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Ariel Helwani Loves a Good Heel Turn

Last Updated: November 10, 2021
Boardroom catches up with the biggest name in MMA media ahead of two massive UFC cards — including a grand return to Madison Square Garden.

This is a big week for Ariel Helwani.

Last weekend, heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko starched Tim Johnson in Moscow at Bellator 269. On Wednesday, the PFL concluded its season with six million-dollar title fights. And for the next two Saturdays, the UFC blows off the roof from Abu Dhabi to Madison Square Garden with two authentically stacked cards.

And while there’s never an offseason in the world of mixed martial arts, the laws of geometry are ultimately immutable: the prolific Montrealer’s beat can’t fit inside an octagon.

Just ask him about his beloved New York Knicks. Or the world of pro wrestling and the sacred art of the heel turn.

So, with UFC 267 arriving Saturday at Fight Island and 268 following Nov. 6 marking MMA’s grand return to New York City, Boardroom caught up with the star of MMAFighting.com, The Ringer, Spotify Greenroom, Substack, Britain’s BT Sport, and beyond to get into every last bit of it.

The following is our conversation with Ariel edited for length and lightly edited for clarity.

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SAM DUNN: You took your talents to The Ringer to do live audio on Spotify Greenroom. What do you like about the format?

ARIEL HELWANI: I love live. I love interacting with the listeners. Most of the stuff that I do, while it is live, there’s no real component where you can “take calls,” right?”

I grew up listening to sports talk radio, staying up late, listening to the Knicks postgame on my radio. Growing up in Montreal, no one was talking about basketball in the early 90s. I was a huge NBA fan, and I figured out a way — I took my mom’s Walkman and I positioned it late at night in a certain direction. Now, we get WFAN at, like, 11:30. I used to be under the covers, the lights are off, I’m supposed to be in bed. I used to love the characters and all that. Listening to the Jim Romes of the world. Howard Stern, I’m a huge fan of.

We’ve started to already develop a really nice community and have some recurring characters. I’m getting to do it with two other journalists who are fantastic and good friends of mine: Petesy Carroll from Ireland, Chuck Mindenhall of Connecticut. Of all the jobs that I have, it’s the one where I feel like I can let my hair down and just kind of shoot the breeze with my friends and talk to the fans. It’s great, and it’s a really easy app to use.

SD: What do you, Petesy, and Chuck bring out in one another? Do you all make each other better?

AH: Well, we’re really good friends. I’ve been in situations where producers like would put people together and there’s no real chemistry. You’re not friends. You don’t talk off-air.

We worked together for a long time, and when I was talking to Bill Simmons about joining The Ringer-slash-Spotify, I said I really want these two guys to be involved. We can have a really great thing because they’re very different than each other. Chuck is a little older, kind of old-school. More of a throwback writer, if you will. And I think he’s the best columnist in MMA by far.

I would put him up there against any other columnist in any other sport. He’s just incredible at what he does.

And then Petesy. You know, the somewhat loudmouth Irishman who doesn’t take himself very seriously. None of us do, but we all kind of complement each other very well.

I had opportunities to go out and do other things, [but] I wanted to try to help my friends as well and bring them along. I knew that that would create great content, but also it would be just great to work with people that you like and respect. And that all worked out really nicely and this particular show is great.

SD: What is Chuck Mindenhall hiding under his hat?

AH: I think he’s hiding a bald spot? [Laughs] I’m just being honest.

Chuck is the man in the hat. It’s kind of become his moniker. I’m a big fan of gimmicks — I feel like everyone needs to have a gimmick. I’m a pro wrestling guy, and so that’s his gimmick and he runs with it and he stays true to it. Even when we’re recording the shows and it’s just audio, he’s wearing the hat. He is that guy.

SD: I have a theory that under his hat he’s hiding the correct scorecards from TJ Dillashaw vs. Cory Sandhagen. I cannot prove it as of this time.

AH: That fight happened three months ago.It would be more of an old-school fight because he’s been doing it for so long.

SD: So, what’s a really vintage robbery? I mean, Dillashaw-Sandhagen wasn’t a robbery because it was close, but do you have a favorite classic MMA robbery?

AH: One that comes to mind, and it actually might surprise people and I haven’t watched it in a while, but I remember thinking they got it wrong: UFC 1 67, Johny Hendricks vs. GSP. I actually think Hendricks won the fight. And hey, listen, it might surprise people. I’ve talked about my appreciation and respect for Georges St-Pierre. I think he’s the greatest of all time. We share the same hometown, Montreal; he’s technically from Saint-Isidore, Quebec, but it’s all the same. I think Johny got screwed that night.

I won’t say that it’s a favorite one because usually because there’s a negative connotation attached to the robbery per se, but that is a famous one I would say that comes to mind.

SD: Fedor Emelianenko just knocked a man out cold, the PFL Championship is this week. We get loaded UFC 267 and 268 cards on back-to-back Saturdays. But is there a fight coming up that you’re extra-excited for that maybe isn’t getting enough buzz?

AH: [UFC 267] is a really good one. Sometimes, they’ve gone to Abu Dhabi and it’s one big fight at the top, but the rest of the card is really thin. This one is not really thin — and thank god, because let’s be honest, the last couple months of Fight Nights have not been good.

Obviously, I love the Petr Yan vs. Cory Sandhagen fight. I think title fight-wise, that’s the more interesting of the two, but [Jan Blachowicz’s] evolution and what he’s been able to do at an older age is an incredible story.

Glover [Teixeira] trying to go for the belt one last time is an incredible story as well. Khamzat Chimaev returning after the long layoff and the COVID battles, an incredible story. Alexander Volkov is great. [Magomed] Ankalev is great. I’m doing this off the top of my head.

SD: I think you got the whole main card besides Islam Makhachev-Dan Hooker.

AH: I was getting to that one, for god sakes! [Laughs] That’s an incredible story — Islam, the second coming of Khabib [Nurmagomedov]. And Hooker taking this fight on short notice is incredible, but then you add to it the fact that he didn’t go home and he can’t go home — I mean, that’s just an insane story.

If I’m going to give you one under-the-radar fight that I’m really looking forward to: Lerone Murphy against Makwan Amirkhani. I think could be a really interesting fight. Lerone Murphy’s a really good prospect out of the UK, a guy who was shot in the face when he was younger and the bullet went out of his cheek. That’s a badass right there.

There’s really something for everyone. And of course, next weekend with Colby [Covington] and [Kamaru] Usman and [Justin] Gaethje and [Michael] Chandler, the return of Al Iaquinta. The next two weeks, thank god, are going to be great.

SD: I know you’re a wrestling guy, too. I have to ask you about the storyline American Top Team has going with AEW.

AH: I will preface this by saying I’m really happy for those guys. I know Dan Lambert is a massive pro wrestling fan, and I’m happy to see [Junior Dos Santos] happy, and it’s cool to see Paige VanZant end up there and whatnot. That being said, I’m not necessarily tuning into AEW for this.

Number one, I don’t know if they have the right people attached. Like, Jorge [Masvidal] is doing great and he’s a big star, but JDS isn’t a heel. JDS is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life in or out of MMA, and so the idea of him being a heel is a little bit off.

Lambert is great. I would have been more down with the idea of just Lambert being a pro wrestling manager, like an old-school heel pro wrestling manager a la Mr. Fuji, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Jimmy Hart, Paul Heyman.

AEW fans are smart, so the idea of ATT coming over and crapping on AEW and us trying to suspend disbelief that [Lambert] and Tony Khan don’t like each other, that’s not the kind of storyline that the fans, in my opinion, would get behind. An idea of Dan Lambert, hardcore pro wrestling fan, anointing two guys he found on the street in Miami as the next big thing — that to me is a better storyline than bringing JDS over for this quote-unquote “invasion,” which is a very 1995 way of looking at pro wrestling, if you get what I’m saying.

So I’ve told them this, I think I could cut a better promo than him. I could be a better heel manager than him. And in fact, I’m, I’m actually interested in stealing one of his prized fighters, Kayla Harrison, and we would run roughshod over the AEW locker room. Because I think that she could be a huge star in the AEW.

SD: Kayla is a force. And she’s cutting wild promos now.

AH: She’s a superstar at anything that she does. I remember she was anti-MMA after the Olympics, and then she’s anti-wrestling. She is just a winner and a very competitive person. Incredible talent. I think she’s one of the top 10 best fighters on the planet in terms of women’s MMA.

I know she hasn’t fought the best of the best, but if you don’t think that a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is built like that and has that kind of athleticism and power and speed and drive and this will to not lose, you’re telling me that some of the other names on that list, just because they fought in the UFC, that they’ll beat Kayla Harrison? There’s no chance in hell.

The whole point of pound for pound is to essentially say if everyone was the same weight, you know, who wins? And she’s beating a lot of those people. I would say that you can even make a case that she should be higher up on the pound for pound [list], not just No. 10. She’s that good.

SD: She’s an American Top Team fighter. Where’s her AEW storyline?

AH: She’s obviously not that interested in [wrestling] now, but it just goes to show [when] she puts her mind to something…

What I always hate about people who come over to pro wrestling — I hate when people “play” pro wrestling. Ronda Rousey was playing pro wrestling, and it did not sit well with me.She went out [in MMA] with one of the best game faces of all time, and that music hits, “Bad Reputation,” and everyone just wanted to see her steamroll through the competition.

And then sometimes you have these people that come over to wrestling and they forget that and they start playing pro wrestler.You come out there with the oversized jacket and you’re waving to everyone like you’re the celebrity timekeeper. ‘Oh, this is so great, and I’m going to do this and that, and I’m going to play dress-up.’ But no, you’ve got to make it like it’s real. You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to steamroll through the competition.

I think Kayla has that mentality. Other people don’t.

SD: You mention pound-for-pound — we’re meant to visualize a world with no weight classes. So what if we went back to those days? It would never happen and shouldn’t, but if the UFC held an Open Grand Prix with zero weight divisions, who’s winning the damn thing? Talk me out of picking Ciryl Gane.

AH: Man.

SD: A guy who moves like he does with that kind of size… call me crazy, but that’s the name I keep thinking of.

AH: He’s an incredible athlete. He’s a great basketball player, and I think in his early days he wanted to be a soccer player. But No. 1 on my pound-for-pound list right now is Kamaru Usman.

He’s just been so good for so long and he’s developed into a great striker, especially now training with Trevor Wittman. If I’m thinking of pound for pound in that way, sort of have to go for Kamaru. If I’m putting him No. 1, that is essentially saying [that] if everything was equal, he’d be the guy who would win.

SD: He cuts every last shred of weight to make 170; he’s a gigantic welterweight. If he can walk in there at a jacked 190, he’s a problem for a ton of guys.

AH: We’ve not seen him in many vulnerable spots. Obviously, the Colby fight was super-close and Gilbert [Burns] had a moment there, but this is a dominant run. Izzy [Adesanya], I think he miscalculated the weight difference with Jan Blachowicz back in March, but I still have an immense amount of respect for Izzy. The Jon Jones thing is weird because he just hasn’t fought, and I personally think that if you don’t fight or have a fight booked within a year, then you should either lose your belt or not be ranked anymore.

And so Usman — Khabib, obviously, but he retired — and Izzy. Yeah, those would be the guys, I think. And Francis [Ngannou], Jesus Christ, how can you not go with Francis as well?

SD: The Equalizer.

AH: Ciryl is a nice hipster pick, but he’s only been doing it for three years, so I feel like it may be a little too soon. We’re almost there, but a little too soon to say he’d win that openweight Grand Prix.

SD: I have to get this in: What’s the early take on your New York Knickerbockers?

AH: Ooh, and now I’m excited. Wednesday [Oct. 20 against Boston] was very exciting. Double overtime, though it should never have gone into overtime, a couple mishaps here and there and Kemba [Walker] with the turnovers and the defensive lapses at the end, but it was great. Evan Fournier with a great overtime.

Friday was fantastic with the beatdown of the Orlando Magic. And then Sunday was just befuddling with the loss to the Magic. That being said, these are all early days, early moments, early games. I was thinking about this recently — I think the ceiling right now is four-seed. I don’t think that they will be better than the Nets. Milwaukee, No. 2. Miami. Obviously, there’s Atlanta out there, and Chicago is doing really well.

I’m not worried about Philly all that much, because they’re a bit of a mess. Maybe things will turn around, but right now, they’re a bit of a mess. Toronto, not there. Boston, I’m not worried about. Indiana, I’m not really worried about.

I don’t want to end up in the play-in tournament, but at the end of the day, I’m just happy that they’re relevant and there’s no drama. It’s a bunch of guys that you could root for and be happy to root for.

You got Julius [Randle] with his great story. You’ve got my Canadian brother, RJ Barrett, doing his thing, to Obi Toppin, to Immanuel Quickley. We’re great. This draft class was great as well. Mitchell Robinson, I have high hopes for if he could just stay healthy. I love the Fournier signing. Kemba coming back. Derrick Rose has been an incredible influence on the team.

Hey, the Knicks are back. No drama. No “LOL Knicks,” those guys are dead. It’s just a beautiful thing. So I’m just grateful to Leon Rose. I’m grateful to Tom Thibodeau. I’m grateful to World Wide Wes. Finally, the Knicks are back, and we don’t care if the Knicks are playing in the NBA Finals; we just wanted them to stop being the laughingstock of the league. We wanted them to stop being so dramatic and have all these controversies and treating our legends like garbage. We just wanted a normal, functional basketball team.

We finally we have that, and it’s very exciting.

About The Author
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn is the Managing Editor of Boardroom. Before joining the team, he was an editor and multimedia talent for several sports and culture verticals at Minute Media and an editor, reporter, and site manager at SB Nation. A specialist in content strategy, copywriting, and SEO, he has additionally worked as a digital consultant in the corporate services, retail, and tech industries. He cannot be expected to be impartial on any matter regarding the Florida Gators or Atlanta Braves. Follow him on Twitter @RealFakeSamDunn.