Mike Swick Interviews Ariel Helwani

Mike Swick Interviews Ariel Helwani

After many years of interviews, Mike Swick and Ariel Helwani switch seats. Former UFC fighter Mike Swick, reporting now for MikeSwick.com, turns the tables and becomes the interviewer. Swick now asks the leading MMA journalist some important questions. Ariel Helwani gets candid real quick, with Mike Swick.

With your extensive background playing basketball, why did you move to MMA journalism?

“I always was a big combat sports fan. I loved pro wrestling and I loved boxing. I remember in my early days that my Grandparents used to have one of those pay per view boxes, where they would get the scrambled PPVs. The UFC PPVs would replay over and over again. I remember watching it and thinking it was very interesting. I was captivated by it and when I got to Syracuse University in 2001, I realized I wanted to become a broadcast journalist. I saw that everyone kind of wanted to be the same thing. They all wanted to be baseball, basketball, or, football journalist, broadcasters, reporters, etc. I love those sports as well, but I like to be different. I thought there was a quicker climb to the top, with less competition. It is just a younger and more interesting sport to cover, if I focused on Mixed Martial Arts.

Back in 2011 I started a radio show in college that focused on MMA and I had some fighters on it. Bruce Buffer, Dan Severn, and people like that would come on the show and it was great. I remember telling my parents that in 10 years the sport is going to become mainstream and that there was going to be an executive in some office saying, “No I don’t know anything about MMA, but I just want to hire THE guy.” My goal was to become that guy. So that’s what I started focusing on. I always, in the back of my mind, dreamed of becoming an MMA journalist and in 2006, I went fully in.

As a fan and as a consumer of MMA news, I kind of felt like the coverage was lacking a little bit. I would go on the different websites and especially as someone interested in video journalism, I didn’t like how it was just a guy with a camcorder asking questions. I thought if I could get to a position where I have a job covering this sport, then I am going to get a microphone and a mic flag, have a cameraman, and dress up a little. Try to do things a little more professionally, at least for my standards.

I made it to Spike TV and that’s where I wanted to be, because it was the home of the UFC. After a week there I quit, because I realized that Spike didn’t do anything. They were just kind of taking the tapes from the UFC and that was it. They weren’t actually producing anything. It was in my cubicle at Spike that I decided to start my own website and to devote my life to MMA journalism. I gave myself six months to get noticed and I started my own blog. I said, “If I don’t get a job by April 1st of 2008, I will go back to TV production.” Thankfully with 3 days left on my deadline, I ended up getting a job.”

Since covering MMA, I know it’s been a roller-coaster ride. What are some of the best moments you’ve had? Any regrets?

“Overall, it’s been a dream job. I feel so lucky and I can’t believe I get to do this for a living. Cover all these events, travel all over the world, meet these unbelievable fighters. I am being perfectly honest when I say this, the fights are great and they’re compelling, but my favorite part of this whole job and journey is meeting the people and the fighters. I feel like MMA fighters are the most fascinating people on earth. I love asking fighters questions and finding out more about them. I don’t regret devoting my life to this and having this is as my full-time job.

I am disappointed at how the FOX experience went, almost from the beginning. I am obviously disappointed that it ended the way that it did. I am disappointed about what happened in June and that my relationship with the UFC brass was severed a little bit. Although, I do think it’s getting better. These are things that are just a product of covering the sport, but I can’t necessarily look back at any decision and say, “Damn I wish I did this differently”, because I think all these decisions kind of lead to where I am. It’s important to not look back and just kind of learn from them.”

Would you say that asking the wild McGregor fans questions, outside of Madison Square Garden, was one of your highlights?

“Haha! That was amazing for several reasons! I’m a huge Knicks fan and I love MSG. Just being in New York and covering the first New York event was a thrill in its own right. The Irish fans are so unique and they have such an amazing spirit. They’re happy to be there and so supportive of their fighters.

That week was a strange one in New York, because that was the week of the election. It felt like everyone was really down, so it was nice to laugh and have fun at that moment. That was definitely very memorable.

Off the top of my head, UFC 112 was super memorable, because it was in Abu Dhabi. There were only a few North American journalist there. Of course the whole thing with Anderson Silva happened. I got an interview with Dana White after the fight and he was very gracious with his time. That was the first video I had that got over a million views. It felt like a bit of a turning point for me. The International shows feel special to me. Going to Japan for UFC 144. UFC 127 in Sydney. I always love going to Canada. Dublin for Conor’s fight. London for Bisping. Those are the moments I’ll never forget. Sometimes I pinch myself and can’t believe I am actually here doing this. Those are some of the coolest moments for sure.”

So in mentioning being a big Knicks fan, I have to ask… Why haven’t they won a championship since the end of the Vietnam War? Should they just blow up the team and build around Porzingis?

It’s a very touchy subject. I believe that they use to be an incredible team in the 90’s and a part of me loved Patrick Ewing. He was my favorite athlete growing up. The way that they treated him on his way out, makes me think there was some sort of curse that was put on the Knicks. I also do believe that when you have an owner in James Dolan who doesn’t quite understand what it means to be a successful sports owner, it could come back to haunt you, compared to other sports owners and the decisions they make. We do have Porzingis now and he is the unicorn. I see greatness oozing out of him. I think he’s going to be the guy to change our fortune. We’re starting to trend in the right direction.

That’s why I said ‘blowing the team up and building around him’. 

Sorry, haha. I forgot. When I talk about the Knicks, I get all crazy. I mean they already blew the team up many times. So I actually think they have something here. It’s just a matter of getting the right guys around him. I just don’t like the idea of tanking. I think its hard enough to win as it is. You don’t have to kill your fan base by tanking for several years and then trying to build it back up. They have got something with him and they have a few other pieces. It’s just now about getting the right mix of characters. I wouldn’t want them to blow it up. They have the cornerstone of the franchise, which is hard enough to get in its own right. You just have to make a few good moves now.

Let’s be honest, Willis Reed isn’t walking down that tunnel anytime soon.

Oh man, you’re just killing me here! Yeah Willis Reed isn’t, but with Porzingis, I would argue maybe in 20 years we can reconvene and he might be better than Willis Reed. I believe in him that much.

Are there any relationships in MMA that are strained that you wish weren’t?

“Obviously I wish I had a better relationship with Dana White. He was so good to me. A lot of people want me to bash Dana, but it’s hard for me to ever do that to be honest, because he has been kind to me and very gracious with his time. Even if I never talk to him again, which I hope is not the case, if I never have a sit down interview or any kind of interview with him, I probably would have talked to him more than anyone. Even if I continue to cover the sport for another 30-40 years, because he was so open and so gracious and really very kind to me. Its a bummer what happened back in June. There were many silver linings to it. I always got the impression that Lorenzo Fertitta was the one who really didn’t like me for whatever reason and it was not exactly Dana’s doing. Maybe that’s just something I just told myself. My job is to bring the news out and I have told them many times that it’s not personal. I am just trying to do my job and cover the sport as fairly and honestly as possible. I hope we can get back to that, because I want to have a good working relationship with arguably the most powerful man in the sport.

Aside from Dana, I kind of pride myself on being able to have the best relationships possible with people and not have many enemies. Over time there have been guys upset with me, but they always come around. That’s part of the sport. If everyone loves you, you’re probably not doing your job.

In journalism school they taught us not to take gifts, so you didn’t feel like you owed anyone. I was so strict with that.

There was a time at WEC 48 in Sacramento and I saw Dana in the lobby. He said he was going to a concert and he invited me. I don’t think I have ever even told this story. It was 2010, still early in my career and I was like, “Oh my God. This is Dana White! The most powerful man in the sport invited me to a concert.”

I couldn’t do it. I felt like it was wrong and I couldn’t accept this free ticket he’s giving me. Despite really wanting to go, It was against what I believed in. I remember him texting me later that night and asking if I was going and I said, “No, I am tired.” I really wanted to go, but I felt like this breaks my ethics rule.

I say that, because when I was offered this opportunity to work for FOX; Here I am 10 years after telling my parents that I thought this sport would go mainstream and my dream job is to work on television and FOX is the new home of the UFC. I couldn’t have scripted it any better. They were like, yeah we want you to come and work for us, but there was 1 caveat… When I worked the event, the checks would come from Zuffa and it was such a moral dilemma for me. The way I justified it in my mind is that it was a FOX show and the money was coming from FOX. FOX is paying the UFC to broadcast their events, I didn’t do anything extra for the UFC, so I didn’t work for UFC.com or Fight Pass or anything like that. At the end of the day, this money was coming from FOX and that’s how I justified it. That led to some tricky situations and I feel I am a better journalist because of it. I was trying to do what’s best for my career and my family and take this opportunity. It wasn’t like I was a college football journalist and could go anywhere, because there were no options. It’s MMA and there’s only one place. It was a learning lesson and I will never do it again, but I felt like I had to do it at the time.”

The Brock Lesnar thing. Did you know that they were building it up to this big magical moment and you’d be spoiling that when you reported it?

“No, someone told me 2 days before, that Brock was close to coming back. I was like “Wow, it’s a month away. Brock Lesnar coming back, it’s a huge deal.” There had been no rumors of this at all. Next 2 days I am following up and talking to people and it gets to a point where I confirm it the night of UFC 199. I actually missed the first couple fights because I was in my hotel room writing it up. I was waiting for 1 more confirmation. I didn’t know what the plans were or that they were going to announce it. I figured it was going to happen at any moment and I was kinda part of the urgency because the fight was a month away, so they have to announce it, right? I would argue that this big reveal wasn’t really that great big of a reveal. What was I truly spoiling? If anything, I felt like I got it on people’s radar and people were excited and talking about it and I can guarantee you that no one who read my report before they put it on the Pay-Per-View, which was only seen by the less than half a million people, felt like I ruined the announcement for them. Or that they didn’t buy UFC 200 because of it. I wasn’t trying to to be malicious or ruin the surprise. I was just doing my job. I didn’t get the information in any shady ways. It was unfortunate that was the reaction, but I hope that their decision to un-ban us 48 hours later, signaled that they recognized there was a mistake.

One time before, I got a piece of news that Dominick Cruz was gonna fight at UFC 169 and the UFC said they were gonna go check on this and then they gave the news to someone else and I got burned.

If I get information right now that Conor is fighting Mr. X on March 4th and it’s confirmed, I am reporting it right now. The UFC would probably have a big plan to announce it, as that’s their job, but I can’t worry about that for one, and I don’t believe my reporting affects them in any way. When an outlet reports that some so-and-so is going to perform at the halftime show at the Super Bowl, before the NFL is able to do it, which has happened every year, that doesn’t make people not watch the Super Bowl. That’s just how news works.”

So there is no real relationship between you and Dana at this time?

“He did a scrum a few weeks ago and we talked and it seemed fine. I’d like to think that with all the history we have, bygones will be bygones. At some point, hopefully we’ll be able to sit down and talk about all this. I’m in the business of reporting news and reporting news accurately. I’m lucky enough now that I know all the top managers, coaches, and fighters. I have access to them and don’t necessarily need to go to the UFC to confirm things.”

What are a couple of your all-time favorite fights?

“Right off the top of my head, UFC 165. The main event between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson. It was so amazing to watch. No one thought Gustafsson had a chance. He took Jones down, it was back-and-forth, spinning back elbows and both dug down deep… It was just an amazing fight. You have the challenger rise to the occasion and get so close. Then you have the champion on the brink of defeat and he digs deep to retain the title. I love that fight.

There are so many to chose from, but if I had to go with one more, it was UFC 65. George St. Pierre beating Matt Hughes, to become the champion. I was watching in a bar in Montreal and it was such a big deal to have one of our own become champion. I remember the emotion when that place erupted. Getting goosebumps just thinking about it. It was like we won the Stanley Cup. That was a really cool moment. Those are just 2 that come to mind.”

I was told during live tapings of ‘UFC Tonight’, during commercial breaks, you would let the fans quiz you on past events and you would say the main events. Do you really know them all?

“Basically dating back to UFC 64ish, you can throw any event number and I could name at least one or two fights.”

So I have one for you, UFC 69.

“Shootout! Houston Texas”

Yes, Shootout. Aside from GSP losing to Matt Serra, what else happened on the card that was historic that changed the sport?

“GSP lost to Serra. Some guy named Mike Swick suffered a tough defeat as well.”

Do you know, that fight was the 1st time a sponsor banner was ever used in the entire sport of MMA?

“WHAT?!?! Really? I did not know that. That is an unbelievable piece of trivia!”

I just had to throw that at you considering that it’s never really been covered and it’s like my little contribution to the sport.

“It would be really awesome if there was real MMA Hall Of Fame, like baseball or whatever. That would be in it.”

*INTERESTING FACT* On April 7th 2007, at UFC 69, Mike Swick was the first fighter ever to use a printed vinyl sponsor banner before an MMA fight. Without permission or authorization by the UFC, Mike and his corner took the risk and it has been a staple ever since. Ironically enough, Swick also fought at UFC 189, which was the first card since then to not allow sponsored banners, due to the new Reebok deal.

Give us your thoughts on Ronda’s fight and where she goes from here.

“It was hard to get a gauge because she didn’t talk to the media, but the main question I wanted to know was if she was over the Holly Holm fight. You lose that spectacularly. It’s heartbreaking. It’s embarrassing. I know the way she handled it and she was torn up about it. I wanted to know if she was over it, because if she wasn’t over it, it would lead to trouble with Amanda Nunes. I think we learned the answer to that questions in the first 5 Seconds of the Nunes fight. It seemed to me that she wasn’t over the Holly Holm fight. The fact that she wouldn’t talk to the media was a sign that she wasn’t over it. She didn’t want to rehash it all. That’s really my take on Ronda. You heard people who don’t know the sport say that she was never that good or she was exposed and that’s just not fair. She fought the best of the best when she was champion, she beat Miesha Tate twice and beat all the top women in the sport, at the time.

Unfortunately, she prided herself on being undefeated and she said she was going to retire undefeated. It didn’t happen. She lost in a spectacular way and never got over it. Where does she go from here? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if she never fights again.

She is a very competitive person though. Let’s not forget she’s also lost on a bigger stages than the UFC. She lost in the Olympics. She twice devoted four years of her life to winning a gold medal and she failed both times. She has been through heartbreak and she knows what it’s like to lose. She is not foreign to this but I think she was so obsessed with being undefeated that it really rocked her world. All that being said, it didn’t take away anything that she ever did in the past. I still think she’s a trailblazer, pioneer, and one of the greatest women fighters of all time. It’s just unfortunate that she was never able to get over the Holly Holm fight.”

Mark Hunt has come out and said he’s suing the UFC, Dana White and Brock Lesnar. How do you see this all playing out? Suing the UFC and fighting for the UFC at the same time?

“It’s very unique. I have never seen this in MMA. I’d love to hear what the UFC has to say about it, but they probably won’t comment on a legal matter. I’ll say this about Mark Hunt… He’s definitely a man of his word. He said he was going to do this and he’s going through with it. Is this a play to get them to release him, so he can go fight for someone else? I don’t know. You have to at least commend him for backing up what he was saying. It’s fascinating. I was kind of surprised that he signed the bout agreement, but he has a family and kids and needs to make a living. So I understand in the end why he did it, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. Like the Ronda situation, nothing would surprise me at this point.”

What do you think is going to happen now that WME-IMG bought the UFC?

“Well that is truly the 4 billion dollar question. I think there are so many questions that have not been answered and that will take some time to be answered as well. Just right off the bat, the new owners have not talked to us once. Not one interview or one press conference about it, which I think is a little strange to be honest. The company was sold in July and the deal was closed in August. To not make any kind of announcement or statement, to me, is surprising. I mean, when you think of other sports and their transactions, like when the Clippers were sold to Steve Ballmer for 2 billion dollars a couple years ago, he had a big press conference. I don’t know. I figured by now they would have said something, but they’re not. At least, not right now.

I hope soon that they will, because it will be interesting to talk to them about where their vision is and get a sense of where they are taking the company. Some of these decisions about interim belts and creating a new weight class, all this stuff, I personally fear that we are trending towards entertainment more so than sport. What I mean by that is that I have always been a fan of the showmanship and the glitz and glamour and making it a big event. I love that stuff. The rivalries, the storylines, that’s all very important, as far as getting people emotionally invested into the sport. You can’t compromise what this is all about though. This is a sport.

I think that regardless of what you think about the Fertitta’s and Dana White, the ZUFFA era if you will, you can’t deny the fact that they helped turn a spectacle into a sport. Rankings, contenders, weight classes and rules and all these things, did not really exist before they bought it. I don’t want them to abolish that and become this big mess where guys are fighting for belts when they don’t really deserve it, because it’s the biggest draw and there’s no meritocracy and there’s no ladder to climb. I just think that’s a very slippery slope and I am worried that now we are moving more to that direction. Also, they have a massive loan and they have to make a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time. So are they going to make decisions that will ultimately get them more money, but that will not be what’s best for the sport in the long run? Also, do they need the big stars now more than ever and will they pay them more to try and get them on board? If you look at the first half of this year, where are the big stars? Where are the big draws? Where are the big PPV headliners? Conor is taking a break. Ronda is gone for who knows how long. GSP is on the sidelines. Jon Jones is gone till the summer. Brock is gone. Where are the big stars?

I mean, there is no really good answer because we are in the amazing transitional phase now and they haven’t quite explained where they are at. They are giving us clues. They have let a lot of people go and we don’t know who are replacing these people. We don’t know what their direction or what their vision is. I think it’s fair to be a little skeptical of where they are headed, but I also think it’s fair to reserve judgement until they are able to put their vision in place for the next couple of years.”

I know you have kids and a family at home but being a journalist is pretty much a 24/7 deal. Is there ever a time that you just take for yourself and your family and just shut your phone off and put the computer away? Can you do it?

“I dream about doing that, but it’s very hard for me to do. I am a little too obsessed. It’s not like a regular job. It’s news. I’m always afraid to take vacations. What if the biggest news story happens in the middle of my vacation? The vacation is done. That’s my job. People don’t care that I’m on vacation. People come to me for the news. I do follow journalists that do take vacations. They say goodbye and then they come back a week later and resume work. I’m like “Man, how do they do that?” Good for them, but I have a hard time doing it.

I’ll tell you what though… Becoming a father has really given me more balance and perspective. It’s not all about me or my job any more. My kid comes in the room and he wants me to change him. I have to do it and then we’ll play. You get these beautiful distractions that have given me so much happiness. A perspective and balance that I didn’t have before. I am very lucky that my wife understands.”

Lastly, what advice do you give to aspiring journalist based on your experience?

“Work hard, be professional, don’t be afraid to ask questions, be different, be prepared, and always listen. Don’t stick to the script! Let the interviews flow like a conversation and ask followups. Also, have at least 2 very good sources confirmed when running with a scoop. Finally, ‘Off the record’ always means that. If you lose trust, you have nothing.”

 

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