Blake Harrison: “I put fighters on a bit of a pedestal because of their mental toughness and the sacrifices that they make.“
Blake Harrison like many in the entertainment industry has seen the past year change many things. Projects postponed or cancelled, having to adapt to an ever-changing world. Work for many in the acting is scarce, at least in the initial months of the pandemic. As one actor said, ‘we have been fighting for scraps.’
Harrison has fared better than most, while some acting roles are currently on ice or gone forever, it has given him the chance to take other work he wouldn’t have had time to do previously. In another long lost time of normality, Harrison shared his love for combat sports.
It was on an episode of Sunday Brunch sometime around the Floyd Mayweather Conor McGregor fight that amongst all the wonderful chaos of that Sunday staple, Harrison revealed he was a big MMA fan. The Inbetweeners star might have missed the early rawness and less regulated version of the UFC, but as the sport started to grow from those early desperate days of fighting for survival, Harrison became aware of the product in a very strong time for the sport:
“It was around the time of the Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz era and to this day my brother who is younger than me, if there is ever a time he can come up behind me wrap me in a bear hug, lift me up and shout Matt Hughes and try and slam me to the ground he will do so. So I can remember it around that time I first got into it, I think it might have been on Bravo. It was different back then because you didn’t have the recording services you have now, you couldn’t just series link something you just had to know it was coming on. It wasn’t necessarily something I would look out for, but if it was on I would watch it.”
The Ultimate Fighter does have its detractors, more so in the modern era, but without it the UFC may well have gone under. The finale of the very first series got the brand noticed, and the reality type format draws people into the sport, showing the fighters outside of an environment they are normally seen in. Harrison went from a casual fan to a hardcore fan because of one such season:
“The thing that really got me into it was the series of The Ultimate Fighter that had Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as the coaches because I really enjoyed the banter between them. Funnily enough, I have never actually watched the fight, I can just remember watching the entire series and I started watching the UFC more intently after that, that series of TUF was what got me into it properly. After that, I was watching card after card after card.”
In his younger days, Harrison was a fan of the WWE during the Monday Night Wars, the so-called Attitude period. The old cartoon feel removed for an edgier edge to try and wipe out the competition, its bitter rival WCW. Almost certainly the acting part of Harrison drew him to the pro wrestling world, and the love of a good storyline forms some of his love for MMA:
“I haven’t watched the pro wrestling thing for a very long time, but when I was in my mid-teens I loved that WWE Attitude era. I loved Stone Cold, The Rock, so shows like that with a form of combat, even though we know it is scripted, with big personalities and storylines, I even hang on to that now. I was talking to Nathaniel Wood earlier today on the Podcast, and I was saying to him half-joking but half-seriously you are in the same division as your coach was, Brad Pickett, do you ever get the urge to fight anyone who beat Brad to avenge his losses, and I am a sucker for that, the apprentice avenging the master. I am a sucker for that, the storyline element to it.
“For the sake of Urijah Faber’s health I hope he doesn’t fight TJ Dillashaw, I don’t think that is a good fight for Urijah and I don’t really want to see that fight. However, if it did happen, the storyline guy in me would go come on Urijah, come on Urijah, do the upset. So I am still a sucker for the storyline in combat sports.”
Some fighters have that crossover appeal that goes way beyond the hardcore MMA fan. A rare breed of fighter that can transcend their sport to an another level, mainstream acceptance and beyond. A select few become even bigger than the sport they ply their trade in, the likes of Brock Lesnar, Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey are perhaps the best examples of this. When Harrison got hooked on the sport, the Lesnar era had gone, but the Rousey/McGregor times were at their peak:
“The Conor McGregor run was amazing and the equally so the Ronda Rousey one. I think by the time I was watching it, Ronda was already the UFC champion and we got that brilliant stint where she defended her title around four times I think and combined it was only a few minutes, it was just mental. Even my wife got into it, she isn’t a big fan of the sport she finds it a bit too brutal at times, but even she got into the Ronda story and would be interested in watching her fights. But having said that there was that TUF series with Ronda and Miesha Tate and both me and my wife found ourselves gravitating to Miesha rather than Ronda. Miesha came over very chilled out someone you could have a nice chat with but Ronda came over very defensive and you would wonder if you would say the wrong thing if you had a chat with her. I always seem to gravitate to fighters who seem to be nice genuine people.
Certainly, in comparison to boxing, MMA is still a niche sport in the UK, knowing someone who has more than a casual interest in the sport is rare. With a little more time on his hands than he normally would have and having very few mates to talk to about MMA, the idea of a Podcast was formed:
“That’s exactly how the MMA Fan Podcast started, I went on Stu Whiffen’s Podcast which was a music themed Podcast. We talked for about 45 minutes and somehow we got talking about martial arts. We finished the Podcast and we carried on talking about MMA, and we decided that I have got nobody to really talk to about MMA to the level that I want to talk about it and he was the same. So we decided to start the Podcast and we are now around 8 or 9 episodes in and we have had some fantastic guests on. For me it is just a hobby, I’m an actor that’s how I earn my money, Stu earns his money from his other Podcasts and other things he does. So to me at the moment this is just a hobby and if it finished tomorrow I’ll go that was brilliant because I got to talk to these amazing people. I put fighters on a bit of a pedestal because of their mental toughness and the sacrifices that they make. The amount of time they have to spend in the lead up to a fight training for all the different disciplines they have to learn. Then you have the weight cuts, they are just horrendous, and then the fight itself just stepping in there. It is a whole different mould of human being that does that job and that fascinates me.”
Harrison comes from a world of scripts and time restraints, a Podcast has no time limits, something which he clearly is enjoying. The freedom to do basically what he wants:
“That’s the beauty of doing a Podcast. If we release an episode that’s only 30 minutes that’s fine, if we do a 90-minute show that’s also fine. If we have a fighter on we try and do an in-depth interview, weight cuts how they handle mental health and so on.”
The Liverpool fighter Paddy Pimblett, a recent UFC signing, has opened up in recent times about his own mental health issues after he suffered a loss to Soren Bak a few years ago. Pimblett has been very vocal about speaking up and not suffering in silence, and made the point again to Harrison and Whiffen:
“We have just had Paddy Pimblett on, he was a really good guest to have on. Paddy spoke about his mental health struggles, and he was very open that once he spoke and opened up to someone it was a weight off his chest. We like going into that type of stuff because male mental health has come into everybody’s consciousness a lot more recently, which is great because there is still a lot of stigma around it. People still think men don’t like or hearing about it, so I think it is great that fans of combat sports listen to one of their own talking openly about mental health, and being slightly insecure, I think it can be really powerful and hopefully, it will help a lot of people.“
The Podcast also offers an opportunity to make new fans of the sport:
“We have a fight or flight segment on the show where we have a non-MMA fan on and make them watch a fight. We see what preconceived opinions they might have and see if they change after watching the fight, which I think is quite fun. We have got a few great guests coming on, Lee Mack, hopefully, Ben Shepherd, Emily Head has been on already we have had some really great guests. It is just a bit of fun and a nice little chat, I thought that would be a 20-minute section but we ended up talking for 40 minutes and we just thought that we would release it as one episode. We will also do pre and post-fight shows, the format will constantly change.”
Despite The MMA Fan Podcast still being in its infancy, the likes of Pimblett and Molly McCann have already appeared on the show. Both Liverpool fighters have highlighted their own personal struggles, and with a new take on the stories which have been well told numerous times previously which is to the great credit of Harrison and Whiffen that they can bring something new to the table. Harrison is by nature a fan of the sport, but there is that extra appreciation and interest in the personality and struggles of the fighters:
“We have just had Arnold Allen on the Podcast, he is a genuinely nice guy. I remember him being on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani and telling stories about he only had £15 in the bank or something and he was telling stories about his Dad, and he seemed like such a fun-loving nice guy and that is the sort of fighter I gravitate to. I love a lot of the Australian fighters, I like someone with a bit of a sense of humour, and going back to Conor, he had that and then some. Conor had charisma, an aura, and watching that journey, the early fights then the press conferences with Jose Aldo. He is tearing up pictures and saying things that paint pictures that made you root for him. You rooted for him so much that when he walked to the Octagon I am nervous for him, and then he wins and I am elated for him. I don’t know what it is about some fighters that they get you in that way.”
It is refreshing the way Harrison talks about his passion for the sport, and the knowledge he has also. A Sunday morning means an early start if there is a UFC show on. Rising around 6am, creeping downstairs to avoid disturbing the wife and kids, or more likely not having his moment of solitude disturbed. When he hears sounds of movement, the pause button is pressed, breakfast quickly rustled up, taken upstairs hoping that the first meal of the day can grant him more time to enjoy the other love of his life. That love for the sport shows in the Podcast, he doesn’t have to do it, the motivation is the love of the sport.
During our Zoom interview, Harrison told me about how he prepares for his interviews for the Podcast, digging a little deeper in his search for his source material. The modern world is full of Podcasts, MMA has more than its fair share, and to stand out you need something different, The MMA Fan Podcast in my opinion does that.
Video interviews in any form can be lazy, the same old predictable questions asked, fighters must feel like robots answering the same questions over and over. Maybe because Harrison isn’t media trained in the world of journalism and with his genuine love for MMA means there is a freshness and originality about the way he approaches interviews, his Podcast is all the better for that and comes highly recommended.