Ariel Helwani reveals how his dream of playing in the NBA led to making his name covering MMA – Maxsports
May 15, 2024

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Ariel Helwani reveals how his dream of playing in the NBA led to making his name covering MMA

Ariel Helwani has revealed how his pursuit of a career in the NBA eventually led to his meteoric rise in the sport broadcasting industry. 

Helwani, 41, has become one of the most prominent journalists within the UFC and the WWE after years of tenacious work on the sidelines. 

From his stint at ESPN to his impending move to TNT Sports – who will soon finalise their rebrand from BT Sport – the Canadian has seen it all. 

However, a successful career in the combat sports industry wasn’t always Helwani’s plan, which he revealed exclusively to Mail Sport

Prior to WWE’s Money in the Bank event, Helwani said: ‘When I was younger, I was enamored with the broadcasters. I always looked up to them. But when I was 11 or 12, I thought I’d be an NBA player. I bet my cousin that I’d make it into the NBA by 21 but that didn’t happen. 

Ariel Helwani (left) has become one of the most prominent journalists within UFC and WWE sport broadcasting

Ariel Helwani (left) has become one of the most prominent journalists within UFC and WWE sport broadcasting

Mail Sport's Alex McCarthy sat down with Helwani to discuss his journey through the industry

Mail Sport’s Alex McCarthy sat down with Helwani to discuss his journey through the industry

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‘And then, in the ninth grade, I was reading Sports Illustrated and it said: ‘These are the best schools for X, Y and Z’ and there was a little blurb that stated Syracuse University was the best school for sports broadcasting. 

‘That’s when my dream started. When I got to Syracuse, I was surrounded by thousands of kids that wanted to be a sports broadcasters and that’s when I decided to go down the MMA path. 

‘At the time, the UFC was just eight years old. I told my parents, ‘there’s this thing called the UFC that I think will be really big. And there’s no guy, but I want to be that guy.’

Since his early days at Syracuse University, Helwani has gone on to become one of the most prominent figures within the mixed martial arts community. 

He’s currently the host and producer for the successful podcast The MMA Hour, which regularly features some of the sport’s biggest names on the show. 

Prior to that, he had worked with ESPN after the company acquired a lucrative five-year and $1.5 billion (£1.1m) rights package with the UFC.

‘It’s been two years since I left [ESPN] and I can’t believe how things have turned out, I’m very thankful. In early 2021, when I had to decide whether I was going to stay or go, I was conflicted. 

‘I came to the realisation that it was time to go and when I concocted a plan in my brain… I could’ve never imagined it would’ve turned out like this. It’s really been the best two years of my career.’ 

As well as successful jobs covering the UFC and WWE, Helwani has also been heavily involved in the crossover boxing bouts featuring Jake Paul in recent years.

Helwani has been involved in major events such as Jake Paul's crossover boxing bouts

Helwani has been involved in major events such as Jake Paul’s crossover boxing bouts

The 41-year-old initially forged his career through work in mixed martial arts before later branching out

The 41-year-old initially forged his career through work in mixed martial arts before later branching out

Despite his success, Helwani’s prestige hasn’t always been clear to see and during his career he’s had a number of run-ins – both in person and online.

The most recent, and one of the most notable, was his conflict with British UFC star Paddy Pimblett, who claimed Helwani charges ‘thousands, and thousands, and thousands of pounds’ to interview fighters.

The following day, on The MMA Hour, Helwani spoke about the remarks made by Pimblett before providing evidence that contradicted his claims. 

When discussing the difficulties of both in-person and online hatred, Helwani said: ‘When I started, my skin was thicker than that paper over there. And you go online, read comments and you’re like ‘Why don’t they like me? What did I do wrong?’ 

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‘And then, over time, you have to develop thicker skin because if you don’t – you’re done. I’m not superhuman. I read things sometimes that annoys me. You want to respond but then it would become an even bigger deal.’

‘At the end of the day, when it comes to people that are in the sport/community that say things which aren’t true, I’m always going to punch back. Obviously, not physically! 

‘If they say they don’t like my style, that’s fine. But if you actually say lies about me and my career, then I’m going to answer. I urge anyone to prove me wrong – which beef have I started?’

The sport broadcaster has revealed that his children's passion for football has led to him following the progress of Premier League side Nottingham Forest

The sport broadcaster has revealed that his children’s passion for football has led to him following the progress of Premier League side Nottingham Forest

Aside from his endeavours with the WWE and the UFC, Helwani has recently taken a keen interest in the Premier League and, in particular, with Nottingham Forest. 

The bizarre connection, which has seen him celebrate Forests’ top-flight survival or Morgan Gibbs-White’s recent U21 Euro success, was explained by Helwani. 

‘If people think I am taking the piss with the Forest stuff, I am 1000 per cent not. I grew up in a family that played soccer – my mom is from Lebanon and my dad is from Egypt, that’s all they play. I went to the World Cup in the US in 1994, so I’m aware but I never had a team.

‘Beginning of this season, my kids became obsessed with football. That’s all they watch, talk about and think about. So I was like, ‘I want a team too’. On the show, I said that we’re going to pick a team. 

‘I looked at all the teams and I know of Forest, they’re a classic team, the logos great… I love the fact this was their first year back after 23 years. I truly fell in love. I watch more Forest than the NY Knicks and the Buffalo Bills.’

Watch WWE SmackDown every Friday on BT Sport, the home of WWE in the UK. From the 19th July, TNT Sports will be the new name for BT Sport. To find out more visit https://www.bt.com/sport/monthly-pass