Remembering Jeff Blatnick, the man who named mixed martial arts

Jeff Blatnick, the Olympic gold medalist whom many credit with naming the sport of mixed martial arts, passed away yesterday at age 55 due…

By: Nate Wilcox | 11 years ago
Remembering Jeff Blatnick, the man who named mixed martial arts
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Jeff Blatnick, the Olympic gold medalist whom many credit with naming the sport of mixed martial arts, passed away yesterday at age 55 due to complications from surgery. UFC president Dana White, writers Loretta Hunt and Dave Meltzer and Nick Lembo, chief counsel of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (who worked with Blatnick to devise the first legal rule set for MMA in the U.S.) have all commented on his passing.

We’ve got their words below, but first here’s a video playlist that Zombie Prophet compiled which runs the length of Blatnick’s storied career. Subscribe to MMA Nation to get all of ZP’s playlists.

Dana White spoke to ESPN radio’s Steve Cofield about Blatnick, “He was a good guy. When we first bought the company back at UFC 30, he was one of the commentators. He was one of the guys who help Bob Meyrowitz (the old owner) really start putting some rules and regulations (into the sport).

“A very good guy.”

Loretta Hunt did a nice job of summarizing Blatnick’s role in early MMA history for Sports Illustrated:

Blatnick also served as an Olympic wrestling analyst from 1988 through 2012, calling the Games and other major wrestling events for NBC, ABC, CBS, ESPN and others. It was Blatnick’s early analyst work that landed the burly, 6-foot-2 commentator cageside at UFC 4 in 1994 alongside future NBC sports anchor Bruce Beck and retired NFL running back Jim Brown. Blatnick provided play-by-play commentary for every UFC event up to UFC 32 in June 2001.
Blatnick had an immediate enthusiasm for MMA, particularly for amateur wrestlers who’d made the cross over into the new and often misunderstood sport. Blatnick’s willingness to affiliate himself with MMA at that time was a rare boon for the sport as it fended off political detractors bent on exterminating it before it could find any permanent roots in America.

Although an ace at identifying and describing the wrestling elements utilized in MMA, Blatnick graciously became a student of the sport’s other intricate disciplines, like jiu-jitsu, and would often train with fighters at events to expand his knowledge.

With perennial MMA referee “Big” John McCarthy, Blatnick can be credited with giving the sport its name in 1996 (it previously carried the more menacing moniker of “no holds barred”) and for relentlessly implementing that name during UFC pay-per-view broadcasts until it caught on.

Following the pivotal UFC 20 in 1999, McCarthy and Blatnick together drafted guidelines that led to the inclusion of rounds and judging criteria.

In April 2001, Blatnick was among a select gathering of promoters and regulators who met with the New Jersey State Athletic Board to discuss and formalize a universal set of rules for the burgeoning sport. The meeting produced the sport’s Unified Rules, which are widely recognized and utilized by nearly every MMA regulatory body throughout North America today.

Dave Meltzer of MMA Fighting wrote a nice piece covering Blatnick’s many contributions to combat sports. Here are some highlights:

Whenever I hear the term mixed martial arts, I will always think of Jeff Blatnick, who passed away earlier Wednesday after complications from heart surgery at the age of 55.

It was in 1998 or 1999, most likely UFC 18 on Jan. 8, 1999…The show, held in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, La., was over and we were in Bourbon Street in New Orleans, with Silva and my future wife, and ran into Jeff. He said to me, “Don’t refer to the sport as No Holds Barred anymore, it’s mixed martial arts.”

NHB was the term all the reporters at the time used as the name of the sport, aside from some Brazilians who stuck to native terms like Vale Tudo or Luta Livre.

Blatnick’s main role was, among other things, to get the sport regulated by the major athletic commissions as a prelude to getting it back on pay-per-view, which was the main revenue stream. Without it, the sport had no hope of surviving at any kind of professional level in this country.

Blatnick’s work did help get the sport regulated in New Jersey in 2000, where the current unified rules came into play. Fertitta and brother Frank Fertitta, along with Dana White, purchased UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group in early 2001. With Fertitta’s connections, Nevada voted to regulate the sport in 2001. It got back on pay-per-view everywhere later that year, even though the UFC was forced to sign a deal so one-sided that it was helping bleed them dry in the early years.

Nick Lembo, the man who runs the New Jersey Athletic Control Board sent the following email around regarding Blatnick:

What You Should Know About Jeff Blatnick

On Wednesday, October 24, 2012, the MMA community lost one of the sport’s founding fathers. He was 55. He is survived by his wife Lori, his daughter Niki, and his son Ian.

Jeff was a well regarded professional MMA judge and judge trainer with the New Jersey ACB as well as a licensed referee here.

He had judged UFC and other major events in Calgary, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mohegan Sun, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Toronto and Virginia.

But there was so much more, whenever you say the words “mixed martial arts”, think of Jeff Blatnick. He is the person who coined that term. He explained on a broadcast that the “athletes were mixing the martial arts.”. He would urge people to stop calling the sport No Holds Barred, in order to help it grow and gain acceptance.

He served as a commentator for 29 UFC events (UFC 4- UFC 32). He was named Commissioner of the UFC at UFC 17.

Blatnick drafted the UFC’s Mixed Martial Arts Council (MMAC) manual while serving as that body’s chair. He was a critical party involved with the drafting of the sport’s unified rules.

He was a tireless advocate attempting to get MMA legalized in his home state of New York, quietly meeting with legislators and those with influence.

Born in Niskayuna, New York, Blatnick became a high school wrestling champion in 1975. He never wrestled prior to being convinced to start by his high school coach who needed a heavyweight in 1973.

He then earned a pair of NCAA Division II wrestling titles in 1978 and 1979 while attending Springfield College in Massachusetts. He was a three time All-American. At that time, Division II athletes could advance to Division I nationals, Blatnick placed third and sixth in two visits there.

Blatnick was the 1980 and 1981 AAU super heavyweight wrestling champion.

He was a three time national champion in Greco-Roman, won eight Greco-Roman All-American awards, two World Cup medals, and two Freestlye All-American honors.

Blatnick made the 1980 Olympic Wrestling team but didn’t compete due to the United States’ boycott of those Games held in Moscow.

In 1982, Jeff was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He said, “if you can win in adversity, you can win anywhere.”

After fighting radiation treatments and having both his spleen and appendix removed, he battled through to make the 1984 Olympic wrestling team and win the gold medal. The first Gold medal for an American heavyweight in Greco-Roman history.

Blatnick was chosen by his teammates as the representative to carry the American flag at the closing of the 1984 Olympic ceremonies.

Of that, Jeff stated, “If I didn’t have cancer, nobody would know who I was, not a lot of wrestlers make the news.

Blatnick never set out to be an Olympian, it was simply about giving his best every time he stepped on the mat.

He stated “I learn to win by learning to lose, that means not afraid of losing.”

Blatnick retired from wrestling in 1988 after a second bout with cancer.

He served on USA Wrestling’s Board of Directors.

He continued on as a coach of the Burnt Hills High School wrestling team and the Journeyman wrestling club.

He worked as a wrestling analyst for NBC for the 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics. He also was a commentator for ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA Division 1 wrestling tournament.

He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1999.

He was appointed by President Clinton to the President’s Council on Fitness and Sport at a Rose Garden Ceremony.

He was also an honorary coach with the New York Special Olympics and very active with the American Cancer Society.

Nick Lembo

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About the author
Nate Wilcox
Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of BloodyElbow.com. As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

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