[Opinion] A Fistful Of Reality - Jeff Blatnick: Wrestling With Legacy
One of the most important men in the development of MMA from spectacle to sport was Jeff Blatnick. What follows is an unpublished piece written for a magazine in the spring. I had wanted to speak to Jeff for years, and it took me months to track him down, but it was worth every bit of effort it took. Unfortunately, he passed away on Wednesday(10/24) due to heart failure. Hopefully he will finally be recognized by the UFC this July as one of the overlooked cornerstones of the sport that so many obsess about today.
Jeff Blatnick: Wrestling With Legacy
“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.”