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Tonight at Bellator 97 the announcement was made that “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” er, “The People’s Champion,” Tito Ortiz, will be fighting Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in November at a Bellator PPV. It’s only been a few minutes, but the reaction from fans is, predictably, mixed. I know mine is. There are reasons to like [...]
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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 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 sports 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 happen, the cable companies rescinded their ban.An interesting trivia note is that Blatnick was a two-time NCAA Division II champion at Springfield College in Massachusetts. In 1891, Dr. James Naismith, who taught at Springfield College, invented and named the sport of basketball.
Whenever I hear the term mixed martial arts, I will always think of Jeff Blatnick, who passed away earlier Wednesday after complications from heart surgery at the age of 55.
It was in 1998 or 1999, most likely UFC 18 on Jan. 8, 1999, and the UFC was in serious trouble at the time. Virtually every cable system in the country had banned airing the pay-per-views, which meant unless you had a satellite dish you couldn’t see them. Blatnick, due to his sports world credibility of overcoming cancer to win an Olympic gold medal, had started as an announcer and had just been named commissioner of the UFC, a title he took very seriously. He and current UFC matchmaker Joe Silva worked together on the first UFC rule book, and on the original judging criteria. He was also the television announcer, a role he had since UFC IV in 1995.
At the time, I was a UFC judge.
The show, held in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, La., was over and we were in Bourbon Street in New Orleans, with Silva and my future wife, and ran into Jeff. He said to me, “Don’t refer to the sport as No Holds Barred anymore, it’s mixed martial arts.”
NHB was the term all the reporters at the time used as the name of the sport, aside from some Brazilians who stuck to native terms like Vale Tudo or Luta Livre. I had known the term mixed martial arts from Japanese pro wrestling matches in the 1970s, the most famous of which was the Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali match in 1976.
It’s possible that’s where Blatnick got the term, since before UFC, he had announced for a pro wrestling company called UWFI, which had done some pro wrestler vs. boxer matches and called them mixed martial arts matches.
Blatnick’s main role was, among other things, to get the sport regulated by the major athletic commissions as a prelude to getting it back on pay-per-view, which was the main revenue stream. Without it, the sport had no hope of surviving at any kind of professional level in this country.
He explained the difficulties with the key people in the cable television industry, who had started banning UFC between 1996 and 1998, taking what had been a flourishing pay-per-view product and putting it on the edge of extinction. No Holds Barred, he said, gave people a bad connotation of what it was, and felt it was a negative. Mixed Martial Arts, the idea of combining techniques from all the various martial arts forms with that of wrestling, was really what the sport was, he would say. Blatnick had so much respect from everyone in what soon became the MMA business that it was a quick and painless transition.
Unfortunately in his role, being UFC commissioner was like he was constantly hitting his head on a wall. No matter what he said, it was never good enough for the cable television industry. He could explain that it was safer than boxing and kickboxing due to the grappling involved, cite the lack of serious injuries, and it didn’t matter. Everyone would talk to him since he was Jeff Blatnick. Nobody would listen.
The usual answer he was given was to get the sport regulated in Nevada first and then come to us. One major TV industry powerhouse outright told him that he didn’t believe this was a sport even before listening to Blatnick’s pitch.
It’s funny looking back at this period. Marc Ratner, a current UFC Vice President, was the Executive Director of the Nevada commission at the time. Lorenzo Fertitta, the current UFC co-owner and CEO, was a voting member. I believe another voting member was Glenn Carano, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback whose daughter Gina would years later would become a superstar in the sport. But they weren’t ready for it at the time.
Blatnick’s work did help get the sport regulated in New Jersey in 2000, where the current unified rules came into play. Fertitta and brother Frank Fertitta, along with Dana White, purchased UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group in early 2001. With Fertitta’s connections, Nevada voted to regulate the sport in 2001. It got back on pay-per-view everywhere later that year, even though the UFC was forced to sign a deal so one-sided that it was helping bleed them dry in the early years.
At about that time, the new owners decided to go in another direction with the announcing and Blatnick eventually was no longer part of the promotion. At times he expressed some bitterness, but as time went on, he understood what they were doing, and Blatnick had solidified his own role in the sport. He sometimes announced smaller shows, but mostly was one of the most respected judges, working shows all over the country for every major promotion. He had just gotten licensed in the state of Washington and was to be part of the judging team for the UFC show on Dec. 8 in Seattle on FOX.
He and I had many talks before shows about problems with judging, him saying the problem were too many unqualified judges, me saying it was both unqualified judges and a scoring system that needed minor modifications.
Blatnick was one of the major news stories coming out of the 1984 Olympics. He was the NCAA Division II heavyweight wrestling champion in 1978 and 1979 at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He began specializing in Greco-Roman wrestling, a sport that at the time, no American had ever won a gold medal in. In 1980, he made the Olympic team and had hopes of medaling after capturing the silver medal at that year’s World Cup. But that was when President Jimmy Carter called for an Olympic boycott since the games were in Moscow, Russia, and many countries pulled out over the fact Russia had invaded Afghanistan.
But in 1982, his career was over and his life was in jeopardy, as he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They had to remove his spleen and his appendix, and he underwent radiation therapy.
Somehow, he battled back, and made the Olympic team in 1984. This time, the Russians, who were powerhouses in Greco-Roman, were the ones boycotting the games held in Los Angeles. A small super heavyweight, Blatnick was 240 pounds without cutting. He was actually the same size and smaller than many of the guys at the time competing in the 220-pound weight class. He relied more on technique and, especially, conditioning, largely because he had to, because he could not lock up and win by matching power.
He made it to the finals, where was giving away at least 35 pounds to Thomas Johansson of Sweden. The match itself wasn’t all that memorable compared to the scene when the buzzer went off to end it with Blatnick ahead 2-0. He and Steven Fraser that week had become the first two Americans to capture gold medals in a sport that our country was considered novices in.
He sunk to the mat like he was praying, thanking God for giving him this moment. Because of his story, he was one of the most covered athletes coming out of those Olympics, and the most popular among the athletes themselves. The U.S. team voted to have him carry the flag at the closing ceremonies. After the games, he was getting a lot of work as a motivational speaker.
He could have retired on top at that point, but while the gold medal may have told some people he was the best in the world, it didn’t tell him that. Few would ever taint his story of overcoming cancer to putting the asterisk on his win by saying some of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers weren’t there that day. But in his mind, he hadn’t proven he was really the best. He would freely admit, long after he retired, voluntarily, that he didn’t believe he was really ever the best in the world, only that he had won the tournament over the people who were there on that given day. But he was training to prove that he was in 1988.
Unfortunately, the cancer returned, requiring chemotherapy throughout 1985 and 1986. Still, he came back again, and competed at the world class level as late as 1987, but wasn’t able to make the Olympic team in 1988. Even healthy, it was a huge longshot he could have won given that was the beginning of the Alexander Karelin dynasty.
He had become an amateur wrestling announcer, and did some Japanese pro wrestling as well, when he was hired by UFC since they felt they needed someone who knew wrestling in the broadcast booth. He didn’t know what to make of UFC at first, but when 180-pound Royce Gracie used a triangle to beat 260-pound Dan Severn, a wrestler who was a contemporary and something of a hero to Blatnick, he became intrigued by it. In the days before UFC events he broadcasted, Blatnick would be rolling around on the mat, sometimes with the Gracies, often with Frank Shamrock, to learn what he didn’t know.
Blatnick never lived to see his one of his goals, to see MMA, the sport he named, legalized in New York and running in Madison Square Garden.
At the time of his death, he was a volunteer wrestling coach at local Burns Hills High School in Ballston Lake, N.Y., near his home in Clifton Park.
News of his death was like the worst body shot, knocking the air out of the MMA and amateur wrestling community.
Most in this world knew him as a guy who once won a gold medal a long time ago. Many older fans remembered him as announcer, and the moment on his first night seeing the sport live, when football legend Jim Brown went off on him as Gracie put out Severn with a triangle. Blatnick didn’t think Gracie had anything as he locked on the move, that almost nobody in the crowd or watching on pay-per-view that night had ever seen before.
There are a lot of things to remember Jeff Blatnick for. But everyone, whenever they hear the term MMA, should in the back of their mind remember they owe him a debt of gratitude.