Last year the MMA world was rocked with the news of Jeff Blatnick's passing. For many fans, they learned of Blatnick's life after his death. He didn't do a lot of press and tried to stay out of the media spotlight as much as possible. For others, it hit extremely close to home not only for what he contributed to the sport but also for the legacy that he left behind.
And then there are those that considered him a friend. They are still trying to come to terms with his death and the emptiness that was left in the months that have followed. One of those people is NJSACB counsel Nick Lembo.
I consider Nick a friend. Whenever I travel back to New Jersey, I try and meet up with him for dinner or drinks, to talk about MMA or just talk about life. This past weekend, I was home for the World Series of Fighting's second card, which was held in Atlantic City. We planned to celebrate Jeff's life over some beers and drink to his memory.
Those planned beers almost didn't happen as the Jersey shore was hit with snow and rain on Monday and driving conditions weren't exactly optimal. But Nick and I decided to meet up anyway at a small Irish pub in Forked River, to talk about Jeff Blatnick.
I could tell right away that it wasn't going to be an easy discussion for Nick. Jeff's death hit him extremely hard, not only because they worked together, but also because Jeff was and always will be one of Nick's closest friends.
With dinner finished and several beers consumed, it was then when Nick started to open up about his friend Jeff.
"I had known Jeff from his wrestling days before MMA. He was a legendary figure in the New York and New Jersey area. He'd frequently give seminars and motivational lectures, so he was a legend."
"As much as New Jersey is a wrestling state, I remember the first time that the Pennsylvania commissioner asked for some judges and I recommended, as I would to anyone in the world, Jeff Blatnick. It was a Western Pennsylvania venue and Jeff was saying how he was the most popular guy there. Pictures and autographs, things that just didn't happen to him while he was judging in Atlantic City. He was a big time celebrity out there."
Blatnick's celebrity in wrestling circles was because of his gold medal in Greco-Roman at the 1984 games in Los Angeles, California. He and his teammate Steve Fraser were the first American's to ever capture gold in Greco. What made his run through those games special was that it was extremely unlikely. Two years earlier, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, and needed to have both his spleen and appendix removed.
Anyone with a computer can read about Jeff's gold medal and bouts with cancer on wikipedia. What hasn't been covered is how important he was to the sport of MMA.
There's something known as the Zuffa myth. The abridged version is that MMA was banned nationwide because of Senator John McCain and only due to the hard work and dedication of Dana White and the Fertitta brothers, did the sport get regulated in the United States. It's a great story, but based more on fiction than fact.
The real story is that Blatnick and several others wrote up the first draft of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, and presented them to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB), the first athletic commission to legalize the sport.
"Jeff was an instrumental and an undervalued and an unknown figure in the growth of MMA and the writing of the Unified Rules just because he wasn't a press guy. He wasn't a public figure. He was an instrumental figure as the head of the Mixed Martial Arts Council (MMAC) that the UFC, under its former ownership used to create rules to treat it like a sport."
"Obviously since athletic commissions weren't familiar with the sport at the time, Jeff was trying to hand them a set of rules. There were others involved such as Nelson Hamilton in California, John McCarthy in California, Dr. Istrico in New York, but mainly Jeff's gold medal could get him access to people that other people couldn't gain an audience with."
Read the rest on my blog Pretty Hate Machines.
PS. I'm back