Remembering Jeff Blatnick: Dinner with Nick Lembo
by Matthew Roth
Last year the MMA world was rocked with the news of Jeff Blatnick’s passing. For many fans, they learned of Blatnick’s life after his death. He didn’t do a lot of press and tried to stay out of the media spotlight as much as possible. For others, it hit extremely close to home not only for what he contributed to the sport but also for the legacy that he left behind.
And then there are those that considered him a friend. They are still trying to come to terms with his death and the emptiness that was left in the months that have followed. One of those people is NJSACB counsel Nick Lembo.
I consider Nick a friend. Whenever I travel back to New Jersey, I try and meet up with him for dinner or drinks, to talk about MMA or just talk about life. This past weekend, I was home for the World Series of Fighting’s second card, which was held in Atlantic City. We planned to celebrate Jeff’s life over some beers and drink to his memory.
Those planned beers almost didn’t happen as the Jersey shore was hit with snow and rain on Monday and driving conditions weren’t exactly optimal. But Nick and I decided to meet up anyway at a small Irish pub in Forked River, to talk about Jeff Blatnick.
I could tell right away that it wasn’t going to be an easy discussion for Nick. Jeff’s death hit him extremely hard, not only because they worked together, but also because Jeff was and always will be one of Nick’s closest friends.
With dinner finished and several beers consumed, it was then when Nick started to open up about his friend Jeff.
“I had known Jeff from his wrestling days before MMA. He was a legendary figure in the New York and New Jersey area. He’d frequently give seminars and motivational lectures, so he was a legend.”
“As much as New Jersey is a wrestling state, I remember the first time that the Pennsylvania commissioner asked for some judges and I recommended, as I would to anyone in the world, Jeff Blatnick. It was a Western Pennsylvania venue and Jeff was saying how he was the most popular guy there. Pictures and autographs, things that just didn’t happen to him while he was judging in Atlantic City. He was a big time celebrity out there.”
Blatnick’s celebrity in wrestling circles was because of his gold medal in Greco-Roman at the 1984 games in Los Angeles, California. He and his teammate Steve Fraser were the first American’s to ever capture gold in Greco. What made his run through those games special was that it was extremely unlikely. Two years earlier, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and needed to have both his spleen and appendix removed.
Anyone with a computer can read about Jeff’s gold medal and bouts with cancer on wikipedia. What hasn’t been covered is how important he was to the sport of MMA.
There’s something known as the Zuffa myth. The abridged version is that MMA was banned nationwide because of Senator John McCain and only due to the hard work and dedication of Dana White and the Fertitta brothers, did the sport get regulated in the United States. It’s a great story, but based more on fiction than fact.
The real story is that Blatnick and several others wrote up the first draft of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, and presented them to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB), the first athletic commission to legalize the sport.
“Jeff was an instrumental and an undervalued and an unknown figure in the growth of MMA and the writing of the Unified Rules just because he wasn’t a press guy. He wasn’t a public figure. He was an instrumental figure as the head of the Mixed Martial Arts Council (MMAC) that the UFC, under its former ownership used to create rules to treat it like a sport.”
“Obviously since athletic commissions weren’t familiar with the sport at the time, Jeff was trying to hand them a set of rules. There were others involved such as Nelson Hamilton in California, John McCarthy in California, Dr. Istrico in New York, but mainly Jeff’s gold medal could get him access to people that other people couldn’t gain an audience with.”
During one of our previous dinners, Nick told me about how Jeff Blatnick chose to work New Jersey shows only if he was able to get back to New York in time for the Saturday wrestling meets. Jeff wasn’t just a commission judge or a gold medalist, he continued to teach wrestling as the head coach of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School in upstate New York.
I thought that this meant that wrestling was his first love, but Nick, after taking some time to compose himself, pointed out that while Jeff loved wrestling, he loved his family even more.
“We used to talk all the time. We used to talk about everything. Jeff’s first love was his family, his wife and his daughter and his son. His son is a really good wrestler and football player and his daughter is a very good volleyball player. They came first over everything.”
“Second for Jeff was being a wrestling coach at any level or seminars, especially with kids. He loved teaching wrestling. Third was MMA judging. It wasn’t his first love but he was outstanding at it and he had a great interest in it.”
Throughout our dinner, I was reflecting on the time that I met Jeff Blatnick. It was two years ago when I was still writing for Bloody Elbow. Nick offered to let me shadow judge at an upcoming Bellator event (Bellator 59), and sit cage side and score the fights with the commission’s judges. I sat with Cardo Urso and Ricardo Almeida.
But the most memorable person was Jeff Blatnick. It was during the LeVon Maynard and Chris Wing fight. It was a bout that Maynard won handedly, taking a Unanimous Decision. The other two judges scored the bout 30-27 for Maynard. Jeff and I scored it 30-26, giving Maynard a 10-8 round after dominating Wing on the ground for five minutes.
We discussed the 10-8 round and why the other judges didn’t have scored it the same way. He explained to me that everyone has their background. A jiu jitsu guy will score submissions and sweeps over a wrestler’s takedowns, while a kickboxing focused judge may overlook failed submission attempts and favor strikes more when considering their scoring.
I asked Nick about this and why Jeff was unique as a judge. I could see his brain working as he reflected back on his friend’s ability to look at a fight differently than most commission judges.
“I think what made him unique, obviously his wrestling background made him understand combat sports, but he never stopped learning. He trained jiu jitsu and he went to boxing gyms. He never stopped learning the other facets of the sport. Since he was a crucial figure in the development of the Unified Rules, he had a full understanding of the sport.”
“One thing that Jeff would always talk about that he wanted to be around for, and I’m sad that he won’t be, is to see the next generation where you have an eight year old kid who is taking jiu jitsu, wrestling, and boxing classes and incorporating everything at such a young age. Most judges have a background in one sport like Jeff with wrestling. We haven’t seen someone come in with such a full background because the sport is so young.”
Nick’s cracks a smile when I shift the discussion to Jeff’s legacy and how he should be remembered. As he explained earlier, because of Jeff’s avoidance of doing press and media, many people are completely unaware of his contributions to MMA.
Even when news hit of his death, there were very few journalists that could write personalized stories or provide anecdotes of their encounters with him. Because of this, I wanted to know how Nick thinks Jeff should be remembered.
“Everybody that is a fan of MMA owes a debt of gratitude to Jeff Blatnick. I don’t know where we would’ve been if it wasn’t for him. As a personal figure, he was possibly the greatest ambassador the sport has ever had because there hasn’t been a more pure or genuine guy than Jeff Blatnick. He was one of kind.”
Wondering how fans and media should remember Jeff Blatnick is great. The guy deserves a posthumous recognition for what he contributed to the sport, especially considering that without his assistance, it’s very possible that MMA never gets regulated in the United States in the first place.
But this discussion wasn’t meant to educate fans on who Jeff Blatnick was. A big reason I wanted to talk about him with Nick is because I wanted to know what he misses most. Sure, he knew that I was going to be writing up a story based on our dinner, but I’m a friend first and a journalist second.
I knew that Jeff’s death had a big impact on Nick and wanted to know how he was dealing with the loss of his close friend.
“I miss him every day. We used to talk on the phone at least three times a week. It really stung not being able to go to Grapple at the Garden at Madison Square Garden with him because we planned on going together. And the NCAA Wrestling Championships, this being the first one was tough because as you know, he was a commentator for many of them. He actually passed up the opportunity to judge a UFC two years ago in New Jersey because he was the commentator in Philadelphia. So with the end of wrestling season, it was particularly tough.”
Before ending our discussion of Jeff Blatnick, I wanted to know how Nick Lembo will remember his good friend. While it’s great to talk about legacies in the sport and what made him an incredible judge, the most important thing is what Jeff Blatnick meant to my friend Nick.
“He’s one of my best friends. The world would be a better place is everybody was more like Jeff Blatnick. What you see is what you got. He was upfront and there was no backstabbing. He was a guy with quiet perseverance. A two-time cancer survivor, he kept plugging forward and never bad mouthed anybody. I never heard anybody say a bad thing about him.”
“He was one of the best guys that I’ve ever known.”