It’s been quite the few years for veteran MMA journalist Ariel Helwani, who lost his Fox role in the spring of 2016 after the UFC got upset about his reportinge, was kicked out of UFC 199 that summer and briefly “banned for life” for doing his job before pressure from other media forced a course change, and was booted off Showtime’s Mayweather-McGregor press tour coverage last year thanks to further pressure from UFC president Dana White. Helwani joined ESPN last month, with his new “Ariel & The Bad Guy” show with Chael Sonnen debuting on ESPN+ today, and he and Glenn Jacobs (ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for SportsCenter Digital, Now and next-generation content) spoke to Awful Announcing Tuesday about the new show and his wider ESPN role.
But the most interesting part of that in-depth conversation may have been what Helwani and Jacobs said about ESPN’s commitment to supporting Helwani and his reporting, even if there come times when the UFC isn’t thrilled about it. Helwani said even though he’s just started at ESPN, he already feels more support than he got at Fox.
“I’m so happy because when I left Fox, what hurt me the most wasn’t that they listened to Dana or the UFC and cut ties for no fault of my own, it’s that I never felt I had any support, I never felt they had my back, I never felt there was loyalty there. Even before I stepped through the doors here on Friday, I noticed right away, particularly from Glenn but from other people as well, this is an incredibly loyal company. The things they were saying to me blew my mind, without me even being on board yet.”
“And I’m the neurotic one because I’m the one who has been through these experiences. So I was very transparent about everything that I had been through, what I don’t want to go through again, things of that nature, almost to the point where I felt like I was bothering them because I had to keep asking ‘You’re sure that this is okay? You’re sure that when push comes to shove…’ And they’re like ‘Yes, yes!’ It was constant reassurance.”
Helwani said he received solid support from MMA Fighting and parent company SB Nation, but the reassurance from ESPN has marked a huge difference from how things were at Fox.
“I want to be clear that at MMA Fighting that was never an issue, they always supported me, they were always very loyal and had my back, but when you compare the experience I had at Fox to even my first four days here, to say that it’s night and day already is a massive understatement. And it’s not just UFC this and that, I just feel like there’s loyalty here and teamwork and support, and everyone wants to make everyone better. It’s hard to even verbalize the different feeling I have here already. Maybe it’s because I’m a little further along in my career, I’m a little more established, but it is a drastic difference for me, and that truly means a lot to me and is truly exciting for me.”
Jacobs said ESPN isn’t particularly worried about pushback from the UFC or from White.
“We completely support Ariel and his reporting. This is what we do with reporters on every sport who work with us. I’m not concerned about personal relationships in this way. And our relationship with the UFC, I’ve worked with the UFC for years, our relationship with them has been extremely positive and extremely constructive and I don’t expect that to change at all with Ariel.”
ESPN is becoming a UFC rightsholder next year, but Jacobs said that won’t change their commitment to supporting MMA reporters like Helwani.
“That deal takes effect in 2019, so we’re starting now really under the old rights deal, continuing as scripted for the moment, and then we’re going to tackle that,” he said. “I was actually at the UFC offices last week and we had that exact conversation, ‘Here’s our plan through the end of 2018, pretty soon we’ll sit down and we’ll have some real conversations about what will happen in 2019.’ [But] I’m not [worried]. We cover, I think very successfully, all the sports, a number of whom we have relationships with or whose rights we have. I think that’s a tightrope that we are adept at walking.”
And Helwani said he isn’t concerned about working for a rightsholder again, as ESPN has assured him he’ll still be able to report on the sport even with that deal.
“Zero worries whatsoever. I’ve been reassured about various different things for several months now. …Glenn has been incredible to work with, we started this process, and I feel they’ve made a real big commitment and now my job is to prove them right and show them that loyalty back.”
He added that while the UFC has displayed some prominent pushback against him in the past, he doesn’t think that will be an ongoing issue.
“Even from the UFC, I heard from many people very high up in the company when this deal was announced saying how happy they were for me and how they were looking forward to working with me, even people I didn’t even talk to on a day-to-day basis. So it’s really all been incredibly positive.”
And he said that while he isn’t as close to White as he once was, they have a fine professional relationship.
“I think we have a pretty solid working relationship. I cover all the events, I usually travel to the pay-per-views and I’ll travel to the non-pay-per-views if it’s a bigger fight, I’ll ask him a ton of questions at press conferences, he answers those questions, there’s no problem. He doesn’t preclude me from doing my job, he doesn’t stop me from interviewing people, there’s really no issues there, honestly. Are we texting about the Blue Jays playing the Red Sox or the Bills playing the Patriots like maybe we were five, six years ago, no, but that’s okay, that’s totally fine with me.
“As long as I can cover the sport, as long as I’m credentialed, as long as there’s no issues when I get to the arena and I have the same access as everyone else, that’s really all that I ask for. I am perfectly content. And as I’ve said before, I owe a lot to Dana White. You won’t hear me ever disparage his name or take any low blows or unnecessary shots towards him, because he’s done a lot for me, he gave me the time of day before a lot of other people gave me the time of day, and if I don’t ever speak to him again one-on-one, I’ll still have probably spoken to him more than anyone else, even if I continue covering this sport for 50 years. That’s how much time he gave me. So I’m content with where we’re at, we have a very good working relationship, I’m asking questions, he’s answering. As a journalist, that’s all you can really ask for.”
Another improvement in MMA media access generally may come from the MMA Journalists’ Association. Helwani was involved in founding that organization last year, and was selected as vice-president in their first full elections this April.
“We had our first election, it went very well, we have an actual official board in place for the next two years. We’ve already started talking about our next meeting. …I’m really happy, and honestly, it’s further along than I thought it would be when we launched a year ago. It’s something that I think was long overdue. It’s great to see journalists from other outlets working together and acting like the other journalists’ associations in the other major sports. …We have a big email chain and everyone weighs in, we have committees in place, it’s really going well and I’m very proud of that.”
He said they haven’t had any particular access fights yet, but there are some pre-existing issues that they’re working with the UFC to address.
“Thankfully, no. There are a couple of issues that are sort of grandfathered in that we’re planning on addressing when the time is right, but since launch, since inception in June of last year, we haven’t had any big crises that we’ve had to come together, and I’m thankful for that. And honestly, I know what happened to me a couple years ago was notable, but those things, up to that point and even afterwards, were very very few and far between.”
“The sport has come a long ways and the view of media within the sport has come a long ways. I don’t necessarily foresee there being issues of that kind, especially now with the new ownership, but there are some issues that have been grandfathered in that we will work on. But as I’ve said in the past with the MMAJA, it’s not about being combative, it’s about making each other better and helping each other, helping younger journalists, making the media corps stronger, more professional, ethical, things of that nature. And I think we’ve accomplished that even in a short amount of time.”
As per Ariel & The Bad Guy, Helwani said he’s thrilled to be working with Sonnen regularly, and they already have great chemistry.
“I’m very excited to work with Chael. Chael and I have a history, I’ve been interviewing him for quite some time and we used to work together for several years, and we did a couple rehearsals, they had mentioned to work on our chemistry, and we showed that’s one thing they don’t have to worry about. …The show is 30 minutes, we could probably go eight hours back and forth without any prep work.”
“He’s one of the very few people as far as athletes that I truly feel comfortable doing a TV show with, he’s just so good on the air, so entertaining, so smart, and he kind of comes from the space that I come from in terms of the way that he thinks about MMA. And of course, he’s an active fighter and I’m a journalist, so we get both sides of the coin there. …We’ve known each other so long that it feels very natural.”
He said the rest of the show’s team is stellar as well.
“I’m very excited about this show because the production team is incredible, they’re so smart and talented, and what’s exciting to me is that they’re actually big MMA fans. There’s no learning process here. They are long-time fans, some of them even trained. In previous places of mine, there was sort of a process where people had to get caught up and learn about MMA, UFC. That’s not the case. And I’ve known Glenn Jacobs for the last two to three years and he is just such a positive leader, a supportive leader. Four days in and I can tell it’s just a real special team and I’m excited to work with them.”
Jacobs said Helwani and Sonnen are the perfect team for a show like this.
“We’re excited about this. The opportunity to do a MMA show with Ariel and Chael to me is about as good as it gets. You want to talk about two people who really connect with MMA fans and make an impact on the audience, we’ve worked with Chael for a number of years and Chael has always been awesome to deal with and is obviously a great personality. The combination of the two of them we think provides a ton of potential and a ton of fun for fans on two levels. Number one, we want to be a smart MMA show, we want to be a place where hardcore MMA fans can come and get good insight and good information and hear good interesting discussion. And we also want to be entertaining, and these are two guys who fulfill both of those things, and those are rare traits.”
He said ESPN’s hope is that this show becomes a regular part of MMA fans’ media diet.
“I’d like MMA fans to be excited about watching it every week. That to me would be a success, if we’re getting feedback and we’re hearing that fans are genuinely excited to watch it and want to see what Chael and Ariel have to say every week, and if this becomes part of their weekly MMA schedule and how they consume MMA content. That’s what we want to be a part of. That’s on the fan-facing level; on our level, I want it to be creative and fun and just a cool show in presentation, and hopefully we can bring all those things together. But the biggest thing to me is that we want to serve MMA fans. …I’ve worked in the MMA space for a while with ESPN…and I am genuinely excited about the potential of this show with Ariel and Chael together. And it’s also been a ton of fun.”
Jacobs added that Helwani’s going to have plenty of ESPN involvement beyond this show, including a podcast/Twitter live show every Monday and regular reporting appearances.
“Ariel’s going to make an impact across all of our platforms, which is going to be great. Ariel will break news on SportsCenter, he’ll appear on other studio shows, he’ll appear on the ESPN app and ESPN.com prominently breaking news. That’s one of the major reasons we wanted Ariel to be part of the team, his ability to break news in the space. He’s on an elite level when you talk about people who are great at covering their sport, the Schefter/Woj type of category, so we wanted to expose Ariel’s reporting to as many fans as we can and hopefully continue to expand the number of people he reaches. The show, because of the platform of ESPN+ and because of the on-demand nature, will be less about actually breaking news, but will be significantly about reacting to news that Ariel has or about points of view that he has from his reporting.”
Meanwhile, Helwani said he’s thrilled to get to be a part of a ESPN+ show near that service’s launch, and he’s impressed with the resources ESPN is putting into it.
“Having the ESPN machine behind us, being a part of +, I’m very excited about that because it’s a new venture for the company and I like to kind of come in on the ground floor and be a part of something that’s going to grow into a behemoth. …If I hadn’t told you where this was airing, you’d have no idea it’s on a digital service. It looks and feels and sounds exactly like any show that you’d see on ESPN right now. There’s multiple cameras, the quality of the graphics, the production, the team behind it; everyone behind the scenes, they work on several ESPN shows. And that’s what I like about +, it’s not like they’re just throwing random stuff out there without the ESPN level of quality that we’ve come to expect. For me, this is a show that could air on ESPN tomorrow. …The only difference is that there’s no commercial breaks, and I think that’s good for the viewer, that means more content.”
He said he’s also excited to continue his growth as a reporter and commentator with this move to ESPN and the new opportunities it affords.
“I felt for a while at MMA Fighting that I was banging my head on a ceiling, that I wasn’t really growing, and now I just feel like that ceiling has been removed and there’s so many possibilities and so many different opportunities to do great things covering this sport. And who knows, maybe in the future other sports as well. It’s quite frankly a dream come true to finally get to this point. …This is what I live and breathe, mixed martial arts.””
Helwani said working at ESPN has been a long-time dream for him, and so far, it’s been better than he could have imagined.
“It has been phenomenal. It has exceeded my expectations and my expectations were very high. I know this sounds like it’s not true, but this truly was a dream of mine. I remember going to Boston with my family, I grew up in Montreal and we used to get TSN and I would watch SportsCenter religiously, but of the four major sports, hockey is my least favorite, and back then, ’91, ’92, it was all hockey. That was before the Raptors, there was no such thing as NBA coverage [in Canada], so I remember going to Boston in 1992 and discovering ESPN as a 10-year-old, and seeing that they were talking about other American sports, I was just blown away by it.”
“Honestly, ever since then, I was like ‘Wow, this would be an incredible place to work.’ And as I’ve grown older and actually made being a journalist my living, it was always my goal to end up here. It still doesn’t feel quite real, it still feels surreal to be walking around and see people that I recognize, and just being a part of the whole family, it’s exhilarating, it’s rejuvenating, it’s motivating, it’s an exciting time.”
He said he’s thrilled to get this chance.
“Where I grew up in Montreal, it’s a long way from Bristol. It may not be the longest drive, but it’s so hard as a Canadian to get here. And it’s a really long road for me, going back to Syracuse in 2001, with always the goal to get here. I’m still a little giddy over the fact that I’m actually here and that it’s actually done, because this really is all I’ve ever wanted.”