UFC Crossroads with Ariel Helwani

Ariel Helwani is a sports journalist and the host of the MMA Hour. He’s won MMA Journalist of the Year at the World MMA Awards every year since 2010.

CHAPTERS

00:00:00 In this episode…

00:00:33 Chapter 1: Back to Montreal

00:13:20 Chapter 2: Journalistic Ethics

00:21:30 Chapter 3: Truth vs Spectacle

00:33:16 Chapter 4: The Future of the UFC

00:42:53 Chapter 5: Thicker Skin

 

View Full Transcript

UFC Crossroads, with Ariel Helwani

Ariel

But I’m not sacrificing my ethics or my accuracy or my credentials just to get a few clicks. Couldn’t give a shit about any of that. Excuse me for swearing, but like, I could not care. It is not worth it in the end. And that’s very important. And that’s something that I always try to stick to.

 

 

CHAPTER 1 – Back to Montreal

 

Fred

Exactly, that’s the hood.

 

Ariel

That’s wonderful. I met your son.

 

Fred

That’s right. That’s right. So for I actually wanted to send a little shout out to Sacha for helping making… uh… helping us make this happen.

 

Ariel

He closed the deal.

 

Fred

He closed the deal. You go. You go to. You went to Herzliah, which is your alma mater, of course. Yes. Yes. And for him and his friends, it was like a prodigal son moment. It was like Ariel Helwani coming to school. You know how MMA mad these like 16, 17 year olds can get? They were so excited about it. And yeah, he helped us close the deal. So thank you, Sasha.

 

Ariel

Thank you very much Sasha. Yeah. This was this. I don’t know if we’re doing the interview right now. This is it. We’re going right into it. Yeah.

 

Fred

Yeah, yeah, why not? Let’s dive in.

 

Ariel

No, It was great to go back there. I got to go back there in December and I’ve always wanted to do more. I do stuff with a bunch of different schools and I’ve talked to kids, but it’s different when it’s your own school, when it’s your own alma mater, when it’s your own city, and I was in that physical location because they moved. But I was obviously, you know, I was a proud graduate of the school. So, in these weird times as well for our people, I felt like it was a good opportunity to give hope and to let them know that there’s a world outside of all of this and there’s great things that you can do. And it was really one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done. I loved it. I absolutely loved it.

 

Fred

And it was huge for them, it was huge for the kids. Yeah. I mean, they told us about a couple of weeks before they were all like, so amped up. They’re like, Ariel Helwani’s going to come to our school. Like they were so excited. And they all know I’m a big UFC fan, so they’re- a lot of his friends were talking to me about it like yeah this is great. And I’m telling Sasha, Sasha, you know, tell Ariel, you know, I want to have them on the podcast. Let’s make it happen. And he does yeah. I told him and he’s going to get in touch with you. And then we actually made it happen. So it’s really cool the way it all it all unfolded.

 

Ariel

Thank you. Yeah, I loved it. And he seems like a great kid. So shout out to Sasha and all his friends. It’s interesting because a few years ago when I got into all of this, I, you know, I didn’t know a lot of people who knew anything about MMA, certainly my friends didn’t know MMA they didn’t like MMA, they didn’t watch the fights with me, all that stuff. And in you know, the course of the over the course of the last ten or so years, it’s just been fascinating to see the evolution of the fan base. Because, you know, even when I told the school that I would show up to do that, I thought for sure. I mean, I would have bet anything that they didn’t know who I was, that I was just some guy that like, you know, he worked for ESPN and he does interviews and stuff like that. But what’s this a MMA thing, you know, we’re hockey or football or basketball fans. And so I was kind of blown away by how young the fan base, you know, has become and that kids in high school know about MMA and know not just about like, you know, they watch the pay-per-views, but they know about the people covering the sport like me. So that wasn’t always the case. When I first started out, no one knew what I was talking about or what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. And now I have nephews who are around your- and cousins who are around your son’s age, and they all want to talk to me about all the fights. So it’s really cool to see how far the sport has come.

 

Fred

It’s really, really cool. And, you know, I’ve been following the sport for a good, like, you know, 15 years or so and you see the young fan base now. I mean, it’s like people like Paddy Pimblett and, you know, obviously Connor’s is like, like really big to them and they’re starting to like, be so obsessed with the sport that they’re starting to get a little bit of a sense of the history and they’re like digging in and they’re learning about Anderson Silva and GSP and they’re on, you know, checking out all the catalog on YouTube. And the Wikipedias and they’re starting to get a good sense for the history of the sport as well.

 

And I know you have a very strong sense of the history. I mean, just the way you started – when you when you started this whole journey, you had this vision, this crazy vision about being the Howard Cosell of MMA, that was like the big thing of course  Howard Cosell, legendary boxing announcer and broadcaster, countless epic moments with Muhammad Ali. Down goes Frazier. I mean, yeah.

 

And looking back at your track record today, I mean, it’s pretty amazing the journey you had. I mean, you’re not only, you know, arguably the most popular MMA journalist you’ve won MMA Journalist of the Year. I didn’t know this. I knew you won it a bunch of times, but I didn’t know that you won it at the World MMA Awards every single year since 2010. I mean, that’s an unbelievable track record. I mean, anyone denying that you’re the top independent MMA journalist out there like our Canadian brother Drake says they’re not making it about the numbers is all I know. And so today for these kids today, like, you know, Cosell or not like you’re Helwani now, and a lot of a lot of these kids dream about maybe being the next Helwani. So like, when you come back to Montreal, like you say, giving these kids, you know, some excitement in their careers and especially in high school, you know, sometimes the you know, you’re in that daily grind of high school. It’s like not inspiring. Somebody like you comes in, you open up the horizons of what’s possible for them in their career.

 

Fred

So let me first ask, like, you know, I’m a Jewish guy from Ville St Laurent. You know, like, we come from like, similar hoods in Montreal. How do you pull something like that off? I mean, it’s pretty remarkable coming from a relatively small city like Montreal, French-speaking city, having this huge dream of being the Howard Cosell of MMA, just as MMA’s sort of coming up into this sort of spotlight and bringing it all the way to this. I know you must be on your kind of daily grind out there in New York, like doing your thing. But when you kind of look at the journey as a whole, it’s pretty remarkable. I mean, I know it’s not one thing, but what are some of the key things that helped you kind of manifest this dream and make it a reality?

 

Ariel

Well, first of all, thank you very much for the kind words and especially coming from a fellow Montrealer. It means a lot. It really, really does everything that you said. It means a lot. And as you also said, at the very end, you know, we get into our daily grind, and we have highs and lows, and I hope this never changes. I don’t view myself as, you know, anyone. I don’t think I’m 1/10. You know, I did an interview recently. Someone’s like, what does it feel like to make it? And I’m like, make it? I still feel like I’m scratching and clawing. And I hope that that feeling doesn’t go away. Sure, it’s nice to smell the roses and feel good about your accomplishments. But I’m so hungry. I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been because I feel like, All right, I’m 41. Now’s the time to really go after all my dreams.

 

And so then that brings me back to your initial question. I was a really big dreamer when I was a kid. And I was really fascinated by the world of media and television. I was a huge basketball fan, growing up in Montreal. I wasn’t a hockey fan. I loved basketball, baseball and football. Those are my favorite sports. And I was obsessed with American media when we would take road trips to New York and Boston, I would sit there and watch Sports Center on Loop and just be like, wow, they’re talking about the NBA here. They’re talking about the NFL because back in the early nineties, they weren’t really talking about that in Canada, you know? TSN they were just talking about hockey and it wasn’t very exciting for me. And so I would watch the NBA on NBC and I would watch Bob Costas and I would watch Marv Albert, and I was just so taken by it. But I didn’t really like dream of being in their shoes because that thought didn’t really seem like a possibility.

 

And then, you know, I’m reading Sports Illustrated in ninth grade at Herzliah High School. I’m supposed to be reading something else. I’m in English class, and there’s a blurb that states, you know, it’s an issue where it’s breaking down the best schools in America for all sorts of different things. It says Syracuse University is the best school for sports broadcasting, and they produce the best sports broadcasters. Costas, Marv Albert, these are people I looked up to. And so in my mind, I said, I’m going to go to Syracuse University again, another dream. And as you know, especially in the Montreal Jewish community, like you either go to McGill or you go to Concordia. Yeah, you know, maybe you go to Western, maybe you go somewhere else in Canada, but not a lot of kids are going to the states. It’s very expensive. There’s not a lot of opportunities, etc., etc.. And I just wanted to- I don’t know, I wanted to dream big and I wanted to go for it. And I was so blessed to have two parents who never told me no, who never told me, that’s a stupid dream, who never told me like, whoa, whoa, whoa, you got to stay back. You have got to follow the family business.

 

Ariel

And they may not have known it, but I was watching them and admiring them from, you know, very close proximity and seeing how they conducted themselves. And that gave me the inspiration and that gave me the motivation to go out there because my father is from Egypt. And in the late sixties, he moved to Montreal because, you know, times were tough over there for Jewish people. And, you know, he studied accounting. There wasn’t many opportunities for him in Montreal. So he worked a night shift at a textile factory on Cote de Liesse. If you know that street.

 

Fred

Of course!

 

Ariel

And he ended up owning the factory and building it out to not only a knitting factory but a dying factory, and he was incredibly successful. And watching him wake up every day at like 6 a.m., go to work at seven, come home at seven, work while eating dinner, continue to work until it was time to take a shower, take a shower, go to bed, not watch TV and then start over and never complain and never call out sick and never stop working was incredibly inspiring. On the flip side, you had my mom, who’s from Lebanon, who moved to Montreal in the seventies for the same reasons – tough times for Jews – and her devotion, her life was us, my two brothers and my sister. And I say I got my interviewing skills from my mom because she’s the most empathetic person I know. She’s the type of mom that all my friends want to talk to if they have a problem. She invites everyone. She cooks for everyone. She is as warm and inviting as anyone that I’ve ever met. And then I have my dad with the work ethic and I saw that and they gave me, like I said, the push to go out there. And so when I told them I want to go to Syracuse, they said, all right, let’s go. And when I told them I wanted to quit, they said, no, you’ve got goals and you got to finish this.

 

And there were times that I wanted to quit because I was incredibly homesick. Those three years at Syracuse were the toughest three years of my life, and I hope I never go through a time like that. I was utterly depressed. I was homesick. I would stay in my room. I was battling social anxiety all kinds of things. And when I got there for the first time in my life, I’m now surrounded by kids who all have the same dream as me. I’m not at Herzliah anymore. I’m not in the Montreal Jewish community. I’m surrounded by a thousand kids who all want to be the next Costas and Marv Albert. And this is September of 2001. And so I tell my parents, everyone wants to be the same thing here. And I’m like, same way I didn’t want to be like everyone else in Montreal. I didn’t want to be like everyone else at Syracuse.

 

That’s why I said, you know, I love the fight game. I love combat sports. My first love was pro wrestling. I love boxing. And there was this thing called MMA. There was this thing called the UFC that was just a little over eight years old. And I said, There’s no one covering the sport the right way. And I think it’s going to be huge. And I know what boxing did for Howard Cosell. I want to be the Howard Cosell of MMA.

 

Now, I don’t think I’m the Howard Cosell. I don’t think I’m 1/10 as good as Howard Cosell. But I started my own radio show there, and I interviewed fighters, and I would have people like Bruce Buffer on and Dan Severn and Don Frye, you know, names from back then. And that’s really where the dream started. And there’s a whole other story post that. But just to get back to your question, like, I didn’t want to be like everyone else. I didn’t want to settle. I loved Montreal and I still love Montreal, but I felt like there was something out there for me to achieve. And I’m the kind of person that I’m a very passionate and emotional and sensitive person and like if I don’t feel it, I’m out. And so I need that. I need that fire to get me up, to make me go after my dreams, to think big, to have the chutzpah, to think big. And I guess I just had that chutzpah and I didn’t want to let you know, you know, small community, this and that. I didn’t want to feel like, you know, when I’m 85, I’m going to regret that I didn’t go out there and, you know, take a chance. And so that kept pushing me to continue to do more and strive for more.

 

Fred

Man, what a great answer. So that that entrepreneurial intent that, those big dreams and but then also the work ethic and then the perseverance when you’re going through that adversity at Syracuse. That’s, I mean, you listen to a lot of people that that sort of I also hate that expression “made it” it’s like made it at what, right? I mean, what level at what level do you want to play the game? There’s always, always, always a new horizon. There’s always a new level you can achieve. And if you think in those terms like I’ve made it, the complacency is kind of not compatible with actually making it on an appreciable level.

 

CHAPTER 2 – Journalistic Ethics

 

Fred

But, but that’s amazing. I mean, I look at your whole approach to journalism. There’s I mean, just like how you kind of broke it down now, like the your parents journey feeding into your journey. There’s something old and something new. So there’s kind of like this internal tension in journalism, let’s say, I see between informing and entertaining, right?

 

So is it about, like, revealing relevant information even when it’s inconvenient to those in power? So like speaking truth to power, or is it about, you know, sensationalism, grabbing headlines, grabbing attention and, you know, even major news outlets struggle with this, arguably have always struggled with this and often fall into, you know, clickbait or fill a, you know, the filter bubbles to kind of drive attention. You have that formal education in journalism from Syracuse. And I know you take your journalistic ethics very seriously. I mean, what can you tell us about the importance of journalistic integrity? I know it seems a little bit old-fashioned to talk about this in today’s day and age especially.

 

Ariel

No – It shouldn’t be.

 

Fred:

It shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be, though, especially in sports and entertainment. It’s like, who cares? You know, like it’s all about the it’s all about the flash and the glitter and the fun and the sort of the social media attention and so forth. But you’ve certainly, I feel, paid a price for that that principle that you hold on to. So how did this idea, the principle, of this idea of journalistic ethics and journalistic integrity play out for you specifically, especially in this sort of tough guy sport with kind of big egos in MMA?

 

 

Ariel

So I was a very, like I said, impressionable young man. And I looked up to a lot of people and I loved learning about the history of media and journalism. And one of my heroes is a man named Walter Cronkite. I wasn’t alive when Walter Cronkite was who he was. He was the anchor of the CBS Evening News. But I’ve read a lot about him and I’ve watched a lot of clips on him. And I’ve really from afar, studied him in what has always blown me away by Walter Cronkite and by his relationship with the country was he was known as the most trusted man in America. That was his title. Yeah. And people would refer to him as Uncle Walter. Everyone believed him when he said something. You believed it. You did not question it. And I think that’s the greatest compliment that you can give to any broadcaster. Not that’s like ahhh you know, he got that one story wrong. I don’t know. Let’s just wait to see. You know, when people tell me you said, I believe it, there is no greater compliment out there. And that really stuck with me. And so, you know, you.

 

Fred

By the way, Ariel. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I can show you a 100 chats. Okay? Like we’ve got people breaking, like all the fake news. I’m known to be the one saying, did Ariel say it? I swear to God.

 

Ariel

Thank you. That means a lot.

 

Fred

Yeah. This is, like, for years, it’s been like, don’t talk to me until Ariel says it.

 

Ariel

I appreciate that. More than you know.

 

Fred

A lot of UFC fans think that you know this –

 

Ariel

Thank you. Yeah, I appreciate that very much. And that’s why I actually, I take it so personally when someone tries to question what I say. For example, this just happened. I reported that the event in Saudi Arabia, the UFC event in Saudi Arabia was being moved because the powers that be in Saudi Arabia did not like the quality of the card that was being presented. Dana White said that that was a lie, that that was B.S. It’s not a lie. They ended up announcing that it was moving. He’s now, he’s refuting the reason. And it’s an ego thing. And I get that, he has to protect it. He has to protect the brand. But I don’t care if someone says, like I suck as a broadcaster or I’m boring or I’m a nerd or this and that, but I hate when my integrity and my ethics and, you know, my accuracy is questioned because I really take a lot of pride in attempting to bat 1000 if you get the reference. So, you know, looking up to the likes of Walter Cronkite and the relationship that he had with people meant a lot to me.

 

The first class that I ever took at Syracuse journalism school was journalism ethics. That was the first class. And I can’t tell you about a lot of the classes I took. They’ve all kind of, you know, fizzled out of my brain. But I remember that one, and I remember learning about things that I never even thought of, like, oh you can’t take gifts. Oh you can’t have a conflict of interest. You can’t work for the people that you cover, like all these things that maybe some other people out there don’t have the… you know, they don’t have the sort of knowledge in their back pocket because they didn’t go through this type of training or education that really stuck with me. And so I’ve tried to hold on to these principles through my life. Am I perfect? Have I messed up? Yes, I have messed up. And, you know, I don’t think there’s any human being on the planet that is perfect. But the hope is that you learn, you live, you learn, and trust me with the way media is going and the way you know the world is going. It’s almost once, twice, three times a week. And it’s happened. I would- I think four times this week. I kid you not where it’s entities, meaning promotions, meaning, you know, non-outlets, if you will, who are asking me to come do things, very fun things for them. But I say right away, don’t even waste your time. I cannot get paid by a promotion. I cannot get paid by an entity that I’m supposed to cover because that is a conflict of interest. And I don’t know how many people would say that, to be honest. And I have lost out on a lot of money.

 

But I need to be able to say what I want to say, cover how I want to cover. And most importantly, I need the audience to believe that I’m not in anyone’s pocket. That when I tell you something good, bad or indifferent, I’m telling it to you because that’s what I believe. I hate clickbait, I hate sensationalism media like, you know, big exclamation point. Wow. Shocked face, all that nonsense. And I hope- and maybe that affects the views. I just hope that you come to me to learn to have fun, to be entertained. And ultimately what I think I do, look, I’m not covering, you know, the war in the Middle East. I’m not covering the war in Ukraine, I’m not covering life or death things. I know what I’m doing. Actually, Howard Cosell  himself said that the sports department in any newsroom is the toy department. We do the fun thing. And so I want to be the escape for people. Ultimately, that’s what I want to be more so than like Mr. Journalist. I want to be the escape when I hear from the guy who delivers our UPS packages, like I listen to you for 4 hours on my daily route and you let my mind go elsewhere and I can’t wait for Saturday. I can’t wait for Chito Vera versus, you know, Sean O’Malley. And what a great interview with this guy. Its like. I mean, is there anything better than that that someone is just having kind of like a ho hum day or they’re looking at the pass the time or they’re having a tough time and they come to me to escape with all the things out there on this planet that you can listen to or watch to escape. So that’s where like entertainment and info and journalism and fun all kind of blend together. But I’m not sacrificing my ethics or my accuracy or my credentials just to get a few clicks. Couldn’t give a shit about any of that. Excuse me for swearing, but like, I could not care. It is not worth it in the end. And that’s very important. And that’s something that I always try to stick to.

 

Fred

Yeah, a lot of people are very cynical about the media and like, we have no chance. I mean, people have, you know, ideological agenda and people want to sell advertising. So. So what’s our hope? What’s our hope for truth? Let’s say you get to getting unbiased, real, credible information. And my answer to that is always the individual. It’s the heart of one individual. All you need is the one person reporting to have high integrity, high ethics, and then that person becomes a reliable source. And so like Solzhenitsyn’s said, you know, the line between good and evil goes through the heart of every man. And it’s like, that’s all you need. And this is the only way we can sort of find a way out of this, you know, cloud of misinformation, disinformation, biased information, weaponized information. It’s the heart of one individual who is going to come out and say, you know what, the buck stops here. Like, I’m not accepting, you know, my ethics are my ethics, and I’ll pay the price. I’ll pay the price that I need to pay for it. That’s kind of- I believe that’s the only way out in this all.

 

 

CHAPTER 3 – Truth vs Spectacle

 

Fred

But you also said something about the fun and the entertainment and being the escape. So it’s not all about just this, like, serious integrity piece. Very important, but from very early on in your career when you were on the come up, you showed that you could dance that line, that you could play with the banter and the little bit of drama and the instigation. And I remember some of those interviews and all those Rampage interviews, you know, like you’re the alpha of your litter. You know, this is classic stuff where like even McGregor, like when he started off, and today, he’s a huge star. When he started off, he was basically this guy on welfare, this Irish dude with a big personality, you know, the blueberries and like, you let him be crazy. You got it out of him. Just countless moments that you gave MMA fans that really helped bring these characters to life and it really helped bring out the storylines and kind of build the sport into what it is today.

 

Ariel

Thank you.

 

Fred

When a fan looks at your interviews and looks at the interviews of some of your peers, many of whom are also extremely talented and very good at what they do, you know, people notice the difference. You know, like we noticed there’s just something different here. What can you tell us from the inside? From a craft perspective? Like what’s the source like? How do you approach preparing for and creating these special moments over and over that kind of bring the sport to life to people? What can you tell us about the process of creativity?

 

Ariel

It’s a great question and I appreciate it. Yeah, well, there’s a number of things that come to mind. Number one, I try not to take myself too seriously. So, you know, I don’t like people who show up with a big ego and try to flex on their subject, try to show the public that they know more like, no, no, you know, you have to kind of come with a clean slate in your brain. But that being said, you have to be prepared. You have to you have to know a lot about your subject. I hate when I hear, you know, people who interview for a living say like, I try not to learn anything about the person that I’m going to be like, what are you talking about? How could you feel that confidence if you are not well-researched and prepared?

 

So I try to be well-researched and prepared, but I also, as you may know, certainly when I have those like one-on-one interviews, but also when I do my show, I don’t have anything in front of me. There are no questions in front of me. There’s nothing prepared because I feel like if you and I are going out for a coffee, I’m not bringing a sheet of questions. You’re not bringing a sheet of questions. You’re going to say something, I’m going to respond. It goes back and forth. Right? Follow up. Listen. So you have to listen. You have to follow up. You have to know who you’re talking to and what they’re talking about. But ultimately, if you’re a good listener and you’re a good question asker and you don’t ramble and try to show that you know more about the intricacies of the fight game and all this stuff, it’s going to make for a good conversation.

 

Now again, I go back to not taking myself too seriously. I don’t mind being the butt of the joke, and I think some of this comes from my love of pro wrestling, like the kind of fun showmanship nature. Like that’s why Rampage was a great sparring partner and they never took any of the things that he said to me seriously. I don’t mind. I love the challenge when, you know, I have someone on the show who is kind of coming at me or someone who is tough to get to open up like a guy like Rory MacDonald. Back in the day, people would be like, Rory MacDonald, so boring. Like, no, I love talking to Rory MacDonald because he challenges me to dig a little deeper, to try to figure out, like, what’s going on in his head. Why is he known as the Canadian psycho? Why is he a little bit different? Why does he get his hands wrapped while wearing his suit? That’s not, you know, usual. But I love that.

 

That’s why I love the fight game so much, and the fighters. And then you get a guy like Sean Strickland, who’s very combative and, you know, he almost tries to insult you to disarm you. And I love that challenge as well. And then you’ll get like lovely people like Daniel Cormier, who’s just all fun and games and you just have a good time. Chael  sometimes is very combative and I don’t mind that at all. And, you know, I don’t take it personally. You know, even back in the day when I had my, you know, my back and forths with Dana White and he would like take jabs at me, like, I think that’s all fun and games. And I learned a lot of that from Cosell and Ali as well. Cosell and Ali would go back and forth, too. So again, that goes back to wanting to entertain people. But I’m not, you know, I’m not playing a character. You hear me speaking here. You see me on the street. I’m the exact same guy. I’m not putting on a front. I’m not putting on a fake voice or anything like that. And I think that’s why the fans liked me early on, because honestly, I was very rough around the edges early on when I was doing these interviews, I was little bit shy. I was a little bit nervous. But I think people realized that I took it very seriously. I showed up, I dressed up, I had a microphone, I had a mic flag. I knew the sport, I was well researched, right?

 

Fred

You had the shoes.

 

Ariel

Yeah, I had the shoes.

 

Fred

The shoe game!

 

 

Ariel

Yeah, you have like a little bit of a gimmick, if you will, but to stand out, you know, the plaid, the shoes, etc. But ultimately, it had to come down to the content. And if the content wasn’t good, I wasn’t going to survive. And I think the fans knew that I was real, that I wasn’t fake, that I wasn’t just jumping on the bandwagon, that I really, truly loved the sport and the fighters. And so, you know, all that comes into play. And ultimately nowadays I just try not to take it so seriously. Like, I… let me be very clear before every show, I’m very nervous. I am anxious. I question myself, I say I’m not good enough. All these thoughts still go in my mind, but then I get like an Anthony Joshua show up for the first time two weeks ago. And it’s an incredible conversation and it goes in a completely different direction than I thought it was going to go. And there’s no greater high that I can experience in life. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. And it just flowed and it was like we were old friends hanging out for the first time in ten years. So you just kind of have to go with that mindset. And the last thing I would say is just like any great quarterback or any great athlete, they always say it’s like it’s the reps, right? A thousand reps, you do something every day, you get better at it. And so I’m obviously a better journalist today than I was back in 2001. And it’s all about the reps. The more I do the show, and by the way, I can’t listen to my stuff, it makes me want to die inside. I still think I suck. I still think I’m not good enough. I still think that I have a lot to learn and get better at and refine. But the more I do it, hopefully every day, 1% better, and I could maybe one day achieve my goal of perfection.

 

Fred

You sound almost like some of those fighters. You know, every time before I go to a fight… GSP speaks in those terms like he was always nervous before every fight, always questioning himself, like the fear never goes away. You know, It’s like when I lose that fear, I’m going to lose my edge, you know? So it’s almost that..

 

Ariel

100%. I get it totally.

 

 

 

Fred

Right, right, right. Very interesting. So early on, you’re young, you know, it’s all fun and games for a while with some little sparks here and there. But then as you get more successful star of the press conferences. I’m not giving you compliments here. I’m just like, really calling it like as accurately as I can in terms of my experience as a fan, watching the UFC star of the press conferences, you know, working pay-per-views, deal with ESPN, the drama seems to get a little bit more serious and a little bit more real with more people, right? Like the haters start coming out of the woodwork a little bit. Not…I don’t feel never really from your fellow journalists, but like from people inside the fight game. You know, like when Nick Diaz comes out and says, you know, Ariel’s an instigator, like in that very, like, serious vibe, you know, that he has. Other fighters and managers, you know, start complaining about your style, like the way that you push for answers, the way that you create these awkward moments that fans love. Where we get those… that revealing, you know, truth about a fighter like that, that those little bits of information that you’re not just going to get with a vanilla interview. That’s what fans love. But like fighters sometimes are irked and the egos get irked. You know, Dana initially, you know, has this little, you know, playful beef with you in the press conferences. Right. And this is before the ban. But he was also complimenting you at the same time, right, saying that you were great for the sport and so forth. But you start to get… it seems almost like something about you and your approach drives these guys nuts on some level. Right? It’s like they can’t control what Ariel is going to say there. They can’t control the narrative where it’s going to go. Is it as simple as –  in your experience, like, look, you know, you were the most successful journalist out there. It’s like haters being haters or is there something else in the background you feel like where the shade that you were starting to receive from some people wasn’t coming from a fun place anymore. It was just starting to get a little bit more serious.

 

Ariel

Well, I would say that, you know, there’s obviously a lot of famous incidents, if you will, but think about how many fighters I’ve come across and interviewed since, you know, I started this back in 2001. You know, you could probably count the beefs, the haters, even though people love talking about them and they’re so pronounced on one, maybe two hands, max? You know what I mean? It’s thousands of fighters in tens of thousands of hours of shows that have been drama-free. And so sometimes I feel like all of this is a little bit overblown. But I do understand that, you know, in the early days of the sport, it was a lot of, you know, unrefined journalists, not hating on them, but just maybe they were more fans than journalists and happy to be there and wearing, you know, fighters’ t shirts and stuff like that. And then I come along and I try to be, you know, Walter Cronkite asking the hard questions. And I never even thought that they were hard. And I wasn’t even trying to purposely ask hard questions.

 

My mindset was always, all right. I’ve got this opportunity. I’ve got a microphone. I’m here. I somehow convinced someone to employ me to do all this. If I just waste all this on asking fluff questions and I don’t deserve to be here, I’m blowing this. I am doing a disservice to the job and someone else should be here. And so I always took that service, if you will. I always took that very, very seriously. That responsibility was very important because I didn’t want people thinking that I was the fluff guy, that to me is the worst that I can be called. Like, yeah, we could skip that one. No. So yes, Nick Diaz gets upset. Nick Diaz and I are very cool. Now, there are also you have to understand, you know, some of these incidents that live on forever, like he’s cutting weight . He’s about to fight for a title in two days… That doesn’t last. He just may not have felt like talking to me or maybe it was going through a tough day or a tough weight cut. But all these different examples, there’s so many different things that come to play.

 

And ultimately, I think that, you know, maybe I got a little bit more shine or attention or whatever because I would ask things and not be afraid. But it was mainly because I didn’t want to blow it. I didn’t want to I didn’t want to go back to my hotel room and say, like, man, I should have asked that. And trust me, that has happened a thousand times, too. I just felt like I had a responsibility to the public who believed in me, who backed me, who trusted me to ask, you know, like when Nick Diaz doesn’t show up for the media day in Montreal, why did you miss your flight? Why weren’t you there? I just feel like those are normal questions that any good journalist would ask. Who, what, where, why, how, you know, and not like, oh… so excited about this great fight. Like nah, like why did I miss it? Oh I didn’t feel like going. Okay, and then what happened? And then what happened and then what happened? Like, I just want to know! I’m an inquisitive guy. It’s not like I’m trying to start trouble. It’s not- trust me, I’m not actually a confrontational person at all. I would say I’m just more curious and inquisitive, and, you know, 90-something percent of the time, it’s all well and good, and it’s fun, and it’s building up the fight. And then other times where you have to ask the, quote unquote, tough questions. I would also say that that is overblown because, again, I’m covering sports and I’m not like digging into the underbelly of their lives. I’m not asking them super personal stuff about their families and whatnot. I’m asking them stuff that kind of fits into the sports sphere. And none of that should really be tough, in my opinion.

 

 

CHAPTER 4 – The Future of the UFC

 

Fred

So looking at the UFC trajectory as a whole, again, we’re on the eve of UFC 300. You’ve been right there in many ways. You’ve been the hardcore fans’ front row seat, witnessing the growth of the UFC from really like for me, the three people that really embody the people’s perspective are Dana, Joe and Ariel. Others too, of course, Chael. DC. But you’ve been right there with the promotion as it’s gone from a kind of a struggling $50 million in debt, you know to this massive public corporation today still growing all over the world. And you’ve kind of been there at all the key crossroads, if you want to kind of understand, you know, what the UFC is today as opposed to what it was guarding against, you know, kind of nostalgia. You know, the things used to be better than they are today or kind of recency bias, kind of ignoring the past, what I want to cut through all of that. And again, from your very privileged vantage point on the eve of UFC 300, what defines for you this version of the UFC compared to maybe it’s more improvised entrepreneurial past versions? And are you as excited about the sport today as you’ve been in the past?

 

Ariel

Well, it’s a behemoth now. It’s very mainstream. You know, UFC 200 happens and they’re not on ESPN. That was in 2016. They’re on ESPN, they’re all over the ticker. You see them on dot com like they are, you know, they are a part of the sports landscape not only here, but obviously across the world. They’re a huge deal across the world. And, you know, now they’ve got this TKO group with WWE and you saw what WWE just did in terms of their TV rights with Netflix. And that’s an insane number. And UFC’s rights here in America are coming up at the end of 2025, and they’re going to get an insane amount of money, and it’s all well-deserved and well-earned. They are a behemoth and they run a very tight company and they provide a great service and they’re there on almost every weekend. There’s no off-season, and the characters are fun, and the fights are fun. And it’s an amazing thing to witness from, you know, just maybe 15 or so years ago when there was like 6 to 8 events a year. And it was just like a once-every-three-months thing as opposed to a once-a-week thing. And that’s great for me that it’s a once-a-week thing because there’s something for me to talk about every single week that I’m doing my show. We don’t take breaks as well. Sometimes I wonder, like if I was a NFL broadcaster, like, what would I talk about in February, you know, like late February or early March or April? I know there’s the draft and all that stuff, but it gets kind of boring in May-June, etc..

 

So it’s amazing to see how far it’s come. It’s like we said earlier, it’s amazing to see the fan base evolve. It’s amazing to see the popularity of the sport. And yeah, I mean, I’m on air now more hours per week than I’ve ever been. My Monday show, my Wednesday show, my ringer show, my post-show, all that stuff. It’s it used to be just one show a week. And then, you know, some of the event coverage. And so I can’t fake that. Again, like I said, I get excited about things. I’m excited for Volk-Tuporia. Yeah, I’m excited for Benoit Saint-Denis against Dustin Poirier, I’m excited of for Chito Vera versus Sean O’Malley. I’m excited for Arman Tsarukyan against Charles Oliveira. On and on it goes. And the return of Conor McGregor and all that stuff. DDP-Izzy if that’s the direction. So if I wasn’t, if I didn’t like it, if I hated it, if I was bored of it, if I was distraught, I wouldn’t be able to do this. I would have probably gone and done something else. And, you know, there are opportunities out there. But I really do love the fight game and I love the sport.

 

And sometimes people confuse my criticism of certain things as not liking the sport or not liking the UFC or wanting the UFC to fail. UFC to fail? Like if there wasn’t a UFC, I wouldn’t have a job. I wouldn’t have a dream life. You know, just because I’m critical of things, it doesn’t mean that I hate them, it doesn’t mean that I want them to fail. Again, I think this all comes from a place of like, like tribalism. Like you have to be pro, 100%. You have to be a fan. You have to support. It’s like, no, that’s what journalism is. And I would argue that 90% of my show is positive, maybe even 95%, whatever it is. And then sometimes, you know, I’m talking about fighter pay, I’m talking about this, I’m talking about that. But it all comes back to celebrating the sport. Like, look, for example, this week, Kayla Harrison signed with the UFC. I say this is an incredible move for Kayla for UFC and it’s a massive blow to PFL. And I saw some people saying, Kayla wanted the easier fights so she went to the UFC. Are you insane? Easier fights? UFC is the best in the world. Like it’s the difference between, you know, the NFL and the CFL, not apples to apples. But you get what I’m saying. The gap in terms of popularity… and it’s absurd. Like, they are the best. They put on the best shows. Look at Michael Chandler, how much more popular he got when he went to the UFC. Look at people’s careers and lives that have changed once they got to the UFC. Conor McGregor, etc. They are the absolute best. And so, if I was truly a hater, or I wanted them to fail. Like, would I be able to say that? No, but of course able to say it because that’s the truth. So, still love it, still get excited about it. Are there times where you’re like, ugh this sucks or you see how the sausage is made? Of course, but that’s every job. I’m sure your job is the same. Everyone goes through that. It’s never rainbows and lollipops every single day. But I couldn’t sit in that chair and do that show twice a week, do the other stuff that I do. If I didn’t still love it and have a passion for it.

 

Fred

Yeah absolutely. It’s a fantastic product. But one aspect I wanted to focus on specifically is star power. So when we compare to 2016 and a lot of fans today are saying, you know, when you look at the card, you know, for UFC 300 like the main event, you know, like who are they going to put in that slot right now? And I mean, when you look at the banger cards we got lately and the ones that are coming up as well, I mean, you know, in terms of like of volume, it’s still unbelievable the quality of the product that they’re putting out there. But there is that argument about star power. How much does the UFC like having big stars? When does a star become too big to where they can’t fully control the star? And I think you’ve said something around, you know, today the brand is the biggest star. You know, like the UFC, the machine is the star. Of course, You know, the UFC loves having stars because stars drive interest and drive pay-per-view buys. But stars also sometimes can’t be controlled as much. You saw what happened with Francis Ngannou, So how big of a factor is that? So the UFC wanting to balance kind of the importance of having stars with kind of maybe not wanting its stars to get too powerful. And then also in parallel, the emergence of opportunities outside the UFC. So the boxing, you know, the PFL, the, the Bare Knuckle and all that stuff, how big of a factor is that today?

 

Ariel

Yeah, that’s going to be an interesting story. I would add Saudi Arabia to that mix as well because they’re just throwing around a lot of money right now. They have historically done, I think, a very good job of remaining the top star, especially over the last, I don’t know, five, ten years, maybe the one that they slipped up on and they gave too much rope to was Conor. And now you see they’re trying to like, reel him back in and see what’s what. It’s a very unique relationship that they have. But no one is bigger than the UFC. The UFC will announce that they’re coming to town X and they’ll all but sell it out without a single fight announced. Certainly not a main event is needed because everyone knows what the UFC brand is, what the product is, what you’re getting for those prices, etc. And so that’s what they want because that is not going away. Those three letters, they’re not going away. Dana White is the biggest star in the UFC and he’s not going anywhere. And so it’s huge for them to set it up like that. And the only other combat sports entity that is like that is WWE. You know, WWE’s coming to town. WrestleMania tickets are on sale. People are buying them without a single fight announced, there’s not a single match announced to WrestleMania and it’s already sold out. So it’s just sort of like brand recognition and that’s super important as opposed to some of these, you know, boxing promotions like Matchroom or Top Rank, they have to come to the market with the fights with the main event and then tickets go on sale. So it’s an amazing luxury.

 

But it didn’t just happen. It wasn’t always like this. It’s something that had to be built over time. And I think it was a conscious decision on their part to make the UFC into the star. I think they took a lot of cues from WWE in that regard, and so they did a great job with the production and all that, and I think they learned a lot from WWE and now they’re reaping the benefits. So you know, I think that they’re cognizant of the fact that they need to build stars, the Sean O’Malleys of the world, the Islam Makhachevs of the world, and then stars emerge like Tom Aspinall or Leon Edwards. And these are people that are coming up and are helping to build markets and are big stars in their home countries. Dricus would be one, Izzy has been one, Volk has been one, etc. but I think they’re also, you know, very, they’re very cognizant of the fact that they need to be the top star and you know and they are. There’s no doubting it like there’s no one that is bigger than the UFC. Even Conor hasn’t fought in three years and they’re still on fire. It’s not like him not fighting has hurt them. So that isn’t changing any time soon.

 

Fred

Yeah, it’s almost like they found a way to create stars. So they are the star-making sort of, you know, industry now. They know, they figured out that these personalities are going to be coming through. You’re going to have these amazing fighters coming through and they figured out the process of creating stars. And that kind of sets the brand in a position where –  I think in boxing you don’t see that as much with the promotions, the independent promoters. So…

 

Ariel

Agreed.

 

 

CHAPTER 5 – Thicker Skin

 

Fred

It’s an amazing, amazing luxury they have. When I look at you- kind of your journey at some point, I think at 2018 you stopped the MMA Hour and that was like a big loss for us for a lot of MMA fans. And when you came back to the MMA Hour like relaunching it, that was like really, really big for a lot of fans and a lot of like the little, you know, beefs and drama that you have seemed like a little bit more like the beefs of old now like they’re more lighthearted, they’re more fun. But now I feel like when certain boundaries get crossed, you’re not afraid to stand up. You’re afraid to like, say, hey, you know what? Like you saw that little beef with Chael recently or the Ali Abdelaziz. Likeyou make that statement of like, you know, and what? So you’re making a threat like he tells you, you know, keep my fighters’ names out of your mouth, and you’re like and what? You know. So you draw those boundaries. Did everything that happened to you kind of harden you in a way and make you kind of not want to take any B.S., you know? So some people could have shied away from that. But I feel like you almost went in the other direction where you’re like, you know, the chips are down, like, what’s going to happen here? No, I’m not afraid to stand, like, draw those boundaries and say, okay, like what now? Is that a fair depection?

 

Ariel

Yeah, to a degree. Because, you know, especially towards the end of my time at ESPN, I had to kind of stay quiet for a long time. And things are being said and people are coming up with stories and I was asked not to respond, and that was frustrating. So I think that when I finally, you know, took the shackles off, for lack of a better analogy, obviously there weren’t physical shackles, but I felt like I was being, you know, quieted or censored. I just kind of went a little crazy. And I don’t think I’m doing it as much now as I was at the beginning of the return to the MMA Hour. But I just felt like I had a lot to get off my chest. And so, yeah, that feels good. It feels good to be able to stick up for yourself. You know, people think that I’m like some, you know, puny like, and I play up to that a little bit. But ultimately, like, I’m not going to let anyone disrespect me, and especially if they’re going to lie or try to intimidate me or anything like that, like I’m just not going to let that happen. So I have a platform, I have a microphone, I have an audience, I’m going to speak my truth. And as I’ve said time and again, I don’t necessarily care if you don’t think I’m a good journalist or broadcaster. That doesn’t bother me. It’s when you lie that bothers me. And so when people come out with stories, lie, make things up, that really bothers me because I don’t think that’s fair and I wouldn’t do that to someone else. So, yeah, I’ve felt over the last few years like it’s important and I don’t know if it’s a byproduct of this, but I feel like I have to do it less and maybe people know that now I’m going to respond and so maybe they won’t be able to get away with it as much as they did back in the day. So maybe that’s a nice byproduct of it all.

 

Fred

All on this point of like people play it up like you’re puny or whatever. I don’t know if you heard the Ric Flair interview on Joe Rogan.

 

Ariel

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Fred

Where he says, Ariel, that guy’s tough.

 

Ariel

Yeah yeah. That was amazing. The nature boy. Yeah, shout out to him.

 

Fred

It was unbelievable. Rogan like, doesn’t know how to respond. He’s like- are you afraid of him? That was kind of an amazing moment.

 

Ariel

That was amazing, he’s the man.

 

Fred

So first of all, just to clarify . Did you train any kind of martial arts?

 

 

Ariel

I box three times a week. I boxed earlier today, but I don’t do it for any particular reason. I just love it and I like to try to be in shape. And I prefer that over, like running on a treadmill for an hour. Right? So I suck and I’m not trying to be a boxer by any stretch. I dabbled with jujitsu, didn’t love it as far as like an actual activity. Obviously love watching and talking about it and admire them. But what I love, I really do look forward to boxing. So yeah, that’s what I, that’s what I’ve been doing.

 

Fred

Very funny because when I started training a little bit of martial arts, I had the exact same experience. I thought I would fall in love with jiu-jitsu because of the technical. Yeah, I really wanted to fall in love with it. I just, I just didn’t. I really tried and I didn’t.  And  boxing I wasn’t expecting anything from and I just totally fell in love with it. The timing, the angles, the footwork, it’s so complex. I really started understanding why they call it, you know

 

Ariel

The sweet science.

 

Fred

The sweet science. Yeah.

 

Ariel

Yeah, for sure.

 

Fred

What a great, great, beautiful sport. So I know you like to talk about, you know, recently with your discussions with Brendan Schaub, you know, around having receipts, you know, you’ve got the receipts, right? So and you’re like, you know, when people say things you do not forget. You forgive, but you do not forget. I want to ask you, when you look at your kind of your career as a whole, what’s longer the list of receipts or the list of regrets?

 

Ariel

I don’t know. Can you clarify the question? Like receipts in terms of things that I…?

 

Fred

Things that people have said that you remember and that you can bring out if needed.

 

Ariel

No, there’s not that much. Again, I think I think a lot of this is overblown. More often than not, I hear nice things from people. And again, I have all these relationships and I’m the one inviting them on my show. Like, I don’t think I have any current active, quote-unquote beefs with people. People. It’s funny, like people say that I’m the drama one, but yet everyone wants to talk about the drama beef. And I try to like, move away from it because I think it shouldn’t be about me. I don’t really want the stories to be about me. I want to talk about the stories. I want to talk about the fighters. And so like, you know, this past week, there was no drama. Last week no drama. So and I don’t think I have that many regrets. I mean, obviously, there’s things that you look back on and you say, all right, I wish I could do this differently or that differently. I think it’s really hard to live a life without any regrets. But like massive regrets? No, I think I would have regretted it if I left Syracuse. If I quit Syracuse, I think I would have regretted if I didn’t go after this, if I didn’t try to become a journalist and all that stuff. But way more, you know, way more accomplishments and things that I’m proud of, things that I’m excited about, things that I’m really appreciative of and grateful for than receipts or regrets.

 

Fred

Geat I don’t know if you’ve heard Jon Anik’s comment. Just yesterday I saw where he’s like, he’s getting kind of tired of all the negativity with the fans and he’s just like, I’ve just about had enough of all of all this negativity. And I’m like thinking of like even like, you know, considering leaving the sport. Do you deal with that sometimes? You know, the negativity that can come online from fans? You know, from a distance, you seem to have a pretty tough skin about that stuff. But, I mean, on some level, it must affect you.

 

Ariel

Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t always the case. Early on when you read people saying things about you feel like, damn, that’s rough. My skin was paper thin, so I had to develop thicker skin and I’d be lying if I didn’t say, oh you read something here that kind of cuts deep and hits you in the heart. But I try not to put too much stock into the good or the bad. I try not to get too high. Try not to get too low. I try to not read the comments cause that will affect your brain. And I you know, I believe our brains aren’t, you know, they’re not, as a friend once told me, they’re not hotel rooms. People can’t check in and out of them unless you let them do so. And so, you know, I try to focus on important things like my work, my job, my career, my dreams, my aspirations, but most importantly, my family, my friends, my health, my family’s health, my friends’ health. You know, the actual important stuff. So, you know someone who disagrees with you on how you score a fight or thinks you suck like, wugh… it’s impossible to be loved by everyone. And this is kind of the way the sport is. It’s very passionate and there’s other factors involved. You know, people love one guy or they bet on one guy, who knows why they’re all fired up about things. But as long as you keep it fair and professional, it’s just your opinion. And, you know, in terms of like, in terms of like the people who leave comments on Twitter or Instagram or YouTube… I sometimes check myself and say, like, you know, I’ve never felt, you know, there’s things that I read about my favorite teams or my favorite athletes, football, basketball, etc., and I’ve never felt compelled to crap on the athlete or I’ve never felt compelled to crap on the journalist. I’ve never left a comment anywhere that is like, negative or trolling or anything like that. So I think it’s a different kind of cat that does that and maybe not my style of person, so I don’t put too much stock into that stuff. Again, I’m not immune to it. I’m not above it. It’s there. It’s the Internet, it happens. We have our ups, we have our downs. It’s not always fun and I try to avoid it as much as possible, either being a part of it or ingesting it. But, you know, I don’t think I would have been able to last this long if I let it truly affect me. And I think it will not affect Jon and I think he’ll be just fine. And maybe it was just like, you know, an extreme moment of honesty. And I appreciate it. And, you know, that’s what people love about certain broadcasters. They wear their heart on their sleeve, but it’s never been to the point where I felt like I couldn’t take it and I had to, you know, quit or anything like that.

 

Fred

Well, look, when I look at your journey as a whole, for me, it’s like, it’s got the theme of independence, but also fun.  You’ve been able to mix those two things, like maintain your independence, maintain your integrity, but also stay lighthearted when you say like not taking yourself too seriously still to this day, keeping that friendly, very fun approach to the whole profession. For me, you have this, a little bit of this underdog spirit also that we have in Montreal, right, this small French-Canadian city. But we’ve got heart, we’ve got fight, we’ve got you know, spirit of the Habs and the Expos and all the great Montrealers who’ve made it big in the U.S., GSP, Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil all of that. And for me, you’re definitely one of those big heart championship spirit. And for me, you’ve made an unbelievable contribution to American sports culture. So I just want to thank you for your work. Keep going strong in the face of everything. We appreciate you Ariel, really.

 

Ariel

Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I appreciate that. I don’t think that I’ve made it to the point where I can be in the same conversation as those people or entities. But I appreciate the support. I appreciate the kind words and the backing and yeah, it feels a little bit different when you’re in Montreal and when you get it from Montrealers. And the UFC hasn’t been back to Montreal in a while and I hope that that will change and I hope that that, you know, that MMA and Canada will grow and continue to thrive. It wasn’t a great weekend for Canadian MMA last weekend, but you know, these things are like peaks and valleys, ebbs and flows and great days are coming. So, yeah, I appreciate everyone who watches and who supports and who listens, and I hope it can continue for many, many years.

 

Fred

Ariel, thank you so much.

 

Ariel

Thank you.

 

Fred

Appreciate it. Alright.