Inverted Gear Blog / MMA

Ariel Helwani and the State of Fight Journalism

My fight journalism career began 10 years ago with Lockflow.com. From there, I wrote for Ultimate Grappling (which became Ultimate MMA), Fight! Magazine, Victory Belt Publishing, and The Escapist. At the busiest point in my career, I was writing 10 articles a week and producing a video podcast (The Lockflow Show). These days, my fight writing is limited to jiu-jitsu, and even that writing focuses almost entirely on instruction.

Here’s why: the fight world does not support actual journalism.

This piece is, of course, a reaction to the UFC banning Ariel Helwani from UFC press credentials for life for being a journalist. A source told Helwani about the Brock Lesnar signing, and Helwani broke the news before the UFC could make an official announcement. The internet will be up in arms for a whole five minutes—like they were about the firing of Stitch Duran—and then they’ll go back to ordering PPVs. I’m not surprised by how events are playing out, and I’m completely confident in this prediction because for the UFC, time is a flat circle. We’ve done this dance before and we’ll do it again.

The UFC history of banning fight journalists from events goes back to 2005. Jeff Sherwood (of Sherdog.com) had his credentials yanked in 2005 when Sherdog and the UFC allegedly disagreed on how much money Sherdog should make from selling UFC DVDs. The credentials were returned in 2009, but then revoked in 2010. Cage Potato reports that when Josh Gross—another long time fight reporter—asked for an explanation, Dana White texted him “None of your fucking business.”

Loretta Hunt, also a Sherdog writer, published a story about backstage restrictions for fighter managers and agents, and Dana White went on a sexist tirade. That transcript is also available in the Cage Potato article linked above.

The UFC is pretty much the player in MMA, and they’ve thrown their weight around against journalists time and time again. There is nothing different about the Helwani incident that suggests to me that he will be treated any differently.

At the time I originally wrote this piece, Helwani was still banned, but multiple sites, Deadspin among them, have reported that his credentials have been restored, which is far better than the five year timeline I was going to predict. Despite his credentials being restored, all is still not right in my mind. In its statement on the matter, the UFC said:

"We believe the recurring tactics used by [Helwani] extended beyond the purpose of journalism. We feel confident our position has now been adequately communicated to the SB Nation editorial team."

So the UFC has told SB Nation how it wants its organization covered. Awesome. That's not a victory for journalism, and the article goes on to report that Helwani was once thrown into a wall by UFC security and was also at one time paid directly by the UFC. The waters keep getting murkier.

The bigger reality is that as long as journalists are treated this way, fight journalism will not evolve. Coverage will be limited to fluff interviews and repetitive generic coverage. Here’s why:

  • The UFC is not the only organization to blacklist journalists. In fact, I have had high level grapplers threaten to blacklist me from their gyms and from their networks of training partners for some fairly benign writing. The sport is so small that threats like these actually carry serious weight, especially if you’re trying to make a living out of fight writing. So we should not be that surprised when the majority of fight journalism is little more than public relations. Journalists don’t want to be blacklisted, and the publications that release their work are even less inclined to take that risk.

  • The size and structure of the fight world amplifies these problems. The number of top athletes in MMA and jiu-jitsu is relatively small, and the number of organizations hosting events is also limited. That creates a recipe where blacklists are exceptionally powerful. If you get locked out of covering any Atos grapplers, for example, your journalistic efforts in jiu-jitsu can be in big trouble.

  • These problems aren’t limited to the fight world, though they are less common outside of it. Bill Simmons, for example, was suspended by ESPN for blasting Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice surveillance footage. Simmons alleged that Goodell was lying about not having seen the footage (which is admittedly murky territory for a journalist, without having proof). The suspension immediately called into question how an organization dedicated to journalism (ESPN) could be objective if so much of its business is tied to a positive relationship with an organization it covered (NFL).

  • Fight fans don’t seem particularly interested in critical or investigative journalism. Unabashed hero worship is rampant. If a black belt posts entertaining things on social media, he can get away with unprompted street fights and spouting off racist or sexist remarks and any negative commentary—no matter how rooted in objective fact it might be—is quickly booed or downvoted into oblivion. Even the alleged Lloyd Irvin rape scandal took a lot of convincing for outrage to begin (how many grapplers and journalists saw inklings of the problems but never came forward?). But now, the outrage is mostly forgotten.

There are important, thought-provoking stories out there to be covered. The sport has so much growing to do, and a great deal of that growth hinges upon awareness for key issues. There are fighters out there that are as uplifting and positive as they seem. There are fighters out there that despite their cheery social media posts are sociopathic in the gym and in their personal lives. There are pervasive issues of sexism and racism that have existed in our sport form the beginning.

But we don’t talk about them, and every level of the sport is to blame—organizations, athletes, consumers, and journalists like me that didn’t have the mettle to risk it all for the sake of journalistic integrity.

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The Four Corners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu



As a student or teacher of jiu-jitsu, it can help to break the martial art into four main contexts: gi, no-gi, self defense, and MMA. These categories let you to analyze the effectiveness of your training methods and inform how you select techniques. It can also help you understand conflicting opinions between people who may not realize they are training for different reasons.

Let’s breakdown the four contexts to their specifics:

Gi

A sport with rules
Referee
No striking
Uniform to grip
One-on-one
No weapons
No environmental obstacles
Knowledgeable opponent

No-gi

A sport with rules
Referee
No striking
No uniform to grip
One-on-one
No weapons
No environmental obstacles
Knowledgeable opponent

MMA

A sport with rules
Referee
Striking
No uniform to grip
One-on-one
No weapons
Cage with a fence
Knowledgeable opponent

Self Defense

No “rules” but legal concerns
No referee but maybe police
Potentially striking
Probably clothing to grip
Potentially one-versus-many
Potentially weapons
Potentially many obstacles
Potentially unknown opponent


At its core, jiu-jitsu is a system of techniques that enables a human to defend against an attack from another human and come out victorious in hand-to-hand combat. On top of this we add further requirements and expectations, such as sport rules and real life applications.

An instructor who loves to teach sport BJJ techniques but doesn’t recognize that his students believe they are learning self defense techniques is setting those students up for a rude awakening. I believe one of the biggest confidence boosters you can give a student is to remove the fear of someone just shoving them around and swinging at their head.

The “sports” aspects of jiu-jitsu builds many skills and attributes that will be useful in a hand-to-hand fight: sparring against a resisting opponent (even without strikes), learning through constant trial-and-error, dealing with adrenaline dump, physical conditioning, etc.

How would you define “winning” in these situations?

  • You are a woman being followed by a stranger as you walk alone at night.
  • You are a police officer intervening to stop domestic violence.
  • You are a husband getting carjacked with your wife and kid in the car.
  • You are a soldier encountering enemy combatants while clearing a building.
  • You are a 16th century feudal warlord charging your horse into foot soldiers.

And how much would jiu-jitsu help in those situations?

My personal opinion is that hand-to-hand combat is one of the least important aspects of most self defense situations that don’t resemble a street fight. A fully realized self defense system would include developing verbal skills, de-escalation, threat assessment, situational awareness, using the environment, practicing escaping rather than engaging in combat, etc.

Let’s talk about street fights for a minute. They are often held up as the best example of how jiu-jitsu is used in self defense. There is some truth to that since it’s two apes jumping on each other in the wild, but I’d argue that it’s closer to a form of “mutual combat.” Most street fights can be avoided if you stay away from 1) groups of aggressive young men, 2) groups of drunk people, and 3) people competing to get laid.

(Interesting aside: Someone did a reddit AMA about being in prison. He had a BJJ blue belt so he was asked if it helped. He said it didn’t because if he clinched and took it to the ground, other inmates would separate them and stand them back up to “fight like real men.”)

The more you specialize in any one of these four areas, the more likely you are to practice techniques and tactics that aren’t practical in the other areas. This is how we get double guard pulls and winning by advantages after 10 minutes stuck in 50/50 in the sport, but self defense can get just as weird. What starts as blocking haymakers and escaping bear hugs can evolve into LARPing and 5-on-1 taser knive fights (but to be honest that sounds pretty sweet).

A useful definition of “the basics” is to look for the techniques and positions that have the greatest crossover between all four areas. This gives you the list of common fundamentals: mount, rear mount, side control, closed guard, bridging, shrimping, armbar, guillotine, rear naked choke, etc.



We can also understand the conflicting opinions between jiu-jiteiros by where they place themselves across these four corners. Someone whose primary reason for learning jiu-jitsu is self defense won’t be concerned with learning modern sports techniques or keeping track of points while rolling. Their sports-oriented training partners will wonder why they don’t seem concerned to learn berimbolo defenses or check out cool techniques from YouTube. But why would they?

Likewise, if you don’t care about self defense, but enjoy sports and competition, you’ll get bored drilling headlock escapes and wish you were repping out the hot new tech you liked on Instagram. Given how many of the classic “self defense” techniques are taught, without any resistance or sparring, I can see why. These techniques need to be trained like real skills with live drills, not just dusted off when the instructor feels guilty he hasn’t shown Helio’s “defense against arm’s length overhand karate chop” since the 90's.

In last year’s US BJJ Globetrotters camp, Chris Haueter entertainingly rants about the struggle between the old school and new, street versus sport, and his golden rules for jiu-jitsu. Watch it now if you missed it:



Back in 2014, Philly-based Josh Vogel ran a 30 Day Punch Challenge with these Cato-vs-Clouseau rules:

Grab a friend. Tell them to throw 10 punches or slaps at you every day. Avoid, block, parry or clinch when those punches are thrown. You can have them hit you hard, or light, slow or fast. I suggest doing this from standing, but you can do this from ground positions. You can ask your friend to do this all in one shot, or randomly throughout the day (I'm going to ask my wife to randomly attack me throughout the day, for example).

On the Show the ART podcast, another Philly grappler, the kettlebell juggling Jason C. Brown talked about putting on boxing gloves and doing takedowns versus punches in the old school days training with Steve Maxwell. This was a common practice when I was a white belt, but I haven’t seen it in a long time (and I’m partly to blame). To borrow from Philly one more time, I’m going to be copying the Migliarese brother’s practice of having a monthly “street week”.

A martial art only consists of the things its practitioners regularly do. Judo may supposedly have strikes in its kata, but that’s like karate claiming it has grappling hidden in its katas too. Your training is only what you actually do, not what some Gracie did 70 years ago.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Which of the four contexts do you want to train for? You can pick more than one, but think about how important each one is to you.
  • Does your school’s curriculum and training actually prepare you for that?
  • If it doesn’t, how can you change your own training to align with your real goals?
  • Would you benefit from exploring a neglected context?

My purpose for this article was not to spark yet another tiresome street versus sport debate (it will do that no matter what), but to help you see the bigger picture and place yourself and your training on the greater map of jiu-jitsu. I don’t believe training for self defense is better or worse than training for sport, but that you should be truthful with yourself and your students about what you’re really training for.

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Adventures in MMA

I cleaned out my garage last week, and while that was an adventure in itself, I happened to stumble across an old pair of MMA gloves.

Talk about memories. Wow.

Just about 6 years ago—in 2009—I had my one and only MMA fight, a pro rules amateur bout. I won by toehold of all things.

I have been an MMA fan for a long time, and I was a fan before I even started training. I always had a goal of doing one fight at some point, check it off my athletic bucket list so to speak. A few of my training partners were fighting on the same card, and somehow they convinced me to join them. Six weeks before the fight, I realized I had never been taught how throw a punch.

Seriously. Beyond some uncle-to-nephew bonding when I was six, I had not even the slightest bit of striking training, and I was a few weeks out from my first fight. If you’re seeing some red flags, you are better off than I was. I charged right past them and into my first MMA experience. If any BJJ players out there are considering MMA, you might learn something from my story.

I was a fresh purple belt at the time. I was confident in my mat work, but my stand-up was awkward. I favored having my right foot forward, and I really wanted to keep that approach, but my coach was not having it. I spent a few weeks awkwardly shuffling with my left forward in a traditional stance. It felt… okay.

“We don’t have time,” my coach said in his Brazilian accent. “It’s okay. Just One. Two. Shoot. It will be fine.”

So I shuffled. One. Two. Shoot. Back up. Shuffle shuffle. One. Two. Shoot. That was the extent of my stand-up.

As foreign as striking felt, MMA grappling was the most jarring. Many of my training partners who I usually submitted during BJJ class were now kicking my ass. I frequently left my head exposed from guard. I gave up dominant positions to rush a submission instead of holding them to deliver strikes. And the gloves—I was not used to the gloves. Suddenly spots where I could easily get underhooks, or sneak my hands into a choke, were suddenly not available. The gloves were bulky and strange, getting stuck and snagged in unusual places.

Nelson shocked after winning

As bad as I was at MMA, I wasn’t completely new to fighting. I grew up in Chile and attended an all-boys school. I had my fair share of scuffles growing up, and I even had a few after I moved to the US, so the whole getting punched in the face thing was not a big barrier for me. Punching people that I liked—my friends—was the strange part, which put on an odd wrinkle in my sparring. To be clear, I was fine choking them unconscious, but punching them in the face didn’t feel right.

I did my best to push through that. And I shuffled. Shuffled. One. Two. Shoot. With each shuffle shuffle I missed the gi more and more. I’d catch glimpses of jiu-jitsu classes in session and found myself wishing I was in those classes instead of “working on my stand-up.” I realized then that this would be my first and last fight.

I shuffled my way all the way to fight time. Wearing my gi and purple belt, I walked out to “What I Got” by Sublime. As I neared the cage, I felt strangely calm, more calm than I ever felt leading up to a BJJ competition (even today). The cage door locked, and I had a flash of disbelief.

“How is this actually happening?”

The first round went according to plan. I one-twoed my way into a takedown and maintained dominant position. I worked some strikes and got close to finishing a choke. In the second round, my opponent caught on to the complexity of my shuffle shuffle technique. I went in for the one two and he planted a stiff right hand into my jaw. I fell to my back, not sure what was happening.

“Oh yeah, this guy is punching me in the face.”

My jiu-jitsu instincts, seeing that my cognitive awareness had called it quits, kicked in. I threw my legs up, locked a single leg X guard, and forced the sweep. Through the fog of being rocked, I groped for a heel hook. He spun and kicked free. As he wiggled away, I caught a toe hold. His foot crunched as I torqued it. He tapped.

The referee raised my hand. I cleaned the blood off of my face. And we went home. On the way, we stopped in Connecticut for gas.

I walked into the gas station, and the attendant said, “Oh my God! You were mugged! Don’t worry. I’ll call the police.”

I did a double take and realized he was talking to me. My face was swelling and nose was a Rudolph red. It took five minutes to talk him out of the 911 call. He had never heard of MMA, and he was quite surprised that someone would do it for free.

As I look, back I am glad I had that experience, but I would not recommend anyone following in my exact footsteps. MMA is much more regulated now, and amateur rules are much stricter. If you are a BJJ student, with no striking background, here is what I recommend before you venture into MMA:

  • Get to a purple belt level in BJJ. If you can’t go into an advanced division at your local tournament and hold your own, you have no business stepping in the cage. I have seen too many terrible amateur fights, where one guy hits the ground and was completely lost and takes unnecessary damage that would have been avoided if he knew how to work his hips. I would rather have my students become proficient on the ground before we need to start worrying about strikes.

  • Learn striking. Take your time and really put some work into your hands. I did not spend nearly enough time in this area, and if it wasn’t for my thick head, I would have lost the fight because of it.

  • Make sure you can get the fight to the ground whether you work on takedowns or dynamic entries into submissions. Your opponent will work to come back to his feet, so your training needs to account for that as well. This is something that many BJJ guys completely ignore as they are not used to grappling in a striking context.

  • Put it all together. Remember this is going to be a fight, not a grappling match or a boxing match. This may sound silly, but I have seen many MMA guys with awesome striking and ground work but for whatever reason cannot put them together. Make sure you put work into your transitions from striking to takedowns (shuffle shuffle) and vice versa. Learn how to set up your submissions with strikes, and be ready when your opponent defends your submissions with strikes.

  • Have fun. This is a very unique experience, and I feel it is a definitely a badge of honor, as Rocky Balboa would say "there is nothing wrong standing toe to toe and saying I am."

These are my two cents. I am by no means an expert on MMA. I had one amateur fight a long time ago, and I have cornered 10 other fights since then. While I think BJJ is for everyone, I really do think MMA is not. Make sure you are really committed to it before you decide to walk into the cage.

Photos credits: Shawn Alan Photography. If you know Shawn, please e-mail us at info@invertedgear.com so we can get in touch with him.

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