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Ariel Helwani Won’t Back Down

The Mizrahi MMA journalist had big-time broigus with UFC head Dana White and MMA legend Khabib Nurmagamedov. Now that his three-year run at ESPN is over, there’s no telling where independence will take the Nose.

by
Elie Bleier
November 03, 2021
Original photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images
Original photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images
Original photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images
Original photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

In a July appearance on the Dan Le Batard Show, Ariel Helwani was jovial, wearing a sparkly, multicolored, lucha libre mask. Below him flashed the onscreen title “World’s #1 MMA Reporter | Mensch.” At one point, riled up by the energy of like-minded thinkers, unbridled from the grip of his corporate overlord, he screamed toward the camera, toward the over half-million YouTube viewers, reiterating what he’d been telling us, and himself, for a while now.

Independent Helwani is a force to be reckoned with!

Independent Helwani. Or rather, Helwani, independent once more. In June, after three years at ESPN, the multiple time MMA (mixed martial arts) Journalist of the Year announced his decision to move on. To many, this came as a complete shock. ESPN is the peak of sports journalism; there’s practically no higher you can climb. And the company was in the midst of a multiyear broadcast deal with the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), the most prestigious MMA organization and the league Helwani covers most.

Also, Helwani wasn’t just some low-level employee: He was a star. Exclusive interviews with Conor McGregor, check. Flagship shows with two of the sport’s most recognizable talents, Olympian and UFC champion Daniel Cormier and former title contender Chael Sonnen, check. Millions of social media followers—even more than many current UFC champions—check. Hell, he even fulfilled his lifelong dream of NBA coverage just by knocking on the boss’s door.

But Helwani’s time at ESPN, and journalistic career at large, was hardly drama-free. “The Nose” (his industry nickname) has a reputation for being just a bit too nosy, often rubbing fighters and industry professionals the wrong way. When Cormier told him on-air that “everyone wants to beat you up,” it packs more of a punch than in other careers. It also rings different because of who Helwani is: In a sport filled with unapologetic machismo, sub-10% body fat, and raw, uncensored, and oft-unwatchable violence, this nerdy, tear-prone Canadian Jew wraps tefillin each morning and speaks openly about mental health and his suburban-mom Peloton bike. One cannot imagine this man ever throwing a punch; he’s a man of the book, not the ring.

So why did he leave a dream job, one which was his childhood fantasy and which had just offered him a new contract? He’s actually made it quite clear: new multimedia opportunities that offered creative control and financial freedom. Sure, in interviews like Le Batard’s he’s opened up about being miffed with ESPN on this end or that. But the truth is that Helwani at ESPN was a round peg in a square hole. ESPN is censored, politically correct entertainment beholden to shareholders and professional league affiliations, while Helwani is a quirky, geeky, and polarizing Quebecois who asks tough questions and sniffs out scoops. “I don’t feel like I work for any entity,” he proclaimed in his career-decision video. “I feel like I work for the fans.”

Truthfully, this shift is yet another reflection of the independence deeply embedded within his spirit, his history, in who he is himself. The question now is—who is Ariel Helwani, really, and which other sides of Helwani will his new freedom bring out?

One fundamental side of Helwani’s identity is his Jewishness. And his Jewish origins are in the Mizrah. “What is Mizrahi?” he asked. “I always thought of myself as Sephardic.” Unsure about this and other details of his family past, he called his father, Claude, to get details and was thankful for the impetus. “He’s a no-nonsense sort of guy,” said Helwani. “This phone conversation was one of the longest ones we’ve ever had.”

The Helwani clan originally hails from Syria; the name stems from halwa, the Arabic word for sweet. His father grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, and as a teen migrated to Beirut, where Helwani’s mother, Penina Saad, lived. Things were tense in Lebanon, and in the late ’60s, when a Jewish organization offered free tickets to Canada, the Helwanis pounced. Years later, as civil war started unfurling, the Saads also left the country. Both families found themselves in Montreal, home to a tight-knit Mizrahi community, where they successfully established themselves. (Helwani’s maternal uncles, David and Gaad Saad, found success in the West in their own rights; David competed locally in the ‘76 Montreal Olympics, while today Gaad is a well-known professor of evolutionary psychology and marketing who’s associated with the Intellectual Dark Web, rubbing elbows with people like Joe Rogan.)

Helwani was born into this East-meets-West world. Each of the four Helwani siblings attended private Jewish school, and his family attended the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Canada’s oldest shul where Mizrahi immigrants mingled. But his family wasn’t that religious. “I watched a hell of a lot of TV on Saturdays,” Helwani laughed. Saturdays were holy to the Helwani boys for another reason: sports. Obsessed with pro-wrestling, boxing, basketball, and more, Saturday TV was where they got their fix. But it wasn’t just athletics that drew them in. It was the tension, the excitement, the rise and the fall, the “characters, storylines, and mano a mano” that they saw onscreen and began to emulate themselves.

Helwani occasionally dabbled in actual sports; his crowning achievement was playing basketball in the Maccabi Games. What he lacked in skill he made up for in confidence—at age 10, certain he was destined for the NBA, he signed a mock contract with his cousin: If Ariel wasn’t in the league by 20, he’d owe him $1 million. Of course, Helwani quickly realized he wasn’t getting into the NBA. But he also realized that his future might not be on the court, but on the screen. Late at night, he’d tinker with his Walkman, finding exactly the right position to be able to hear New York Knicks postgame shows a country away, where basketball was actually covered. Listening to the legendary commentators Bob Costas and Marv Albert, he’d dream that one day he himself, an Egyptian-Lebanese-Canadian Jew, could do what they were doing. “I just loved talking about sports,” he recollected. “And I loved the idea of people listening to me talking about sports. All eyes on you, the buzz, the magic, which I’d recreate: ‘Hello everyone, it’s Ariel Helwani, welcome to ...’”

This navel-gazing idealism may have been cute, but it was also fodder for his insecurities. The baby of the Helwani boys, he was awkward, shy, and self-conscious, and his older brothers would rag on him. “I don’t know if you want to use the word depressed,” he said. “But I was a very emotional kid.” On a class trip to Israel, he fell into a rut, and once home, he decided that switching school campuses would help him overcome his mental state. One week later, he regretted it and switched back. And then he switched to the new campus again. “I like to follow my heart, and it just didn’t feel right,” Helwani explained.

The only thing that felt right was talking about sports. In ninth grade, “reading” a book in English class with Sports Illustrated propped up inside, he learned about the U.S.’s top sports broadcasting degree at Syracuse. Bob Costas went there. Marv Albert went there. And while the school was alien to the Montreal Mizrahis sending their kids to McGill to become doctors and lawyers, Ariel Helwani decided that he would go there, too.

At Syracuse, “everyone had the same dreams,” said Helwani. “Everyone was trying to be a ‘play-by-play’ guy.” There was, he learned, a formulaic sports journalism career ladder that graduates were expected to climb: first high school, then college, then big-league coverage. But the anxious Egyptian-Lebanese-Canadian Jew didn’t quite feel like his American classmates, and the prospect of following them down monotonous career paths freaked him out. Unable to connect to those around him, he’d stay up late, till 3 a.m., well after everyone was fast asleep, just to brush his teeth alone in the communal bathrooms. The thought of Blue Diamond almonds, which he’d eat in his room to avoid going to the dining halls, still makes him nauseous today. In a new country far from his community, he was out of his element and considered leaving. His parents didn’t let him. The Old World Mizrahis had dealt with much worse.

It was during those tumultuous Syracuse years when opportunity struck, as Helwani stumbled across the roughly 10-year-old sport of modern MMA. A decade earlier, the UFC 1 tournament was held to determine which martial art was superior and was met with shock and awe, like it was glorified human cockfighting. Helwani recalls seeing the tournament as a preteen, but until he reencountered MMA in his dorm room, alone and bored, he didn’t pay much attention to the sport. By that point, it had grown, but it was still a pretty niche pursuit. In it, he saw career potential, a fringe industry his conventional classmates weren’t interested in that both lacked veteran reporters and had the potential to make it big. But it was also the characters, storylines, and mano a mano that attracted him, just like those sports on Saturday morning TV.

The college-aged Helwani didn’t know exactly who he was yet. But he knew he wasn’t like everyone else—and that MMA wasn’t like other sports, either. So he decided who he wanted to become: “that guy,” who in 10 years’ time, major networks like ESPN would come looking for once MMA had made it big. He wanted to be the “Howard Cosell of MMA”, a famous Jewish sports broadcaster who specialized in boxing, and whose enthusiastic and colorful, yet abrasive and sometimes outright controversial, personality was what helped him shine.

By Nov. 18, 2006, however, three years had passed since Helwani had graduated from Syracuse, and though he was working in sports journalism, he still hadn’t entered the MMA journalism ring. But on this near-freezing evening, he found himself back home in Montreal, keeping warm inside of Champs Sports Bar. He had tried to invite friends, but they didn’t get it: Who is Georges St-Pierre, who is Matt Hughes, and why do we care if they’re fighting each other on UFC 65? Apparently, the people freezing in the bar’s line, which wrapped around the block. “When [St-Pierre] won the belt, the place exploded, like the Canadiens had won the Stanley Cup,” Helwani recounted. “I remember thinking to myself: Wow. This sport really elicits tremendous emotion out of people. I just want to be a part of it.”

Indeed, MMA was electrifying. Still in its infancy, it was also filled with a massive amount of cringeworthy tactlessness. The Tapout and Affliction gear, the Tito Ortizes and Chuck Lidells, the bloody, unadulterated barbarity of it all. Imagine hyperaggressive, absolutely jacked jocks, locked in a fenced cage beating each other senseless while rolling around a blood-stained mat, wearing shorts with ads for the Condom Depot, ExtenZe sexual enhancement supplements, Dude Wipes (plastered across the buttocks, of course), and, somehow fittingly, Dynamic Faster, a company selling contractor-grade tools—all while surrounded by loud, drunk, trashy fans inside a modern-day gladiator arena. When the influential Canadian sports journalist Stephen Brunt interviewed Helwani years later, he described a visit to an early UFC event as feeling like the “end of the world and civilization as we know it.”

Helwani likened the early MMA journalism scene to the Wild Wild West, where event coverage effectively consisted of unaccredited “reporters” holding handheld cameras. While the aesthetics of the sport were out of his control, he could certainly work to improve its coverage. In 07, months after St Pierre’s victory, he accepted a job at Spike TV, at the time the broadcasting home of the UFC. One week later—much like switching schools week after week—he quit. “I realized there was no real creativity involved,” he explained. “I just get these impulsive feelings, and I’m like, I can’t be here anymore.”

Over the next decade, Helwani navigated the MMA journalism field that incumbents like ESPN still weren’t regularly covering. He began professionalizing coverage, simply by showing up to events in a suit and tie and with a camera crew. He was also a talented interviewer. “I got the interview skills from my mom, who my friends would always call for advice, and the work ethic from my dad, who never gave an excuse or took a sick day,” he said. By 2012, his career started to take off. He joined MMAfighting.com, launched his patented show, The MMA Hour, and soon after, Fox brought him on to their TV coverage team.

Helwani had thrust his anxious self into a public onscreen position, working with cage fighters, the alpha-of-alphas, without a formal TV background. He claims he wasn’t putting on a show for the camera in those early years. But he played up a beta role, which he described as a “perfect complement” to the people he interviewed. Even at 6 feet, 200 pounds—MMA trolls joke that he couldn’t make the 125-lb division—Helwani seems scrawny next to fighters like Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. This gives viewers a choice: Relate to the rippling-ab superhero who they could never be, or the dorky everyman standing right beside him.

There was one defining moment early in his career, when Helwani was actually scrawny, that would solidify his public persona. With his then-girlfriend (now wife) Jaclyn, Helwani went on an irritable bowel syndrome diet (“classic Jewish thing,” he said) and lost 40 pounds. Shortly after, this frail, awkward 20-something-year-old found himself interviewing Gina Carano, a UFC title contender who also happened to be one of the world’s most attractive female athletes, appearing on Maxim’s Hot 100 list and even the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s "The Body” Issue alongside Serena Williams.

In the interview, Helwani was flustered and broke the fourth wall. “Do I have an awkward vibe to me?” he asks. “No ...” Carano replies, trying not to hurt his feelings. “But you hold the microphone here really long!” she exclaims, wrapping her hand around Helwani’s and pulling the mic toward her mouth. They share a laugh. “I ... I don’t ... I haven’t quite gotten it down when to switch over,” he stammers, rapidly shifting the mic between them, causing Carano to laugh so hard she face-palms herself.

While smiling on camera for the world to see, internally Helwani was a complete mess. Calm down, he thought. Just be yourself, Ariel. No need to play a character. And herein lies Helwani’s real MMA reporting innovation: Ariel Helwani himself is a character.

The most important ingredient to Helwani’s stardom is not his fighting prowess or his technical analyses into maneuvers that win or lose bouts. “You know how to talk, but you don’t know shit about how to escape an armbar,” poked former UFC champ and current Helwani coworker Michael Bisping. Instead, a quick-lipped storyteller, Helwani reels fans in with what he himself is most drawn to: characters and storylines. Mixed with his workaholic mentality and professional looks—shaved head, cropped stubble, boxy glasses, and put-together fashion sense—Helwani’s shows have taken hold in the sports journalism mainstream, from The MMA Hour to his three separate ESPN shows which led their MMA coverage.

Even paired with the sport’s biggest names, it’s he who leads the dance; he’s funny, quippy, energetic, and well-prepared, a larger-than-life personality with the brains to back up the lack of brawn. “What are some of the words you’ve used on me over the past year that I just don’t understand?” joked Cormier on the final episode of DC & Helwani. “When your little smart finger goes up, and you’re like, ‘I would be remiss if I ...’ Now you can go use your big fancy words at some other network by yourself and not drag me and [Sonnen’s] vocabulary through the mud.” These big fancy words are not off-putting to everyone, though. In fact, by elevating the sport’s coverage Helwani actually has changed the aesthetics of the sport, making it more digestible to people who would have otherwise avoided it.

These skills would seem to align with the entertainment ethos of Disney-owned ESPN. They also align with the entertainment era of the now grown-up UFC. In 2016, the company was purchased by the Hollywood talent conglomerate Endeavor for more than $4 billion and has since gone public, adding another $2.5 billion in valuation. And in this era, where the company is seeking global reach, star power reigns; those riding 10-fight win streaks are pushed aside if Conor McGregor or some other loudmouth wannabe riles up attention and brings in more pay-per-view purchases.

In other words, fighters are not just fighters. They are entertainers. They are, as Helwani realized early on, real-life pro-wrestlers. And when paired with Helwani, the entertainment, drama, or controversy, what have you, is nonstop:

“No no no, I didn’t say that,” responded the all-time great boxer Floyd Mayweather when Helwani asked about his opponent McGregor. “You like to put words in my mouth.”

“I feel like you instigate fights quite a bit,” replied the Stockton bad boy Nick Diaz when Helwani asked Diaz if he liked him. “Maybe that’s your job, but where I come from people like that get slapped.”

Dana White

Dana WhiteAlex Menendez/Getty Images

“You been talkin’ bad about me, homie. I get tired of that,” claimed his longtime friend-foe “Rampage” Jackson. “People don’t know how much work I put into this job. And they disrespect fighters and think they can say whatever they wanna say about us. We human beings, dawg.”

Even colleagues have their limits. “He infuriates me,” said Sonnen, who is also blessed with the gift of gab. “He infuriates me at times where I have a hard time speaking and responding.”

Eager MMA fans gobble up the innumerable moments of authentic conflict between the most dangerous men on planet Earth and the wimpy Canadian Jew. For some, he’s the victim of these encounters; for others, an instigator who’s getting his due; for all, a definitively divisive figure they just can’t stop paying attention to.

Helwani doesn’t think he’s as controversial as it may seem. “Ask 98% of the people in the sport what they think of me, and I’d say the track record is pretty good,” he confidently claimed. “Ninety percent of what I present is positive. This idea that I’m a negative hogwasher is nonsense.” Indeed, rather than stiff interrogations, the majority of interviews come off as playful, intimate back-and-forths between friends. And if some hate him, it’s more love-hate than anything; fighters who snarl at Helwani one moment, instinctually reacting to his uber-chutzpah, often smile and buddy up to him the next.

Those who get mad at him, who think he’s an annoying antagonist who incessantly probes with leading questions, misunderstand what independent journalism actually is: He asks tough questions because it’s his job. But the economics of fighting are different from other professional sports: Without predetermined schedules, future matchmaking, and fight paychecks are affected by a fighter’s ability to draw views, meaning that what the media says about them can affect both their title aspirations and bottom lines. This leaves Helwani and other MMA journalists stuck between a rock and a hard place, caught between speaking their minds independently and retaining relationships with the fighters they cover.

But even by contrast with his MMA journalist peers—who he often gets into it with as well—his track record is much rifer with dramatic encounters. The sensitive Helwani, noticeably weighed down by perceived critique, is often unwilling to just swallow his pride. When crossed, he’s a logician, using hard facts and crisp argumentative technique to debate away the haters; when backed into a corner, he’s a fighter, a hot-headed, sharp-tongued verbal tactician who’s quick to defend his honor and unwilling to tap out. And in almost every scuffle Helwani’s angry interlocutors end up coming back to him, with or without formal bread-breaking. He’s simply good at what he does, and fighters tangibly benefit from his show’s clout.

Yet the person with whom he has yet to reconcile (which has also generated his most juicy storyline) happens to be the industry’s most important player: UFC President Dana White, a former boxercise coach who helped purchase the organization for a mere $2 million and led it from the brink of bankruptcy and illegality to its multi-billion-dollar sale. Now 52, bald, muscle-clad, and extremely rich, White didn’t raise his company from the grave with a cute and cuddly personality. He’s cutthroat, with little tolerance for dissent, a real-life version of the pro-wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, the kind of guy you’d expect to be running a cage-fighting organization.

“I don’t want the Dana stuff to define me,” requested Helwani. Yet it’s impossible to circumvent. Early in his career, the two were friendly, but their relationship soured in the mid-2010s while Helwani worked at Fox, whom the UFC paid and in return expected favorable coverage. Fox eventually fired him, and rumors were that White requested the dismissal after Helwani spoke publicly about UFC fighters seeking higher pay. Just a few months later, their conflict came to a public peak. Hours before a press conference announcing that Brock Lesnar, the actual pro-wrestling superstar who looks like he stepped out of an 11th-century Viking ship, would headline the UFC’s 200th event, UFC 200, Helwani reported the scoop. While reporting scoops is par for the course in (independent) journalism, in spoiling the surprise Helwani became the press conference’s main headline. White, who had spent months planning the blockbuster event in absolute secrecy, was enraged. He ordered security to escort Helwani out and banned him from UFC events for life. Right before leaving, Helwani vividly recalls White’s departing words: “We just put a bullet in your head. Your career is over.”

Ask 98% of the people in the sport what they think of me, and I’d say the track record is pretty good!

A flustered Helwani took to his show to discuss. “Maybe I flew too close to the sun,” he pondered. “My wife asked me yesterday, do I regret it? I don’t know ...” Holding back tears, he silently sniffled for a minute before letting go. “It’s hard to be told your career is over when you don’t think you did anything wrong,” he contended as tears rolled down his cheeks. “But I can assure you: I’m not going anywhere.”

“Ariel Helwani is such a piece of shit,” White would later tweet. “He should have started crying again.”

The ban was eventually rescinded, but their bad blood continued. In 2018, after over a decade in the industry, Helwani’s dream finally came true: He became “that guy” that ESPN came looking for now that MMA had made it big. Little did he know the network was also in talks to become the UFC’s distribution partner. Rumors are that before signing the deal, White asked whether Helwani had to be employed by ESPN at all. Helwani also claims that, while there, White would pull strings to suppress his position in the company. When working UFC events, for example, he was frequently escorted out of spaces White was set to appear in. “Per his request, I couldn’t be in his vicinity or line of sight,” said Helwani in July’s Le Batard interview. “You know how that makes someone feel?”

While at ESPN, other controversies became outlets for their grudge—bringing Helwani’s Jewish identity into the mix. When Carano posted a meme analogizing contemporary politics to the Holocaust and was fired from the Star Wars franchise she was working on, Helwani chimed in (“I would suggest taking a trip to Auschwitz.”) White promptly responded (“Such a douche”), and ESPN tried to stay silent, neither defending its employee nor rocking the boat with its business partner, until public pressure forced the organization to respond.

But the grudge that has had more career impact is one that is still ongoing, and more Middle Eastern in nature. “I have a very good relationship with 95% of the fighters,” Helwani claimed. “The only ones I don’t currently have access to are managed by one particular manager: Ali Abdelaziz.” Bald, muscly, and quite rich (like White) Abdelaziz also happens to be an Egyptian former pro-fighter with a losing record who may or may not have been an FBI informant for Muslims of America, and, with his possibly taxpayer-funded FBI salary, created the industry’s most successful fighter management firm, Dominance.

With their shared Egyptian backgrounds, it’d make sense for Helwani and Abdelaziz to find common ground. For a while, they did. But while at ESPN, Abdelaziz barred his fighters from speaking to Helwani. Rumored to be a backdoor deal with White, the reason for the ban was perceived unfavorable coverage. What favorable coverage meant to Abdelaziz, claimed Helwani, was him incessantly requesting that Helwani spin things in his fighters’ favor. “You’re taking a page out of Dana White’s book,” Helwani told Abdelaziz on-air prior to the ban. “You’re acting like a bully. You’re trying to intimidate the media and you can’t do that.”

“This is who I am,” responded Abdelaziz, unshaken.

This tension also spilled over to Abdelaziz-managed fighters. “Why you no stay with me honest?” asked Khabib Nurmagomedov, the undefeated Dagestani who would go on to become a global superstar, in an interview before the Abdelaziz-declared haram. “For me, loyal is No. 1. If you don’t know what is this loyal, you have to go Google Translate. But I understand you play different game.”

Helwani tried to respond, but eventually changed the topic. “Are you going to fight the winner?”

“I want to fight with you!” Nurmagomedov announced, finally breaking a smile.

“Oh, come on, this is big,” exclaimed Helwani, seizing the moment and embracing Nurmagomedov. “This is showing the world that Jews and Muslims can come together as friends. Salaam aleikum. Peace in the Middle East.”

“Aleikum salaam, aleikum salaam,” responded the still-grinning Nurmagomedov.

Rather than coming together, however, the Muslim-Jewish divide may still be leading their rift. In May, as rockets exploded over Israel and in Gaza, Helwani posted an almost 20-minute video to his million followers explaining his family history and thoughts on the situation. Nurmagomedov, one of the world’s most popular Muslim athletes, posted a meme to his audience of 30 million: You don’t need to be Muslim to stand up for Gaza, you just need to be human. “I’d be lying if that didn’t cross my mind as well” responded Helwani when asked whether his identity played into their feud. “Were they motivated by the fact that I was Jewish? I don’t know. You can make that assumption. I don’t want to say that. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that, somewhere deep down, some of that had something to do with, you know, who I am.”

Roughly a year later, Helwani announced his departure from ESPN. The drama with White, Abdelaziz and Co. wasn’t why, he claims. But it’s hard to see how it all didn’t get to him. It’s also hard to see how it didn’t get to the fans. Yet rather than distracting them, it’s what excites them, the very thing they’re tuning in for: real-life pro-wrestling with characters, storylines, and mano a mano. Even White surely recognizes this pull. As much as he hates the Nose, their back-and-forth helped turn Helwani into MMA’s most central promoter not named Dana White.

Helwani has started seeing a therapist. Not because he’s got a serious diagnosis, but because jumping ship from ESPN was stressing him out. “I’m just a nervous guy,” he explained. “And I think part of that is my Jewishness—I’m an anxious Jew, I overthink, I over-worry.” It’s just strange to many onlookers that such a person would choose such a high-pressure public career. “Luckily for me, I’ve never been anxious in front of a mic,” he wrote on his inaugural Substack post, where he’s now paid to produce original content. “In fact, I have often felt like a different person on air. Empowered. Strong. Confident.”

Since leaving ESPN, independent Helwani has also relaunched his flagship MMA Hour. “I was wondering: did you guys want the show back?” he asked his followers. This was his anxiety talking more than an earnest question. Outside of Substack and The MMA Hour, Bill Simmons tapped him for a Spotify-exclusive podcast, and the British BT Sports recruited him for TV coverage. And he’s not just reporting on fights these days. He’s focusing on weigh-ins, press conferences, the stories within the story that feed an insatiable thirst for more headlines. It’s working: The MMA Hour pulls similar numbers to his ESPN programming, while views for the ESPN replacement shows have plummeted.

He’s also taken an explicit “entertainment” turn: Helwani now reports on actual pro-wrestling, and even jumped into the celebrity boxing mix, playing MC for the recent Jake Paul-Tyron Woodley match, effectively a money-grab between a celebrity former Disney star slash professional YouTuber and a former UFC champ. White may not be a fan, but Dave Chappelle is. The main draw of the event was the pre-fight press conference, where Paul’s team badmouthed Woodley’s mom and Woodley’s whole family jumped in to defend her honor. On Instagram, Helwani was honest: Not sure I’ve ever had this much fun.

So Helwani is no longer putting all his eggs in one MMA basket. Some of this may be because of his moral qualms with the sport: fighting’s deleterious health effects, abysmal fighter pay, difficulties with unionization and more. His idol Cosell had a similar struggle, eventually disavowing boxing after years of trying to change the sport. “I’ve always wondered if that would happen to me as well,” Helwani pondered. “Once you see how the sausage is made, you ask yourself: Are you doing enough to talk about this?” But it’s also that MMA has a ceiling; even if it’s a young sport, it’s still cage-fighting at the end of the day. “It’s never going to be bigger than soccer, and that’s OK,” he contended. “My 9-year-old is going to soccer camp, not cage-fighting camp. Soccer is G-rated.”

He also now claims that he’s leaving his controversial days behind. “In this new era I’m living in, I want no drama, no beef, no bad blood.” Helwani emphasized on The MMA Hour. “No one cares about this media crap. Maybe you [fans] do, ‘cause you ask me so many times about it.” That’s right: The fans do want drama. And deep down, he knows this. Why else, in this new, independent era and after his drama-free proclamation, would he continue releasing video after video smack-talking fighter-turned-pundit Brendan Schaub for rehashing the UFC 200 drama? It’s a nothing story reserved for the tabloids. Yet it’s mesmerizing, and the MMA community simply can’t stay away.

Sports journalism school may have taught Helwani not to become the story. But it didn’t teach him how to entertain. That he learned from Cosell, who was known as a heel, the pro wrestling term for the bad guy who people tune in to see fall. Alongside independent Helwani, Heel-wani has emerged as one of Helwani’s main nicknames. He wears it with pride.

Today, post-ESPN Ariel—which in Hebrew translates to Lion of God—remains king of the MMA journalism jungle. It’s an apt name for someone whose faith has remained his rock throughout the ups and downs of his career. “I consider myself a spiritual person, and there are times when I talk to God,” he confessed. “I try to live knowing that someone is watching, judging.” His Judaism is more than his Mizrahi background, his well-publicized tefillin routine, or his Jewish-themed “menschens” of the week and yearly “Nose” awards (it’s not antisemitic, he says, because his nose is just that big!). Helwani’s a true believer. He knows he hasn’t achieved all this alone.

His Wikipedia page once read that “Helwani is commonly considered the greatest and most impactful MMA reporter of all time.” It was recently removed. Was it a stickler editor deleting hyperbole, an ex-fan angry at his entertainment turn, or Dana White having a bit of internet trolling fun? Only God (or an IT specialist) knows. What is known is that Helwani’s recaptured independence truly breeds the best version of himself. And the best Helwani is still quirky, still polarizing, still putting it all on the line. “I still feel like I haven’t made it,” he declared. “To come from a small Egyptian-Lebanese community and to make it to where I am today is crazy.” He’s not Marv Albert, Bob Costas, or even Howard Cosell. He’s Ariel Helwani, more than just a character—a force to be reckoned with.

Elie Bleier is a producer at Israel Story, a writer, and a former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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