Jeff Blatnick liked to say that grappling, especially wrestling, existed "in almost every single culture, everywhere" for as long as man has walked the Earth.
He found comfort, righteousness and motivation embedded in the fact that in 2012, human beings venture to test themselves as they had during Greek or Roman times. That partially explains why he was such a forceful advocate for wrestling, giving so much of himself to the sport up to the very end.
And it explains why, in the wake of his death Wednesday due to heart failure, most of the attention on America's 1984 Greco-Roman super heavyweight Olympic gold medalist is rightly focused on his sporting accomplishments and the hurdles he cleared along the way.
Tucked into various obituaries I've read, if mentioned at all, are footnotes about Blatnick's contributions to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts, a moniker he helped coin. This was how I first met him in the late 1990s, when Blatnick, who lived near Albany, N.Y., spearheaded a crusade aimed at legalizing MMA across the United States.
The UFC brought Blatnick into the fold because of his expertise. Converted wrestlers like Dan Severn had begun to find the UFC, which at the time, of course, perpetrated a style vs. style sensibility and was dominated by Gracie family jiu-jitsu. Broadcasts needed some balance, and Blatnick, with his pedigree and easygoing demeanor, happily filled that role.
Admitting later that he had no idea what he was getting into, Blatnick earned a reputation for wrongly calling moves and holds, interchanging jiu-jitsu terms for wrestling ones, and sometimes saw safety for fighters where there was none, as was the case during his famous call with Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown during the closing moments of Royce Gracie's win over Severn at UFC 4 in Tulsa, Okla.
To the chagrin of some in the wrestling community who saw an association with MMA as beneath them -- or more likely, a threat to the status quo -- Blatnick had fallen for the violent cage sport. For despite its peccadilloes, he realized UFC offered new life to grapplers, a chance to compete and not live perpetually poor in the honorable yet unyielding Olympic movement.
"Once I saw the fighting, once I saw Royce Gracie choke out Dan Severn in a triangle choke, I became very intrigued," Blatnick told me in 2008. "The main reason I became intrigued with MMA more than anything else is grappling has never really had an outlet to showcase its skills. There's professional wrestling, but that's a work. In terms of real competitiveness, in terms of stacking up grappling as an art, as a self-defense tool, it had really largely been ignored.
"Growing up in the shadow of Mike Tyson, I heard too many times he's the baddest guy on earth. Sitting right there I reply, 'Well let's see how well he can throw punches if he's on his back.' And that's really the crux of it."
Bob Meyrowitz, the original owner of the UFC, eventually tasked Blatnick to push the sport forward. With invaluable help from referee John McCarthy and current UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, Blatnick created a manual of policies, procedures, codes of conduct and rules, many of which exist to this day. He traveled around the country, educating regulators and changing perceptions.
By the time Blatnick and other MMA advocates descended on a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport in April 2000, the movement had clearly made an impact.
California was set to become the first state in the U.S. to sign off on a set of codified rules that governed MMA. After the vote made it official, Blatnick and a ragtag crew gathered around a bar, raised vodka shots, and toasted their accomplishment. Soon after, New Jersey adopted the language, and Blatnick was there for that.
He sat cageside in Atlantic City months later, when UFC held its first event regulated under the unified rules, headlined fittingly by two outstanding wrestlers, UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman and Blatnick's favorite fighter, Randy "The Natural" Couture.
The last time I spoke to Blatnick for a story was in January, when Iranian wrestler Kamal Shalorus prepared to fight in the UFC. Hung on the wall of a converted garage, where Shalorus wrestled in suburban Los Angeles, was a newspaper clipping, faded and yellow from the years. It was of Blatnick, whose triumph over Hodgkin's lymphoma while preparing for the 1984 Olympics was duly noted. I wanted to ask Blatnick about the article and about wrestlers. The community. Camaraderie. The sacrifice and lifestyle.
He called me late in the evening on the East Coast while driving home from voluntary coaching duties at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School. It never took much to get Jeff talking, especially about wrestling or MMA. He told me a story -- he always had a story to tell -- about traveling to Russia and being followed by the KGB. He said that very rarely did politics or nation-state conflicts affect the way wrestlers interacted with one another. They had committed to something pure and ancient, and as such there was an unspoken bond, regardless of where these men hailed from.
One time I asked Blatnick how he prepared himself to compete at his highest level. He said rode a bike "until it felt like my heart was going to pound through my chest," then set a clock for six minutes and mentally wrestled a match.
"It's very difficult when you're suffering to see yourself doing anything properly," he said.
Wrestling is suffering and it brought Blatnick back from the brink of death. It pushed him to be more than he could have imagined. It challenged him like nothing else could. And for all of these reasons, he loved the sport. And for all of these reasons he loved another sport, one equally ancient, whose bonds among competitors were familiar.