Blazing the Trail
“If you can win in adversity, you can win anywhere.”
—Jeff Blatnick: 1957-2012
Olympic champion and MMA pioneer Jeff Blatnick died on October 24, 2012, as a result of complications from heart surgery. He was 55 years old. The unexpected news simultaneously rocked the worlds of amateur wrestling and mixed martial arts, as Jeff had become a figurehead in both sports, although for different reasons.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff on two occasions—UFC 123 on Nov. 20, 2010, in Detroit, Michigan, and the NCAA Wrestling Championships on March 17, 2012, in St. Louis.
There are only two things I remember about UFC 123: BJ Penn knocking out Matt Hughes and meeting Jeff Blatnick. My first meeting with Jeff took place in the lobby bar of the hotel after UFC 123, where Jeff served as a judge. Fighters were milling around with a bevy of trainers, coaches, and MMA media—everyone was in postfight relax mode. I was having a beer and chatting with FIGHT! photog Paul Thatcher when Jeff walked in with a friend and sat at a high-top table in the bar.
The 1984 Games was a landmark Olympics for the U.S. Freestyle and Greco-Roman Wrestling teams, winning nine gold medals (seven in Freestyle, two in Greco-Roman). Jeff won the 1984 gold medal in Greco-Roman at heavyweight, while Steve Fraser won at 90kg. In fact, the two Greco-Roman gold medals where the first golds won by American wrestlers in that discipline in Olympic history.
Jeff also made the U.S. Team for the 1980 Olympics, but the American contingency boycotted those Games in Moscow, Soviet Union. In 1984, Cuba and the Soviet Union returned the favor by boycotting our Games in Los Angeles. You can make the case that the 1984 Games were diluted as a result, especially without those two Communist wrestling powerhouses, but read Mike Riordan’s article “Jeff Blatnick: A Retrospective of His Amazing Accomplishments” on bloodyelbow.com to put into perspective Blatnick’s wrestling prowess, pre- and post-1984, including overcoming two bouts with cancer (he had both his spleen and appendix removed) and a plethora of chemotherapy sessions. Simply put—the man was a wrestling badass.
Back in Detroit, Jeff and I chatted about wrestling and MMA, as he nonchalantly blended in with the masses in the hotel lobby without any fanfare. That was Jeff’s MMA persona—a behind-the-scenes operator, for the most part. Although Jeff worked as a commentator for UFC 4 through UFC 32, he is more remembered for his work as an MMA judge, authoring a manual of MMA rules and procedures (which eventually morphed into the Unified Rules), and dubbing the sport “mixed martial arts” instead of “no holds barred.” He was an MMA pioneer—charting a path for MMA’s future—just as much as any of the early fighters and figureheads who helped bring the UFC through its Dark Ages.
Our conversation in Detroit lasted about 10 minutes. I shook his hand and went back to my table. For the remainder of the evening, Jeff sat there and chatted with his friend, occasionally shaking hands with a fighter, trainer, or coach as they passed by.
Fast forward 16 months. Jeff was in the media room in St. Louis for the NCAA Wrestling Tournament—and he was swarmed by wrestling coaches and media members. In the wrestling community, Jeff was a god. Basically, he served as the face—or maybe “voice” is a better term—of amateur wrestling. If you ever tuned in to the NCAA Wrestling Tournament on television, Jeff was the guy calling the shots. And if you didn’t know anything about college wrestling, Jeff casually explained it without making you feel like an idiot. He also did it in a way that didn’t dumb it down for hardcore wrestling fans. If there was a man meant for that job, it was Jeff Blatnick. Pure perfection. Replacing him in that capacity will be impossible.
In the media room in St. Louis, I made my way to Jeff and re-introduced myself, reminding him of our UFC meeting in Detroit. “Great to see you here,” he said. He was ecstatic to see someone from the MMA world cross over to the wrestling world, or vice versa—and why shouldn’t he be? Jeff was a big reason I was in St. Louis…or that I even have a job as an MMA editor. Not only did he recognize the potential of MMA in its infancy, but he also worked tirelessly (and many times covertly) to bring to light what a great sport MMA could be…and now is.
Jeff was a wrestler at heart, and he proved that every time he stepped on the mat or held the microphone in the commentator’s booth. But he was also an MMA pioneer—and both sports owe him a great deal of gratitude for his contributions. He will be missed.
A former D-I wrestler for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Jim Casey has been FIGHT!’s managing editor for 3 years.