RIP Jeff Blatnick

When Frank Shamrock defeated Tito Ortiz in one of the greatest UFC fights of the 1990’s, it was Jeff Blatnick that got across what exactly was happening in the cage. He made his UFC debut at UFC 4, where he miscalled what would now be the legendary triangle choke finish to the Royce Gracie vs Dan Severn showdown. He would grow from that, becoming the beloved voice of the UFC and a mentor to current play-by-play man Mike Goldberg. The way Jimmy Smith and Joe Rogan do an excellent job breaking down BJJ to modern MMA fans, Blatnick broke down the intricacies of Greco-Roman wrestling techniques to the fans of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Some of the greatest moments of the early days were called by Jeff Blatnick. He would be replaced in 2001, Joe Rogan would eventually become the color commentator that UFC fans got familiar with.

But his role in MMA was not limited to just being an excellent color commentator, it was more than that. To really know about Blatnick, we must go way back, from even before his UFC 4 debut. The level of respect and admiration he had came from his years of being a world-class Greco Roman wrestler. Dave Meltzer said it best in his MMAFighting article:

But in 1982, his career was over and his life was in jeopardy, as he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They had to remove his spleen and his appendix, and he underwent radiation therapy.

Somehow, he battled back, and made the Olympic team in 1984. This time, the Russians, who were powerhouses in Greco-Roman, were the ones boycotting the games held in Los Angeles. A small super heavyweight, Blatnick was 240 pounds without cutting. He was actually the same size and smaller than many of the guys at the time competing in the 220-pound weight class. He relied more on technique and, especially, conditioning, largely because he had to, because he could not lock up and win by matching power.

He made it to the finals, where was giving away at least 35 pounds to Thomas Johansson of Sweden. The match itself wasn’t all that memorable compared to the scene when the buzzer went off to end it with Blatnick ahead 2-0. He and Steven Fraser that week had become the first two Americans to capture gold medals in a sport that our country was considered novices in.

He sunk to the mat like he was praying, thanking God for giving him this moment. Because of his story, he was one of the most covered athletes coming out of those Olympics, and the most popular among the athletes themselves. The U.S. team voted to have him carry the flag at the closing ceremonies. After the games, he was getting a lot of work as a motivational speaker.

Meltzer goes on to talk about how Blatnick viewed his accomplishment and how honest he was with himself. I thought that showed Blatnick was a classy and unique individual. He overcame another bout with cancer and still wrestled against high level guys in 1987. But he didn’t make the Olympic team in 1988.

The amount of respect and admiration Blatnick had made him the perfect guy for the UFC to have at that critical point in time. With the help of Joe Silva and Big John McCarthy, he would go on to play a huge role in establishing the rules of the fledgling sport. He would be constantly working to help establish NHB/Cage Fighting/Vale Tudo as a legitimate sport, he is credited for getting and putting over the new name of the sport – mixed martial arts (a term Blatnick used before while commentating for Japanese shootstyle pro wrestling). Without him, who knows where this sport would be. Very few have done more for MMA than Blatnick.

In recent years, he would be fondly talked about by MMA media members as being one of the few reliable judges in MMA. When watching UFC or Strikeforce events, I would get happy when I would see him judging at ringside. Not just because I knew we would get some good score cards, but also because he was such a genuinely beloved figure in the sport. I leave you with this clip of him winning the Gold Medal at the 1984 Olympics. Whether you’re familiar with Blatnick or not, if you’re a fan of combat sports or inspirational stories of a man overcoming a life threatening illness, you owe it to yourself to watch Blatnick in this great moment in American sports history.

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