Ariel Helwani: How world’s best sports interviewer copes when the stars hit back

If you had half an hour with arguably the greatest interviewer in all of sport, what would you ask first? What even makes a good question?

Perhaps that, in itself, is a good place to start: what makes a good question?

The meta nature of the situation is not lost on Ariel Helwani. “I’ve never been asked that before,” the Canadian laughs. “You seemed interested in my answer, right. If you come across as inquisitive, authentic, truly interested in the person, and you really want to know – you’re not asking for the sake of asking – that’s the key to a great interview. Also: listening, asking good follow-ups, not being tied to a set of questions.

“Nothing drives me crazier than when interviewers look down at a piece of paper, or... when I do The MMA Hour, I don’t have a single question written down. I know who I’m talking to, I’m aware of what just happened [with them], but it never comes across as a good interview when it feels like an interview. It needs to be a conversation.”

That approach has seen Helwani, 40, become and remain the preeminent journalist in mixed martial arts over the better part of 20 years, a figure as renowned as many fighters. For nearly two decades, Helwani has maintained relationships with some of the biggest names in MMA, whose hearts and minds he delves into with disarming sincerity, but he welcomes time with fighters of any profile. “Getting to shine a light on their stories, personalities, trials and tribulations, successes and triumphs, is so much fun for me,” he says. Even long-term loathing from UFC president Dana White has not stopped the Canadian from being the most-watched journalist in the sport (White said of Helwani in December: “He’s the biggest f***ing piece of s*** of all time, one of the slimiest, scummiest, motherf*****s that you will ever come across.”).

Helwani’s passion and skillset are not confined by a cage, however – neither a literal or metaphorical one. The host of The MMA Hour YouTube show and Ringer MMA podcast is fresh off a series of interviews for BT Sport, in which he spoke to major figures involved in WWE’s WrestleMania weekend, and can also count courtside NBA reporting and hosting boxing press conferences among his accolades. His CV now includes work with ESPN, BT, Showtime, MMA Fighting and more.

“My goal was to be known as the best interviewer in MMA, then it was the best in combat, then sport. Now I want to be the best interviewer. Period.” Helwani says this as we speak less than an hour after the launch of his own NBA show on Showtime: the aptly-named Ariel Helwani Basketball Show. For someone who started out writing for a website dedicated to covering Quebec basketball, it is a full-circle moment – a closing of the hoop.

“If this isn’t happiness, I don’t know what is,” he beams. “And I’m a negative person by the way, but today is a great day. I’m buzzing.

“I have this thing in my mind: ‘You only get one life.’ There’s gonna be a point where no one wants to talk to me, to be in business with me, and I just want to try to do everything. And maybe I’m doing too much, but I prefer working and being busy; I know one day it’s gonna stop. I just don’t want to be 85 and regret things.

“I just want to do fun, different things, where I can show my personality. As I’ve evolved and grown up, ultimately I just want to be entertaining. I don’t mean that I want to sing and dance for people and be wacky; I mean, the greatest compliment that anyone can give me is: ‘I was having a bad day, and I turned on your show, and it made me forget.’ There’s one guy who always writes me, I think he’s from Argentina, and he calls me ‘the friend in his head’, because he just hears my voice all the time. Another guy is like, his wife tells him: ‘You go to sleep to this guy’s voice? Aren’t you sick of him?’ Honestly, I’d be sick of me.

“But to be an escape for someone, there’s nothing better. Give me that over a scoop or breaking news story. That to me is the greatest gift that I could give to someone else. My biggest fear is that I’m gonna wake up one day and this is all gonna end, or I’m gonna tweet something and get cancelled. I just don’t want this to end, because it’s so much fun.”

Helwani confesses he is an “anxious, introverted person”, and admits: “There was one period, at the beginning of the NBA thing, when my heart was beating so fast that I thought it was gonna come out of my throat.” Now, however, that heart is often visible on his sleeve. There is even a heightened version of Helwani that the 40-year-old frequently “becomes” while streaming: “Heel-wani”, a nod to the term for a bad guy in pro wrestling, who may yet be the subject of his own merch. He has even resorted to dealing his critics “10-7s” on air, referencing a rare, lopsided scorecard in combat sports. White, Liverpudlian UFC star Paddy Pimblett, and former fighter Brendan Schaub are among those to have drawn Helwani’s wrath, and he has no regrets over publicly responding to their comments.

Ariel Helwani, pictured with boxing world champion Amanda Serrano, is a multi-time MMA Journalist of the Year award winner (Getty Images)
Ariel Helwani, pictured with boxing world champion Amanda Serrano, is a multi-time MMA Journalist of the Year award winner (Getty Images)

“It’s if they get personal, and if they lie,” he explains. “If you’re gonna insult me, if you think I’m a bad broadcaster, that’s fine – it’s impossible to be liked by everyone – but if you lie about me, that’s the line that I draw.

“I used to have such thin skin, it used to crush me. It would be a Sunday and I’d be at the park with my family, letting some idiot on Twitter ruin my day. Why? One of the things I’m most proud of is that I don’t care as much now. Am I immune to it? No. Do I still see stuff that hurts my feelings? Absolutely, we’re human. But I’m working on all this stuff.

“If I wasn’t a father and husband, I think I’d have crumbled a long time ago, because if I wouldn’t have that perspective,” he continues. “Without three little kids who want to play with me and talk about what little kids want to talk about, I’d be so intensely obsessed with work that it’d be unhealthy. And I’m already obsessed! Having the more important things, the more important people, it changed me for the better. It’s so rewarding.

“I can see the older two starting to understand what I do and getting excited by it. They’re proud, they think my job is cool. Last year, we went to my middle son’s school, and there was this whole project thing. One of the things was: ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ He wrote: ‘Interview people.’ Amazing. And my daughter, she’s six and has a YouTube channel that I don’t publicise; she has a microphone and she interviews my mum, my wife. She’s really good!”

She may be really good, but her dad? Her dad wants to be the best. “Period.”