Ariel Helwani’s MMA thoughts: Feeling grateful for a great year

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Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and when it comes to mixed martial arts in 2019, I think we have a lot to be thankful for. So, with that in mind, allow me to express my gratitude for a few things:

This time last year, Masvidal was wrapping up a 2018 that didn’t see him step foot in the Octagon once. It was the first time in his pro MMA career, which dates back to 2003, that Masvidal didn’t compete at least once in a calendar year. By now you know he was filming a reality show, which set the wheels in motion for his incredible 2019, but it’s amazing to think that a year ago he was largely out of sight, out of mind in MMA. He was sitting on a two-fight losing streak, and his last win had come in January 2017. There isn’t a soul alive, not even his own management or coaches, who could have predicted what happened to him this year because, well, this sort of thing doesn’t often happen in combat sports. You don’t fight for 16 years, suffer double-digit losses and then become a mega-star. But that is exactly what happened to Masvidal this year, and it was beautiful to watch it unfold.

Everything about the UFC’s middleweight champion is fun. From his brand of trash talk to his walkouts to his actual fights, there is nothing that’s not entertaining about “The Last Style Bender.” And in an era in which the Reebok uniform deal has sucked the unique personality out of so many fighters, here’s a young man from New Zealand, by way of Nigeria, who turned the game upside down this year, and did it with style. I feel like people think of Adesanya as younger than he really is. He is 30. But he possesses a youthful exuberance that makes it seem like he’s in his early 20s. I don’t understand half the memes he tweets about, but I do know they are always on point.

Who was Cejudo prior to this year? He was the Olympic gold medalist who recently had dethroned the great Demetrious Johnson. That’s a great spot to be in, no doubt, but there wasn’t much else to his personality. And then a funny thing happened: The UFC threatened to get rid of his flyweight division, and that pressure forced him to finally get out of his shell and dial things up to 11, personality-wise. And you know what? What emerged was a really funny, entertaining character who did a phenomenal job of keeping himself in the news. Cejudo calls himself “The King of Cringe,” and those who are looking at him on the surface concur. But if you are doing just that, you are missing the beauty behind what he has done. For the first time ever, he got a lot of people to care about the flyweight division. He got people to care about him and his MMA journey. And once he did that, Cejudo added another piece of hardware to his mantel, all the while keeping us entertained.

Plain and simple, Diaz doesn’t get enough credit for how smart he is. The man is one of the savviest fighters ever, possessing a very sharp mind when it comes to the fight business. When the year started, Diaz was approaching three years between fights. Some thought he’d never fight again. But then he saw what Anthony Pettis did in his welterweight debut, and the wheels began to turn. And when Masvidal shocked the world by knocking Ben Askren out in five seconds, Diaz stashed that one in his back pocket for a later date. He beat Pettis and decided to create a belt out of thin air that suddenly became the most talked-about title in the sport and was used to headline Madison Square Garden. Even The Rock made an appearance because of that belt. And when it seemed like this magical fight was on the verge of being snatched away due to a tainted supplement, Diaz used that savvy mind to get ahead of the story and turn the tables on everyone. Diaz has always been credited for being street smart, but it’s time he finally gets his due to for being business smart, as well.

Ben Askren’s humility

Yeah, I know it’s weird to highlight Askren’s humility when he talked a big game and poked fun at every fighter in sight upon arriving in the UFC. But his humility finally came out when he suffered his first loss. And wouldn’t you know it, as I wrote last week, the perpetual winner knew how to lose better than most. I know Askren doesn’t want to be known as a loser, and that would ultimately be unfair considering all the winning he did throughout his career, but the way he handled that loss to Masvidal and the subsequent loss to Demian Maia was a thing of beauty. Losses should never define an athlete. Rather, it’s how they handle the good and the bad that should forever be their legacy. And, unlike many, Askren gets that.

The fighters

I know this is a very broad one, but here’s what I mean: It’s hard to fully explain the respect I have for the men and women who compete in MMA. I admire their courage, determination, work ethic, heart … everything about them. But you know what I truly love about them? Each and every week for the past 11 years, they’ve agreed to come on my show to talk about the highs and lows in their lives. They don’t have to do this, but rarely do they say no. And we’re not talking months after they experience these moments, we’re talking hours later. When it’s as fresh as can be. When they are probably tired of talking to the media. This doesn’t really happen in other sports. So I am eternally grateful for the fighters’ willingness to talk to the media — not just me — time and again as well as how open and honest they seem to be every time we stick a microphone in their faces. This isn’t common. Most pro athletes are guarded and coached to never say much. MMA fighters are just the opposite, and I’ll always appreciate them for that.

Options

MMA is at its healthiest when there are options for fighters. In other words, when there are multiple thriving organizations out there that are willing to pay them to compete. These days, you have the UFC doing very well, and that is good for the athletes. You also have Bellator providing another avenue, and many fighters have taken advantage of that over the past four years or so. There’s also the PFL, One Championship, Rizin, KSW, Cage Warriors, Invicta FC, LFA and many more promotions doing their thing these days. This is good. Options are good. Long may they be present for fighters to take advantage of.

Ever notice how Holloway always seems to hit the spot on social media? He started the year with that now-infamous trip to Ireland. Remember how much fun that was? And then, throughout the year, it just seemed like every time he was looked upon to say the right thing, he did just that. From acknowledging Daniel Cormier‘s loss to Stipe Miocic to commenting on his own win over Frankie Edgar … the young Hawaiian always seems to know when to show up with the right kind of words. I’d add that he has a very smart and thoughtful person named Christopher Daggett guiding his career, and his influence shows. Holloway has turned into one of the best ambassadors MMA has to offer.

Perhaps no active UFC fighter uses his platform for good better than Poirier. Every time he fights, he auctions off his fight kit and donates all of the proceeds to a worthy cause, with the help of his Good Fight Foundation that he started with his wife, Jolie. Poirier tells me the foundation has raised approximately $350,000 this year alone. That’s remarkable. And he doesn’t always publicize his small acts of kindness. Poirier has a heart of gold, and I look forward to every time he fights not only because of how entertaining he is but because I know that a community will be positively impacted as a result.

Some other things I am thankful for:

Happy Thanksgiving.

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