Jeff Blatnick: Wrestling With Legacy
By: Matt Wright
“Jeff Blatnick, who came into our sport with an open mind and was always willing to learn and help. You did much more than most people realize, and you will always be someone I respect and am proud to call my friend.” -“Big” John McCarthy from his autobiography Let’s Get It On!
Unheralded is a term that best defines Jeff Blatnick. During a time period when the Ultimate Fighting Championship and MMA were struggling for stability, Blatnick brought his legitimate wrestling and announcing background to the federation. Helping to educate viewers about more of the intricacies of the fights and fighters, his involvement with the UFC led to him being involved with the creation of the Uniform Rules for Mixed Martial Arts.
In its early days, the UFC was looking for stability as it established itself as a force on pay-per-view. Originally deemed as a tournament of different fighting disciplines, and a showcase for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, the Ultimate Fighting Championship realized that it quickly needed to adapt into a regular event due to its popularity. With dynamic fighting taking place inside the Octagon, one of the glaring weaknesses of the early shows was the commentary team. The first two pay-per-views were a revolving door of celebrities and people who did not, rightfully, understand much of what they were witnessing when it came to the varied fighting styles in the cage.
With UFC III came Bruce Beck as the new play-by-play announcer. But it would be at UFC IV, with the addition of Jeff Blatnick to the broadcasting team, where the commentary would grow by leaps-and-bounds. With wrestling serving as one of the key forms of combat in the UFC, Blatnick was an expert voice of the sport. Having wrestled since childhood, he had represented the USA as a wrestler in the 1984 Olympics, capturing a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. Following the end of his days of Olympic competition, Blatnick served as a commentator for Olympic Wrestling. This is where he developed his broadcasting skills that would help prepare him to call a sport unlike any he had ever witnessed before.
“The reason I believe I was called was because there was a guy named Dan Severn who was going to be fighting on the card for the very first time and this was UFC IV,” Blatnick says. “Because I had been on a junior world team with Dan, representing the U.S. in junior world championships, and there were other wrestlers getting involved, and I was doing broadcasting at the time for wrestling, they pitched it to me and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll take a peek at this.’ It’s everything we weren’t allowed to do.”
Although it was the outlaw fighting styles that drew Blatnick to announcing for the UFC, it was the emphasis on wrestling, and the effective utilization of it inside the Octagon, that held his attention and made his announcing role last.
“Well, when I first saw a tape of the product to prep for it, I had a little bit of concern,” Blatnick says. There was a couple soccer-style punts where a tooth came out. You know, there’s not a lot of rules involved with it; not biting, no eye-gouging was basically it. It was more of a discipline vs. discipline; not athlete vs. athlete. So, it intrigued me since UFC and MMA as a whole has showed the competency of wrestling as a self-defense form, and we had never really been able to get that kind of recognition because striking and Hollywood had produced, you know, an image of invincibility.” Blatnick continues, “At UFC IV I was allowed to watch striking and grappling go head-to-head and that really intrigued me because as a wrestler I think most wrestlers will tell you that there’s a sense that we’re well-trained, we’re in great shape, and the skills we have, despite not being able to take a guy out and all that in our sport, however we’re right on the edge of that and we’re all aware of what we could do if we were allowed to bend the rules. So this was the opportunity where wrestling got to showcase itself as a premier self-defense art form.”
Once he became a regular announcer for the organization, preparation to call the fights was also a new and unique experience for him. With so many different disciplines of fighting represented, it was the announcers’ job to emphasize the character of each style’s practitioners while explaining the subtleties of the different fighting disciplines to viewers. There had been no blueprint for commentary of a sport new to the public, so Blatnick did what he could to effectively present the product to those watching at home.
“We actually had an opportunity to sit down with each fighter for ten to fifteen minutes and talk to them about their style, and how they got into it, and what they look for,” Blatnick says. “And it was just raw; it was all brand new. We had people openly challenging us from across a table. You know, because I’d ask, ‘What’s your favorite submission?’ He’d say, ‘The armbar.’ I’d go, ‘Can you kind of give me an idea of how you go about it?” He goes, ‘Yeah, I’d be happy to slap one on you right now.’”
Despite open challenges from fighters in the UFC, Blatnick remained cool, calm, and collected on commentary, thanks to his broadcast booth partner.
“Bruce was a very well-prepared announcer; he’d been looking at becoming a sports analyst or a TV announcer ever since he was in high-school…It culminates with him now being an NBC sports reporter in New York City, where in terms of market it’s a very prestigious position,” He says. “I was blessed that I had a real pro at my side to help me along with looking a new sport and trying to quantify it, and gleam some stories out of what little or what people portrayed as their image. Whether it was a Tank Abbot or anybody else. You know, I know Tank, but I also know Dave Abbott, and the two are very different people.”
One of the main issues that plagued MMA during the early years was pressure from politicians, who used politically-loaded language to try to ban MMA from pay-per-view, usually without any actual viewing of the product. One example of this issue was with Senator John McCain who referred to the UFC as human cockfighting. Blatnick points out, “At the time, cockfighting literally was legal in Arizona.”
Despite political hypocrisy, people within the UFC organization realized that it was important to come up with a series of regulations to help peoples’ perceptions view MMA as less of a spectacle and more of a sport. This lead to the push for the creation of the Uniform Rules for Mixed Martial Arts by a cabal of UFC employees including Bob Meyrowitz, John McCarthy, Joe Silva and Jeff Blatnick.
“We started to develop both policies and procedures which very much mimicked and mirrored existing boxing, and what states did have any kind of MMA regulation, and started to put together (the rules),” says Blatnick. “Anybody that had an objection to this, we had several people from the cable industry come in and follow a fighter from the moment he arrived on the scene, to being physically checked, tested, procedures with bout conduct, rules for the Octagon and then post fight procedures including suspensions and drug testing. So over the course of three years or so, this was an ongoing process developing a scoring system, developing the criteria for the scoring system. And in all honesty, pretty much what is in place right now is exactly what was in place when SEG turned over the reins and sold the company to Zuffa.”
Upon the arrival of Zuffa, and the financial stability that its purchase of the UFC brought, a lot of changes took place within the company. One of the main ones that the viewing public immediately noticed was a change in the broadcast team, specifically with the removal of Blatnick from the broadcasting booth. Blatnick says,
“If you’re taking over a product and you want to kind of change the image of the product and make it yours, and even though it may have not changed a whole lot, you definitely want to go ahead and do that. But at the same time, I still love the sport and wish I could do some announcing with it.”
Blatnick’s dismissal by Zuffa from his broadcasting duties for the UFC was not the end of his involvement with the company or MMA. For one year he stayed on board and helped with rules, statistics, injury rates, and other related areas of need. Since parting ways from the UFC, he has served as a judge for a plethora of states. With a more tenured background in judging MMA than most others involved with the sport, he has a distinct track record of rendering decisions that are spot-on. Those who viewed the UFC on FX debut probably remember the Jared Papazian vs. Mike Eastman scores of 30-27 and 29-28 for Eastman, but it was Blatnick that rendered the rare, but more appropriate, 29-29 for the fight.
With judging creating a regular controversy in MMA, and with many judges less experienced than Blatnick rendering bad decisions on a regular basis, he does see room for changes in the scoring system, such as the possibility of the inclusion of half point scores. “I probably would say this. In hindsight, it does look good. Where you can say ‘That one point round wasn’t as effective as this one point round,’ ” says Blatnick.
He also sees room for improvement in MMA in the area of weight cutting. “I’ve been part of wrestling and it is a weight-cutting sport,” Blatnick says. “We have certain rules in place that were brought down by the NCAA to ensure the safety of the wrestler, so that they’re not cutting too much weight. At the beginning of the season there’s a certification that starts off with a hydration test; that if you aren’t hydrated, you can’t certify at all. You don’t go through the process; they eliminate you right there.” But at the end of the day, he sees the issue as falling into the hands of the fighters. “The way I look at it is, this is a professional sport, so obviously you hope the athletes are conducting themselves in a professional manner in terms of making weight,” he says.
Another area that continues to cause concern in the sport these days is the use of performance-enhancing drugs(PED’s). Blatnick sees room for more stringent testing to help clean up MMA. “The Olympics are as close to getting it right as you can,” he says. “Anything that’s artificial to alter the body when it’s banned, you know, I think you ought to test for it.”
Jeff Blatnick came into the sport of MMA an announcer for fights featuring names like Severn and Gracie, and now he helps render decisions for names like Jones and Ellenberger. Throughout his years in MMA, he has contributed to the growth and stability of the sport in a variety of ways. Despite his deep involvement with the sport’s evolution, he remains an unheralded figure.