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Since 2005, the UFC (and the sport of MMA in general) has grown into a global phenomenon. A sport that had struggled for years to even be accepted as “a sport” finally became a mainstream staple, both in the media and pop culture. MMA was finally able to shake the stigma of the Antonio Inoki-Muhammed Ali debacle of 1976, along with the tag of “human cockfighting.” But, would the sport of MMA be in the cozy position it is today if it was still referred to by its original name, No Holds Barred?

If you had to credit one man with the ascension of MMA as the fastest-growing sport in the world, many would name pioneers such as Dana White, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, or the Gracie family. Others would name Jeff Blatnick.

Blatnick, the 1984 Greco-Roman wrestling Olympic gold medalist, passed away this week at the age of 55 due to complications from heart surgery. He leaves behind not only a legacy as one of the greatest American amateur wrestlers, but a lasting imprint in MMA history as well.

Blatnick overcame adversity his whole life. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982, two years before he was set to compete in his first Olympics (due to the 1980 U.S. Olympic boycott). After coupling his rigorous training with radiation treatments, Blatnick’s cancer went into remission, and he went on to earn the first U.S. gold medal in Olympic Greco-Roman history.

Blatnick retired from wrestling after another bout with cancer a few years later. He turned his attention to a fledging athletic competition, struggling for credibility. No Holds Barred fighting.

In 1994, Blatnick became a commentator for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. At the time, the UFC was a one-night tournament, with no weight classes and no rules (case in point, Keith Hackney defeated Jon Son that night by submission, due to several undefended shots to the groin). Blatnick saw the potential in the “sport,” but knew changes had to be made in order to move forward. Though Blatnick, the Olympic hero, instantly brought an air of credibility with him wherever he went, changing the public’s mind about NHB fighting was no easy task.

In 1996, cable television companies began to ban the NHB pay-per-view product. Having no pay-per-view outlet would essentially mean the death of the company. Though Blatnick did his best to provide a positive spin on NHB, he had little success given its reputation. In the words of MMA journalist Dave Meltzer: “He could explain that it was safer than boxing and kickboxing due to the grappling involved, cite the lack of serious injuries, and it didn't matter. Everyone would talk to him since he was Jeff Blatnick. Nobody would listen.”

In 1998, Blatnick assumed the role of UFC commissioner, and immediately put a plan in action. His first (and possibly most important) move was coining the phrase “mixed-martial arts.” Simply changing the name from No Holds Barred to MMA altered the thinking of many governing bodies and cable outlets. But that was only the beginning of Blatnick’s vision.

Along with veteran referee John McCarthy and current UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, Blatnick developed a manual of unified rules, codes, and procedures. He tirelessly traversed the country, educating the governing bodies of many states, while always attempting to present MMA in a positive light.

In 2000, Blatnick’s hard work paid off. California and New Jersey adopted the proposed unified rules, and the UFC fittingly pitted two wrestlers, Kevin Randleman and Randy Couture, against one another in Atlantic City. Blatnick witnessed the fruits of his labor from cageside that night. In 2001, Nevada would approve the unified rules as well, setting the stage for an unforgettable evening four years later, when Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin squared off in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter season one in Las Vegas. The sporting world would never be the same.

If not for Blatnick, mixed-martial arts would have died on the vine two decades ago. Jon Jones would not be a Nike spokesman, Randy Couture would not be a movie star, and the world would never have heard of Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson, BJ Penn, Jose Aldo, or Georges St-Pierre.

MMA, its fans, fighters, promoters, and media all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jeff Blatnick. Rest in peace.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012 11:47 PM
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