Ariel Helwani is best known for his coverage of mixed martial arts (MMA). He has worked for Fox, ESPN, HBO, Vox, and Spotify. Ariel has won MMA Journalist of the Year at the World MMA Awards every year since 2010. In addition to his work covering mixed martial arts, Ariel has worked as a sideline reporter at NBA games for ESPN.

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  • Ariel wants to be the “Howard Cosell of MMA“. “I got the interview skills from my mom, who my friends would always call for advice, and the work ethic from my dad, who never gave an excuse or took a sick day.”
    • So one of the things that early on, before I became a dad was I want to be omnipresent. I believe in this quote from Woody Allen “80% of success is just showing up.” I want to be at every single event. I want to be the guy that people when they think of big fights, they think of me. Howard Cosell, of MMA, all that stuff and more.”
  • Ariel’s Parents:
    • My mom still watches my show every week, and it’s a long show about a topic she doesn’t know a hell of a lot about. But she does it because she loves and supports me.”
    • “She’s the mom that a lot of my brother’s girlfriends and stuff would stay in touch with, even after they broke up. Because she just had that connection with people. She asks questions, she listens, she has a good mind and eye for things.”
    • My dad is a workaholic, and he’d be the first to tell you that. He’s the kind of guy who, every day, I’d see him Monday through Friday, wake up, go to work at around seven, come home at around seven. He would have this massive box of papers, he would sit at the dinner table, and he would work on all the papers. He would take his shower at like 9:30, go to bed, and start over again, and he couldn’t have been happier.”
  • Syracuse: In 9th grade, he was reading Sports Illustrated and learned that the U.S.’s top sportscasting degree is earned at Syracuse. Bob Costas went there. Marv Albert went there. So he went to Syracuse.
    • Being homesick and full of anxiety in college: “I wouldn’t want to go to the dining hall to eat, so I just stocked up on Blue Diamond almonds. Which I have a hard time eating till this day because it reminds me of those days. Chef Boyardee, Alphagetti, that’s what I was eating. I was watching sports in my room, by myself, I had a single room, and I was just crippled with this anxiety. And every time I would leave home to come back to school, like Thanksgiving break was over, and whatnot, Christmas break, I was sad. I was down.”
  • When he knew he wanted to cover MMAback home in the fall of 2006 when he found himself in Champs Sports Bar, on Saint Laurent Boulevard, where the TVs were tuned to a UFC pay-per-view special. When the Quebec-born fighter Georges St-Pierre beat up Matt Hughes and scored a TKO to win the welterweight championship, “the place explodes like the Canadiens just won the Stanley Cup. And I’m like: ‘I want to be a part of this sport.’”
  • Being the Heel – He learned from Howard Cosell, who was known as a heel, the pro wrestling term for the bad guy who people tune in to see fall.  “Heelwani”
  • What does it take to be a great interviewer? Be prepared. Ask thoughtful questions. Don’t script the conversation. LISTEN. Ask better follow ups. Make it feel more like a conversation.
  • Feuds with Dana White: “I’m the type of person who doesn’t back down, in large part because of my parents and my family, and they never back down, so how could I? And why should I? Especially if I’m not doing anything wrong. So I would say I never sought it, I always try to diffuse it, privately. I don’t try to get into Twitter wars and things like that, with other people. Where it seems like they spend their life over there trying to go back and forth. That being said, to your point, which is a great point, having an understanding of pro wrestling, and storylines, and feuds. And I come out of my ESPN chapter as Helwani, and punching back, and it’s “High road Helwani, no more” and all that. Yes, sure, there’s a little bit of pro wrestling in there, and I love pro wrestling. And I believe that there are a lot of elements in pro wrestling in a lot of different walks of life, including politics and whatnot. Good guy/bad guy, heel/face, all that stuff.”
  • How conduct a great interview?
    • You have to listen, you have to be ready to open your mind, open your heart, and not feel, again, like you’re just coming out guns blazing, and hitting someone with haymakers. Listen to them, be soft, be gentle, be welcoming. But, again, Howard Stern, no one did it better, he breaks you down to the point where you think that you’re just two guys sitting around, or a girl and a guy sitting around, and there are not even cameras or microphones. They forget that they’re on a show, if you’re empathetic, if you’re warm, if you’re welcoming, that’s the best result.”
  • Make the ASK – Ariel knocked on the door of a senior executive at ESPN. The guy didn’t even know who he was. And he asked to be a sideline reporter at basketball games. The senior exec said nobody had ever done that in 20 years. If you want something, ASK for it. Steve Jobs said the difference between the people who dream about stuff and the people who make it happen is the willingness to ask. You gotta ask.
    • “I walked into his office, and there’s a lesson, I think, here, for a lot of people. And I was like, “Hey, I have no credibility in the world of basketball, very few people know who I am. I don’t have many sources. But if you ever need someone, in the 11th hour someone gets sick, someone gets hurt, I’ll be your guy. I’ll be your sideline reporter. I know to do that. And he said, “I’ll be honest; I’ve never heard of you. I’ve never seen MMA. I’ve never seen your work. But I’ve been here 20 plus years, and no one has ever done what you just did, so I’ll keep you in mind.” Which was an amazing thing to hear, and mind-blowing that no one does that. All the offices are right there, just knock on the door.”
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Time Stamps

00:57 – The Impact of Ariel’s Childhood

04:25 – The Dream to Become a Broadcaster

14:49 – Ariel’s Goals as a Father

22:11 – What Makes Someone a Great Interviewer?

27:46 – Ariel’s Prep Process for an Interview

35:22 – Handling Conflicts and Feuds as a Journalist

44:51 – It’s Okay to Ask For Help

49:29 – The Decision to Leave ESPN

52:17 – Life/Career Advice

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