Helwani’s ban last summer did create some positive change, though. It sparked plenty of defenses from other MMA journalists, and that eventually led to this June’s formation of the MMA Journalists’ Association (Helwani is a vice-president). Helwani said his employer Vox Media, and CEO Jim Bankoff in particular, played a major role in making that happen.
“People had been talking about creating a media association since, I believe, 2007, since before I was involved. I know in 2009 and 2012 there were some other serious conversations, but they kind of fizzled out. In 2016, when the banning happened in June, a group of journalists were bothered by this, and an e-mail chain started, and actually it started to pick up a lot of steam. And Jim Bankoff…the Monday morning after the banning happened, when I went to the studio [in New York] to do my show, Jim was sitting in my studio. He’s in Washington, and he’d never been there before. I don’t know if it was a coincidence or if he came for that reason, but that really meant the world to me. It was Jim and [Vox Media editorial director] Lockhart Steele, and that meant the world. And when I spoke to them later that night, [Bankoff] actually said ‘What do you want from me, how could I help with this?’And this is before I was actually unbanned.
“I mentioned that I’ve always wanted to start an association, and I thought that this would be a good time. And he said that they would devote resources, legal resources, personnel to helping us get this done. Someone who worked for SB Nation who had experience dealing with this sort of thing, Sarah Kogod, helped us, the legal team helped us, and they really guided us through the process. Because it’s not just ‘Oh, we’re creating an association,” and that’s it, there’s a lot that goes on in terms of actually making it into a real thing. So a group of five or six of us from different websites got together, worked with the Vox team, they guided us, they told us what the proper steps were. And it took us a year to actually make it happen, it was almost exactly a year to the day of the banning. …In the end, we got it done, and that was one of the finest moments of my professional career.”
“We have a website and everything, open to applications. Since then, we have almost 100 members, if not more. I haven’t counted recently. But almost all of them signed up within the first few days. We had our first meeting in Anaheim prior to UFC 214, and that was really cool, just to vote on a couple of things and get the ball rolling. We’re going to have our first election by the end of the year. We have an interim board, but we want everyone to vote.”
“And people think that this is some sort of combative effort, that we’re going to strike against the UFC, start a ruckus, that’s really not what this is about. This is about teaching younger journalists what it means to be a professional, ethical and unbiased journalist. A lot of people who get into MMA don’t have a journalistic background. This is about bringing up the younger generation, being there for them. The word that’s been used a lot is “fellowship,” and I love that word, and I think that it’s important for the younger journalists to have people that they can look up to. And we’re competing against each other, but I think it’s good to have some sort of solidarity. …And down the line, things like awards and a hall of fame could be in the future, that’s certainly part of the plan, but for me, it was about solidarity and being on the same page. And if things happen, we can cross that bridge together and no one feels like they’re on an island alone or by themselves.”
Helwani had high praise for Vox Media, and the way they’ve supported him and helped pull the MMAJA together.
“The people at Vox Media have really had my back, and it means a lot,” he said. “They’ve really gone out of their way to make me feel great and make me feel like I have their support. And I’m really excited to be covering this fight for them.”
As per that fight, Helwani’s been at the center of much of the reporting on it, especially stuff around Showtime analyst/McGregor sparring partner/possible Mayweather spy Paulie Malignaggi. Malignaggi spoke to Helwani on The MMA Hour earlier this month. Helwani told Awful Announcing the Malignaggi storylines have been bizarre, and a possible McGregor-Malignaggi fight could do well in its own right.
“The Paulie thing is crazy,” he said. “Paulie admitted on my show he’s angling for a fight, and I respect him for saying that, because it seemed like he was but he wasn’t admitting to it. I really think that Paulie versus Conor, win or lose on August 26, would sell a million and a half pay per view easy. There’s a great appetite for this feud.”
Helwani said the whole lead-up to this fight has been remarkable, though, especially for the interest in it and for the characters involved.
“There’s a great appetite for anything Conor does,” he said. “Like, Conor fighting a moose would sell. It’s truly amazing to watch. And being around him, he’s just a lot of fun to cover. And getting to cover Floyd now, being at the gym…all the characters there, Floyd Sr., Jeff Mayweather, I got to talk to Jim Gray, which was super cool. …The whole thing has just been one memorable step after the next.”
On the subject of the fight itself, Helwani said Mayweather is favored for a reason, but don’t write McGregor off.
“He’s so confident, and the way that he wills things into existence is just unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it. He talks with such confidence. Who am I to say he doesn’t have a chance? Really smart people say ‘He won’t land a punch, he has no shot,’ but I’m like ‘I cannot do this, I cannot count him out.’ On paper, nothing is in his favor. If Floyd wins, I won’t be surprised, because that’s what we all expect. But I will not be surprised if Conor pulls it off, because I’m done being surprised by him. He continues to defy logic. None of this makes sense. Why can’t this fight that everyone thought was impossible happen in the most impossible way? Why can’t it end up in the most impossible way, which is him winning?”
Regardless of the outcome, Helwani said covering this has been an incredible experience for him, even with the blow of being kicked off the Showtime coverage.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed this entire summer. This has been one of the most fun experiences, if not the most fun experience, of my life. …For me, it feels like the biggest event, and I’ve covered the Olympics before, I was in Vancouver at the 2010 Games, covering it for FanHouse. This feels way bigger. …The whole thing has just been one memorable thing after the next. The Showtime thing bummed me out, but I was not going to allow that to ruin this for me.”