MONTREAL — Ariel Helwani doesn’t make it back to Montreal that much anymore, except for maybe the Jewish holidays.
Broadcaster Ariel Helwani, right, interviews United Fighting Championship president Dana White. [Esther Lin/FanHouse photo]
But the 28-year-old native, who is in the process of making it big in mixed martial arts (MMA) broadcasting, did visit recently to cover a match between Quebecer George St. Pierre and Josch Koschek.
As things turned out, St. Pierre won – before a crowd of 23,000.
But Helwani has won his share, too. Last year, he was named MMA journalist of the year, which is considered not too shabby for an ambitious, sports-obsessed guy whose poise, professionalism, and polish on radio, TV and on online mixed martial arts websites have gotten him more YouTube hits and Twitter followers than any other reporter in the industry.
“It’s been cool, that’s for sure, being recognized,” said Helwani in a recent telephone interview.
Helwani grew up in TMR and Westmount, attended the Akiva School and Herzliah High School, and has fond memories of growing up a local sports fanatic.
For the uninitiated, mixed martial arts is a full-contact combat sport that allows competitors – through both striking and grappling – to use a variety of martial and non-martial disciplines such as boxing, Brazilian jiujitsu and others.
It is all pretty intense, full of showmanship, and violent – and controversial – and a sport that once, like Rodney Dangerfield, got no respect. Before becoming safer and more regulated through its promotion company called Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), founded in 1993, critics considered it barbaric. Senator John McCain likened it to “human cock fighting,” and it is still illegal in six U.S. states, including, most prominently, New York.
Mixed martial arts is banned in several Canadian provinces. But Helwani is sure it’s only a matter of time before that will all change.
The Ontario government recently announced that it would allow mixed martial arts starting this year.
Since becoming more regulated, “it is safer than boxing,” Helwani said, and has recorded very few serious injuries. “People say its appeal is based on ‘blood lust,’ and it’s true people like violence, but that is not its main appeal.
“People always called boxing the “sweet science,” but it is just as violent [as MMA] and was never banned.”
And unlike pro wrestling, which it is often compared to because of its showmanship, winners are not decided in advance, which accounts, Helwani thinks, for its huge fan appeal.
“The fans just love it, and it is slowly but surely getting the respect it deserves,” he said, pointing to the fact that conventional sports broadcasters such as ESPN and TSN now include coverage of UFC matches.
Certainly, Helwani, now residing in Manhattan’s Upper East Side with his wife, Jacqueline Stein, is living a lifelong fantasy come true.
Growing up a huge fan of sports legends Marv Albert and Bob Costa, Helwani used to watch professional wrestling and other sports on pay per view and, at age 11, fell in love with mixed martial arts when he saw his first UFC match in 1993, the year it was founded.
His uncle, David Saad, competed in judo for Lebanon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Bent on becoming a sports broadcast journalist, Helwani earned a 2004 degree in broadcast journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication, and little by little made his way up the broadcasting sports rungs.
His CV now includes working for HBO Sports, ESPN Classic and Spike TV, MMAfighting.com, Versus.com, hosting AOL’s The MMA Hour and co-hosting XM Radio’s Fight Club.
Helwani has also covered conventional sports such as the 2010 Winter Olympics, the NBA and NFL drafts, and the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In a sense, Helwani suggested, mixed martial arts is still in a nascent but rapidly developing state. Despite roots dating back to ancient Greece, the UFC is only 17 years old and is continuing to mature, with mixed martial arts becoming safer, more mainstream, and is in effect still a “small community” that “I am proud to be a part of.”
“That is why I love being part of MMA,” he told an MMA website fullmount.co last year. “I feel that we get to be there at a time when it still hasn’t hit the mainstream and get the chance to grow with the sport professionally as a journalist.
“It’s not just us – the fighters and everyone involved with the sport get to grow, too.”