Career Advice

How One MMA Blogger Fought His Way to Sports Illustrated

By Mason Lerner July 14th, 2014

When I first met Jeff Wagenheim, I was the sports editor at an upstart publication called The Faster Times. Wagenheim emailed me asking if he could blog about mixed martial arts, and given he had 24 years of experience as a sports editor at the Boston Globe, I didn’t need any convincing.

At the time, he was collecting unemployment after being let go as a senior writer at the now-defunct Disney magazine Wondertime and was facing the daunting task of completely rebuilding his career. After blogging for The Faster Times, Wagenheim wrote for ESPN Boston and ultimately became a digital columnist for Sports Illustrated. In addition to his reporting, he regularly talks about MMA on television and radio.

Recently, Wagenheim spoke to The Freelancer about how he turned an uncertain career path into a consistent gig with Sports Illustrated and how media appearances impact his freelancing schedule.

How did your journey to Sports Illustrated start?

Suddenly, a staff of 32 of us at Wondertime were all kicked to the curb, and we’re not living in New York City, where even in bad times there are going to be some jobs floating around out there. We’re in Western Massachusetts, where I still live. There’s not much in the way of a publishing industry here. A couple of editors moved to New York, and a few of my colleagues went into academia because there are a couple of colleges in the area. Some of us started freelancing, which is what I decided to do.

What kind of work were you getting at first?

When I look back on it now, it sounds purposeful and strategic, but it was by the seat of my pants. It occurred to me having two decades of experience in sports was something I could use as a jumping-off point. But my history in sports had been as an editor. At Wondertime magazine, I had made the shift from editor to writer, and that was what I really wanted to be doing.

I had been invited to write about fatherhood for this new online publication because one of my colleagues at Wondertime was now the parenting editor there. I thought about it, but I decided I would rather write about sports, and mentioned that I would rather write specifically about MMA. It wasn’t a lucrative situation as far as making a living, but it was at the tail end of my unemployment. The fact that I wasn’t making very much money meant it wasn’t cutting down on my unemployment benefits.

I was picking up little assignments here and there. I contacted the folks at ESPN Boston about latching on as an editor with them. I didn’t really want to go back to editing, but it was a job. It didn’t work out, but I created a good relationship. When the UFC decided in 2010 to bring their fights to Boston for the first time, I got a call from ESPN Boston. They asked if I would be interested in writing one feature for them during the week of the fight. After sending it in, they asked me to do another one and another. Before the week was over, I had written four or five stories for ESPN Boston about that UFC event. A couple of months later, when Sports Illustrated lost their MMA writer, I contacted them, and they responded immediately and asked me to come on and write for them. I was able to provide SI with four or five clips from ESPN Boston that made it seem like I was already pretty well established.

Why did you decide to write about MMA?

If I was going to do sports writing, how would I go about doing it? I thought about football, which is a sport I’ve always loved and know pretty well. But it occurred to me that there are many, many well established sports writers on the football beat. Same thing with all the major sports. I needed to find a niche that wasn’t already flooded with experienced professionals, and that’s what made me look into mixed martial arts. It’s a sport that I’ve been watching ever since I stumbled upon a VHS tape of the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship. The fights first happened in 1993, but I caught wind of it two or three years later, when the VHS tapes came out on the market. I hadn’t trained in any mixed martial arts aside from one year of wrestling in high school. But I was really into the sport, and when I looked into the media landscape, what I saw was just a sprinkling of established professional sports writers along with a lot of younger folks who were more fans first and media second.

What exactly do you do for Sports Illustrated?

I’m a freelancer. I’m not on staff, but I am their main columnist for mixed martial arts. The reason I call myself a columnist as opposed to covering a beat is because I’m under a limit where I write generally three stories a week. There is a lot of news that comes out in the sport that I either have to ignore or comment on in my column. So I’m not covering a beat the way some other writers are for other outlets. Right now, I am the only MMA writer who appears on the site consistently.

Beyond the column, are you involved in any other media as an MMA journalist?

Yeah, an outgrowth of me being the guy from Sports Illustrated is that I was invited onto a panel show called The MMA Beat. It’s available on Youtube and It’s generally a weekly show. I am a frequent guest. It’s a New York-based show, and I’ve been on it maybe 15 to 20 times over the past year.

Do you cover live events?

When I first started for SI, I did the occasional live event. It’s good for me to go to events now and then to grow relationships with fighters, the people at UFC and other journalists, but I am not at every event. Last year, I went to a lot of events, but I haven’t been to many this year.

Does this gig allow you to live the lifestyle you want as a writer?

Definitely. It’s a bit of a hike to go down to Manhattan to do the TV thing, but I only do that once every two weeks or so. It’s worthwhile for the exposure. I’m learning that it’s not necessary for me to leave Western Massachusetts as long as I’m willing to travel now and then. I’m also getting invited on radio shows. I’ve been on the SiriusXM Fight Club. Various ESPN affiliates have had me on [the radio], and those I can do from home. Once in a while, Sports Illustrated will invite me down to their studio to be on a show called SI Now, which is a daily interview show. Sometimes they’ll have me come down to New York to interview a fighter, and sometimes they’ll have me talk about an event via Skype. So it’s a mixed bag. I can get a lot done in Western Mass, and New York is close enough for me to jump in on a lot of other good opportunities.

Where do you hope your career leads?

I like the freelancing life in that I like the freedom of it, so I would like to continue with I would love to do more radio. I guess what I’d like would be that all this exposure leads to someone coming to me and saying, “We want you to be our guy,” and then bring me on as a full-time person for a big salary. The other scenario would be to add more elements, like a spot on a radio show instead of just being a guest. I still write about other things like the arts and [stories] for family publications. I occasionally write interesting arts features for the Boston Globe. I like having a lot of irons in the fire, and I like having the irons each be different from each other.

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