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On Monday, I asked former ESPN MMA writer Ariel Helwani if he wanted to defend himself for what became apparent over the weekend: he’s not a journalist but a useful idiot for those for whom he serves.
That’s not news to most UFC fans. UFC President Dana White has said so for years. Most recently, White named Helwani the biggest “sack of shit” on the Earth.
Journalist to PR Agent
For a recap: All Elite Wrestling founder Tony Khan called Helwani a “fraud” in a tweet Friday. Helwani has been covering AEW and WWE, the leading two wrestling promotions, for the past year. Yet he appeared on WWE programming Friday, as either a paid contributor or a means to grow his brand in front of 2 million television viewers.
Helwani’s coverage of wrestling was already a conflict. His former agent, Nick Khan (no relation to Tony Khan), is the CEO of WWE.
But this was not the deal-breaker to me as it was for critics. Nick Khan was the leading sports media agent in the industry before he moved to WWE in 2020. A previous association with him should not prevent someone from covering the industry in which he now works.
Yet working with a company you cover is where even the most compromised of journalists would draw the line. Helwani makes even Taylor Lorenz cringe.
Can you imagine working with Pepsi and routinely covering Pepsi via a separate outlet while smearing rival Coke?
Or taking a check from AT&T while waving its pom-poms during a podcast and besmirching Verizon?
“If you’re going to say the AEW product is better than the WWE product, you’re an absolute liar,” Helwani said in October while in contact with WWE.
Still, Hewlani’s affiliation with WWE didn’t catch my radar until two videos resurfaced over the weekend.
Last year, Helwani interviewed Tony Khan and Paul “Triple H” Levesque, the respective bookers of AEW and WWE. His disparate approach to the interviews was the precursor to my email.
See, Helwani pressed Tony Khan about a real-life incident backstage between wrestlers. (Here’s a recap for those who care about professional wrestling.) His questions to Khan were fair.
Yet you then look at how he interviewed Levesque, who orchestrated Helwani’s television appearance Friday, and see the Khan interview quite differently.
Defender of Those Accused of Sexual Misconduct
At the time of the interview, WWE had recently named Levesque the head of booking. Vince McMahon had just stepped down amid a bevy of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. McMahon still faced an allegation of rape at the time of the conversation. Vince just settled with the woman last month.
However, Helwani never asked Levesque about Vince, the biggest story in combat sports. Not once. Rather, he provided Levesque softball questions as he smirked across the room.
Even the most inexperienced of journalists would have at least asked Levesque about becoming the head booker as a result of his father-in-law “retiring” on the basis of horrific allegations.
Certainly, Levesque expected even Helwanin to question him about the scandal. Unless the questions were pre-planned.
Now, we don’t know what’s true or if McMahon should have stepped down. And that’s why you ask the question in the first noteworthy interview since the report.
Instead, Helwani helped bury the sexual misconduct allegations while trying to deflect the focus toward a rival promotion.
Helwani did PR for WWE in a time of crisis. They, in return, provided him with a role on television.
Moreover, Helwani recently ranted about a video in which Dana White slapped his wife after she slapped him. Helwani takes domestic violence seriously, he says.
That’s good to hear. Too bad he doesn’t take allegations of sexual abuse as seriously.
As you can expect, Helwani trended on Twitter over the weekend as combat sports fans discussed his role in assisting WWE as a “journalist.”
But I wanted to give him a chance to respond before documenting his journey from UFC reporter to crisis management assistant of those accused of sexual violence. Plus, Helwani and I have had prior communications. The last we spoke, he asked if I were to ever write or report on him to please reach out first.
So, I did. On Monday, I emailed him the topics I planned to cover for a potential response, per his previous request.
However, Helwani instead posted the email in rage and name-called me and other critics:
It’s unclear why Helwani thought that tweet would make me look bad. It shows me asking him for comment on what the industry spent the weekend accusing him of: leveraging his smears of Tony Khan into a television role.
He showed me … doing my job. Oh, the embarrassment.
Additionally, he accused me of texting him “incessantly” during his contract negotiations with ESPN.
That’d be a burn had it been true. It appears the PR agent forgot text messages existed.
Our Phone Call
In 2021, a source told me that ESPN had lowballed Helwani during his renegotiations. ESPN wanted to rid itself of his presence due to his fractured relationship with Dana White.
However, the network didn’t want it to look like it declined to re-sign a talent by siding with Big Bad Dana White.
So the company used the lowball tactic to urge Helwani to accept a higher offer elsewhere.
Each of the sports media talent agencies would confirm this news on background to whoever asks. As would ESPN executives off the record.
Thereby I called Helwani to ask him for comment before reporting on his future. He prefaced the conversation by asking if all of our communications moving forward could be off the record (which includes my email to him Monday).
I found the request fair and standard. I agreed.
He began by telling me he was still in talks with ESPN and unhappy with the offer. He complained that ESPN PR rep Ardi Dwornik was using public messaging to hurt his negotiations and that she was defending Dana White for calling him a “douche” months before.
Helwani told me on the phone that it “hurt” when Dana called him a “douche” but that the “New Ariel” would eventually brush it off.
Two years later, he’s still trying to bury the “Old Ariel.”
Ultimately, Helwnai said he would call me when he made a decision because he respected my approach to reporting. We hung up and said we’d speak again soon.
As the week passed, I heard ESPN had contacted other agents to begin looking for individuals to fill the roles Helwani would soon leave behind. He would not be returning to ESPN, sources said.
This time, ESPN confirmed the news. The network emailed me back a statement that Helwani would leave the company.
Thus, I called Helwani, per his request, to inform him I would run the story as it was confirmed. I had the confirmation needed.
He didn’t answer. He instead posted an IG video addressing his departure. At that point, I posted my story about him leaving ESPN.
Helwani then texted me — this was not me “incessantly” hitting him up — that he didn’t appreciate the way ESPN confirmed the news because he was upset they took Dana White’s side.
Other than that, we communicated maybe once more. He said he would be a source if needed. And I asked him how he was doing weeks later, as he was very kind during our exchange.
We haven’t spoken since.
Although I did debunk his whiny screech about Joe Rogan. According to Helwani, Rogan proved himself a fool by doubting those who lied to us about Covid.
Helwani was upset Rogan made fun of him:
As you can tell, Helwani isn’t the smartest guy in the business. See: his overuse of cliches and passive voice in his writing.
Ariel Helwani seems offended that I’d dare to cover him honestly, not with the favorable slant he provides those with whom he was previously friendly.
But I never saw Helwani as a friend or an enemy. I found his contract drama in 2021 newsworthy, and his role as a state journalist amid sexual assault allegations cringe and unethical.
In both cases, I gave him a chance to respond.
Helwani has been emotionally fractured since ESPN essentially dumped him. His feelings remain hurt that Dana Whtie doesn’t like him — hence the eunuch segments declaring himself a victim at hands of Dana.
Helwani is fragile. He rose quickly in the business as an authority on the UFC. He has since seen his screentime and relevance diminish as more talented, less nasally, more attractive pundits have begun covering the UFC.
Perhaps that explains why Helwani traded his credibility as a journalist to help divert attention away from a sexual misconduct scandal in exchange for TV time.
Is there another side to this story? Based on Helwani’s tweets, apparently not.
One CommentLeave a Reply
Interesting stuff. I follow MMA pretty closely, but not wrestling at all. So I know of him well from the former. His style of interviewing is goading the subject into conflict, usually fighter vd fighter. He is good at it, but gets under many people’s skin.
Btw, when the UFC was on Fox Sports(2011-2016) Ariel drew a paycheck from the UFC through that agreement as a Fox Sports MMA reporter.