Jeff Blatnick may be best remembered as the “happy dude” who dropped to his knees and broke into tears after winning a Greco-Roman wrestling gold medal at the 1984 Olympics.
But Blatnick, a cancer survivor and member of several wrestling halls of fame who died of complications from heart surgery in October 2012, was recognized last weekend as a pioneer in another sport.
The Niskayuna High graduate was inducted into the Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Fame’s new contributors wing as part of the festivities leading up to UFC 189 in Las Vegas.
Blatnick, who had worked as a television analyst for the Olympics and the NCAA Championships after winning his gold medal, was instrumental in establishing a set of rules that helped make the emerging mixed martial arts (MMA) sport palatable enough to be sanctioned by state athletic commissions.
“It was a nice honor for Jeff,” said Blatnick’s widow, Lori, who attended the induction ceremony with her children Ian and Niki. “He had a lot to do with establishing the rules that helped make UFC what it has become.”
He is also credited with popularizing the term mixed martial arts as he worked to publicize the sport in its early days.
“He’s very deserving. He was one of the guys who helped get it off the ground,” said Joe DeMeo, who coached Blatnick during his preparation for the Olympics. “It helped that Jeff knew the guys who came from a wrestling background.
“He had that credibility, and he had the exposure doing television from the Olympics and NCAAs.”
Blatnick, ironically not a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, joined UFC in 1994 as a commentator, and became commissioner four years later.
“Jeff had done the Olympics and the NCAA tournaments for ESPN, so I was used to him flying off somewhere,” said Lori Blatnick. “He really was quite humble about it, but I think it was due to him that the sport is what it is now.
“When he got involved, it was totally different, There weren’t a lot of rules.”
Blatnick was tireless in working to put a better face on the sport. With help from referee John McCarthy and matchmaker Joe Silva, Blatnick established a code of rules that the sport still uses. Blatnick also lobbied to change attitudes about the sport, which had come under fire as barbaric. California and New Jersey were the first states to sanction the sport. New York is one of the few to not get on board.
Kevin Iole, who has covered mixed martial arts for two decades, called Blatnick a pioneer.
“Without Jeff Blatnick’s tireless dedication and passion, there may well be no such thing as mixed martial arts today,” Iole said in an email. “Simply by lending his name to the sport, he did it a great service. But he did more than that. He worked tirelessly to convince state athletic commissions around the country to regulate MMA.
“He was a great advocate for the fighters and for the sport itself and is indisputably one of the most significant figures in the sport’s history. “
UFC President Dana White echoed that in a statement: “Jeff Blatnick is a name that newer fans may not be familiar with, but this guy was a huge part of the UFC’s development in the 1990s. He pushed for greater regulation, unified rules and — because he was an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling — he had credibility with everyone in the sport. It is our honor to recognize his huge contributions to the UFC by inducting him into the UFC Hall of Fame.”
DeMeo noted the irony of the sport not being sanctioned in Blatnick’s home state.
“Jeff did helped lay a lot of the groundwork for the sport, and it’s ironic that New York still won’t sanction it,” said DeMeo. “Like everything else he put into it, he wanted to make sure he was doing the best job he could.”