with her family to Montreal because it was starting to get increasingly dangerous for Jews in Lebanon. Coincidentally, my mom’s younger brother actually was a competitor in the 1976 summer Olympic Games, which happened to be in Montreal. What are the chances of that?

He was a judoka [judo competitor] right?
AH: He was a judoka representing Lebanon. So they end up settling in Canada and my mom and dad meet in the mid- to late-’70s and ended up getting married and settling in Montreal. Also of note: my mom’s parents still kept their house and and jewelry business in Beirut. In 1980 my grandfather was back in Beirut tying up loose ends and was kidnapped in the middle of the night by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]. Someone had put a hit on him because they wanted his store. A neighbor of his wanted his store so they kidnapped him. And my grandmother said that she wanted to go with [the kidnappers] even though they only wanted my grandfather. They ended up being in prison in different cells, and they would interact with each other via whistling and that’s how they kind of knew that they were still alive. And my grandmother was friends with one of Yasser Arafat’s wives and this became news because at the time they were already Canadian citizens and it was news back in Canada that Canadian citizens had been kidnapped. As they tell the story, everyone else was killed that was there but the friend put in a good word and they were lucky enough to get released. Once they got released, they then said, ‘alright, we’re done here’ and moved to Canada.

The kidnapping had nothing to do with them being Jews or Zionists as far as you know, it was just for the money?
AH: I do think it had to do with them being Jewish there, yes. From what I understand, their neighbor wasn’t Jewish and wanted their spot and I guess he knew that he could put a hit on them.

My mom has told me stories of like going to school and you know, having people throw things at her and spit at her.

Funny enough, I just asked my dad about this recently and he said that a lot of his friends are nostalgic about the old days in Egypt and Lebanon but he has no ties to Egypt. He considers himself very much a Canadian. My dad loves Israel, but he’s very thankful that Canada opened its arms to them.

What was the community you grew up in? You went to a Jewish day school, right?
AH: I went to a Jewish elementary school called the Kiva, and then I went to a Jewish high school called the Herzliah high school.

What level of observance did your family keep?
AH: I’ve learned that Canadian Judaism is a little different than American Judaism. I find that when I say Orthodox to Americans, they think like black hat and we certainly weren’t that. Especially in my house and my late elementary school and all of high school, we would go to synagogue every Saturday and we would go for the High Holidays. I’ve been putting tefillin on since my bar mitzvah and I still do till today.

You still wrap tefillin every day?
AH: Every day. And from seventh grade up until probably my mid-20s, I was kosher. But then once I started traveling a lot for work and finding it increasingly hard to keep, I dropped the kosher.

I’ve listened to your other uncle, not the judoka but I guess your mom’s other brother [The academic Gad Saad [7], an evolutionary behavioral scientist and YouTube personality]. And I’ve heard him talk about some Lebanese Jewish traditions that he kept. Was any of that present in your household? 
AH: Definitely. I always identified with Lebanon. I always felt like I was a Lebanese Jew because my mom had more family members in Canada and all the food was very Lebanese. For the holidays it was all Lebanese food, that’s what I grew up with, my grandmother on my mom’s side cooking and things like that. Even Passover at the Seder a lot of the prayers that they would sing were in Arabic. So I definitely identified with Lebanese Jews and those customs. Unfortunately the family kind of got splintered. Like, for example my mom and Gad don’t speak to each other and there’s all kinds of nonsense going on. So it’s a little unfortunate that it’s not as close as it once was. But I was just back home for Passover  last week and it was the same: the same food, the same customs, all that stuff.

Helwani at the Dead Sea (Photo courtesy Ariel Helwani)

The ESPN deal seems to be representative of the UFC’s new post-Fertitta brothers era. For good or bad the sport is trying to mature. How do you think that’s going?
AH: I was at a restaurant on Saturday with my family and there’s the prelims on ESPN2 and it’s not because this place chose to put on the UFC, it was just because restaurants and bars have ESPN on all the time. I think that’s gigantic for the sport and the growth of the sport. We’re five months in and I think ESPN is treating the sport very seriously and is investing a lot in the sport. You’re seeing them trying to tell stories about fighters, trying to get people emotionally invested in fighters, doing my show, putting it on TV, doing my show with Chael.

The UFC has never had to share a broadcast partner with anyone. That’s massive.

There have been highs and lows. 2016 was a phenomenal year for the company, they had five pay-per-views that did over a million buys. Conor fighting multiple times. Ronda’s fight and that’s obviously when they sold the company so it was the perfect time to get legalized in New York. In 2017, I thought it kind of went down a little bit and that was the first full year with the new ownership. That’s really why they wanted to do the Mayweather-McGregor fight. I don’t think they would’ve done the Mayweather-McGregor [8] fight in the old era, but it gave them a lot of money without a lot of work, all they had to do was lend out Conor McGregor. 2018, there were some high moments but the main focus was finding a new broadcast partner. But now I definitely feel a revitalization of sorts. They’re trying to do a deal with Nate Diaz, they’re trying to get Conor back, they’re trying to get Brock Lesnar back. They’re trying to get the big names back. And the new pay-per-view deal has now changed everything in the sport. Pay-per-views in America are now exclusively on ESPN+ so they’re getting a lot of money upfront and that puts some of the onus on ESPN to market the pay-per-views and get the word out. It’s going to be really interesting to see how that pans out, more for the fighters, for the fans. Do people you know follow the pay-per-views? ESPN+, I’m for that, I think is a massive development that we still don’t really know how it’s going to pan out.

If you look back at Mayweather-McGregor as an inflection point, it was a huge record setting event and enormously profitable but do you think it was worth it in light of the chaos that it introduced to the divisions and the lack of predictability for the titles?

AH: It’s definitely been a weird time. It would be great to get things back to normal where the champion fights the top contender. I think that’s what people fell in love with back in the day.

Obviously there’s a business to run and I’d be lying if, you know, these fights don’t get me excited, but it would be nice to get back on track a little bit. Are we just crowning champions for the night to trick people? The belt should mean something. It should feel important. But now that they’ve sold the company, they have debt, they have the people that they have to answer to, it’s important that they continue to make large amounts of money and so I understand why they do that and I understand that kind of stuff won’t end anytime soon. I just sort of sometimes miss the old days where it felt very clean and we knew exactly who was next.

Peak Jon Jones versus peak Anderson Silva—and maybe Jones hasn’t even reached his peak yet but whatever you think his best performance was, if you put that Jones up against the best Silva, how do you see that fight going down?

AH: Jon Jones. Easy.

Easy? Even if Silva bulked up for 205?
AH: For sure. I mean, Jones at his best was incredible. He ran through everyone and just had so many tools with his reach and his arsenal. He never had incredible knockout power in his hands but he was so crafty; just so freaking good. He’s still evolving and he’s  a freak athlete. I rate him very high and I hope that he can get back on a good track here and stay clean and out of drama.

It does seem like he’s back on a good track but who knows. With him you never want to count on anything but at least he’s trying to stay active. Speaking of Jones, I want to ask you about steroids, or PEDs [performance enhancing drugs] in general since TJ Dillashaw [former UFC bantamweight champion] just got busted for using EPO. Leaving all the ethical questions aside, do you think the new USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] [9] testing regime has brought usage down or are the cheaters just getting smarter?  
AH: I honestly don’t know if they brought it down. I’ve been very critical of the USADA era because, first of all, I don’t like the fact that it was not collectively bargained for, that they just sprung it on the fighters. I don’t agree with 24/7, 365 testing, especially if you’re only fighting two, or three times a year and you’re an independent contractor.

Also, there’s the conflict of interest. The UFC is paying USADA to regulate them, which I think is commendable on the UFC’s part but then there has to be some sort of a conflict of interest there because they’re the ones being paid by them. All that being said, it’s better than nothing.

Any final thoughts? 
AH: I’m very proud of being Jewish. It’s very important for me and my family, now being a dad, that my kids continue learning about who we are and having those traditions. And, you know, one thing that stuck with me, my dad was being honored at our synagogue and gave a speech. And my dad is not really someone who give speeches, he’s not very talkative but it was for a beit midrash that was being built in the synagogue. He said that when he puts his tefillin on he really likes the fact that when he takes it off there’s the marks on his arm. He views that as his armor for the day when he goes to work. That’s like his shield.

I found that to be incredibly profound coming from my dad who’s a man of few words. And there are many times when I’m in some random city in Las Vegas going to a fight or something like that and feel I’m walking into a hostile environment and I‘ll think of the marks on my arm and I will view that as my shield and I’m comforted that no matter where I am I still have this connection not only with our religion but with my family. It’s very important for me to continue that and to always remember where I came from and what my family is all about.

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