By Jim Genia
Jeff Blatnick, a two-time Olympian and gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 1984 Summer Olympics, died today at age 55 due to complications from heart surgery. It’s a blow to amateur wrestling, as Blatnick was a indefatigable coach, and it’s a blow to MMA, as Blatnick was a pioneer in the sport and widely considered to be one of the best cageside judges in the business. And if you knew the man, and were privileged enough to call him a friend, well, it isn’t so much a blow as it’s an Anderson Silva-esque knee to the solar plexus.
His accomplishments were many and awe-inspiring. His gold medal came after battling back cancer, and he only gave up competing when the cancer returned and he had to undergo chemotherapy. When the UFC came along, Blatnick became its first face of true legitimacy, working in front of the camera as a commentator (a gig he held from UFC 4 to UFC 32) and later, behind the scenes as the organization’s — and really, the sport’s — vanguard in the quest for sanctioning and mainstream acceptance. Prior to the crafting of the Unified Rules, there were the rules that Blatnick helped develop to tame the spectacle. And perhaps most notable of all, there was the name he wanted the sport to adopt: “mixed martial arts.” (Before then, it was called no-holds-barred – a barbaric throwback to the bloodsport that wound up banned throughout most of the country in the mid ’90s).
I don’t even remember when I first met him — was it at UFC 17 in 1998? Or was it at a pre-Zuffa UFC event back in 2001? Regardless, as he was a fellow New Yorker, he was cageside at all the same local New Jersey shows I was, sitting in a judge’s chair for everything from International Fight League events to Ring of Combats to whatever fly-by-night promotions sprouted up. As a cageside reporter, I often talked shop with him, the two of us discussing how this fighter was a badass and how that one seemed to be on the decline. Over fistfuls of Swedish Fish candy (which he seemed partial to), we’d talk about the UFC and Dana White, and how Blatnick had gotten the boot after Zuffa bought the promotion and how that had stung, but he was cool with it now. All of his tireless work to get the sport accepted may not have landed him a berth on the Zuffa-piloted ship, but he still got to judge at UFC events wherever the promotion went, and Blatnick’s name in MMA carried with it all the credibility in the world.
If Blatnick had a show in Atlantic City on a Friday night, he’d hop in his car afterwards and make the hours-long journey back to his home in Upstate New York just so he could coach wrestling early the next morning. And he was proud of his wrestlers and their accomplishments, speaking of them like a father would of his sons.
Blatnick was, of course, on the frontlines in the battle to get MMA sanctioned in New York. He talked to just about anyone and everyone, extolling the virtues of the still relatively young sport. He even met with State Assemblyman Bob Reilly — MMA’s biggest, most vocal opponent here — and in an attempt to assuage Reilly’s misgivings about the dangers of caged combat, he tried to coax the politician into the light with the carrot of more-tightly regulated amateur MMA. Blatnick was optimistic at first, but Reilly never relented.
Last year Blatnick told me that he’d been diagnosed with heart disease. However, like the cancer he’d conquered, it seemed to him to be just another obstacle, a bump in the road of his health that he’d stride right over. He’d always be at the shows, or coaching, or conducting seminars, or attempting to convince whichever naysayer would listen in regards to MMA’s viability as a sport. When I chatted with him at last month’s Bellator 74 in Atlantic City, I didn’t know it would be the last conversation we’d ever have. But I’m thankful for the talks we had, and for the time he spent helping make MMA into what it is today. Most of all, though, I’m thankful that he was my friend, and that when we said goodbye, I gave the big bear of a man a hug.