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A Few Words About "Kid" Nate Wilcox, MMA Blogging God
Bloody Elbow's Founder a Victim of Vox's Latest Round of Downsizing
On Valentine’s Day back in 2007, SBNation (eventually known as Vox Media) gave Nate Wilcox the greatest gift you can offer a sports fan with a loud voice and desire to share their opinions with the world—his very own sports blog.
“Kid Nate” was a political consultant who had worked with Sports Blog Nation co-founder Jerome Armstrong on former Virginia Governor Mark Warner’s political action committee Forward Together. Armstrong, known as “the Podfather”, had helped launch several prominent sites including Daily Kos, and along with his partners (Tyler Bleszinski and Markos Moulitsas), was bullish on the potential of the sports blog as a concept.
They were, of course, not alone.
SBNation, Bleacher Report and Deadspin were all launched one after another in 2005, each betting big that sports fans were ready for content with more depth and vigor than that being offered by the traditional media. SB Nation’s spin was particularly interesting. Instead of one site covering sports generally, SB Nation had dozens and eventually hundreds of individual blogs. Whether you were a fan of the Oakland Athletics or Kansas City Chiefs, or, for example, a rabid MMA enthusiast, SB Nation had a blog for you.
Enter Bloody Elbow, a blog with the kind of visceral name that immediately told readers no punches would be pulled and potential advertisers that there might be reason to be wary.
“My friends at SB Nation are justifiably proud of their network of sports blogs, but I've been harping on the glaring, gaping bloody hole in their coverage -- the fastest growing sport in the land, Mixed Martial Arts,” Wilcox wrote in the site’s inaugural post. “Well it's put up or shut up time because they have given me a blog. It's an awesome responsibility to cover MMA for SB Nation and I'll do my best to not let down the sport or the warriors who participate in it.”
A year later SB Nation received its first round of VC funding. It was just $5 million, a pittance by today’s standards, but Wilcox and all his fellow amateur content creators suddenly found themselves in business. While most in the MMA space concentrated on cozying up to promoters, genially laughing at Dana White’s jokes during a press scrum or carefully writing around the UFC’s latest scumbag maneuver to protect the guilty and maintain their own proximity to power, Wilcox and Bloody Elbow were unapologetically confrontational, beholden to no one and super smart.
Nate was more than just a fan with a strong opinion about the topic of the day. He had an eye for talent, bringing in Luke Thomas as his first editor-in-chief and plucking smart voices from the site’s comment section, which was quickly becoming a big part of the Bloody Elbow show.
After years of playing nice with sites like UGO and Heavy, I joined the Bloody Elbow team (much to Luke’s dismay) in 2009 and immediately proceeded to wreak as much havoc as humanely possible. My goal was to voice strong, interesting opinions, hot takes you could live with at the end of the day, but hot takes nonetheless. It was all about community engagement, riling up the readers and keeping them on the page long enough to please the site’s advertisers. Nate was smart about MMA—but his real gift was in knowing exactly what the readers wanted, even if they themselves couldn’t articulate it.
Eventually Nate, Luke and I were tasked with creating a new, prestige MMA site for the SB Nation empire. Called “MMA Nation” it was a continuation of the work we were already doing but with a corporate sheen to appeal to potential business partners and mainstream readers who might think twice about clicking on something called “Bloody Elbow.”
There’s a lot I could say about this misadventure (which included the great Thomas Myers of MMA Mania fame and a budding young talent by the name of Shaun Al-Shatti) but the key part of the story was the ending—SB Nation purchased MMA Fighting and shit-canned our site in the most brutal fashion. One day an archive of articles was there. The next, gone, replaced by Ariel Helwani’s smiling face and a new team of journalists who knew better how to play the game.
That was the end of my time with the SB Nation team. But for Nate, the story was just beginning.
Bloody Elbow became the one place in the MMA media that truth was consistently spoken to power. John Nash broke story after story about the UFC’s business practices, Karim Zidan shined a light on the seedy underbelly of a sport that is already pretty damn seedy on the surface, Patrick Wyman and Jack Slack explored the technical aspects of the game inside the cage and Stephie Haynes remained the beating heart of the whole enterprise.
Nate watched over it all, offering direction when needed but mostly giving his people the room they needed to work. We’ve been friends and enemies over the years, but I’ve always admired him and his unbelievable ability to find writers to replace the ones who would eventually be poached by people like me for his competitors. For more than a decade, Bloody Elbow was the most important site in a space filled with more famous and popular writers offering the same old stories from the official UFC travel circuit. You could go over there (where? anywhere) to hear what a fighter said during a press conference before the bout. You came to Bloody Elbow to find out what was really going on.
At one point, the audience numbered in the millions, including UFC President Dana White and his flock of lawyers and hangers on. I can only imagine his growing fury and ever reddening face as White read things he hoped would never be public online at Vox’s secondary MMA blog.
“The number of times Bloody Elbow’s name and articles turned up in the UFC emails when they did discovery for the class action suit was a proud day,” Wilcox told me this weekend, a day after he was part of a massive layoff at Vox that saw more than 100 staffers lose their jobs unexpectedly.
This feels like a eulogy, both for Nate and the site. And that’s probably a little extreme. The future for Bloody Elbow remains uncertain as I write this. Will it survive the departure of its founder? Many sites do. But, with the advertising landscape still mostly dominated by Amazon, Google and Facebook and Twitter stealing the discourse that was once reserved for the comments sections of sites like Bloody Elbow, the future for blogs, generally, feels dire.
What’s next for Nate in addition to Let it Roll, his exceptional music history podcast?
“Curling into a fetal ball for a couple days,” he joked as we chatted on the phone. In truth, he’s not exactly sure what to do with himself after years inside the Vox machine. Whatever it is, count on it being smart, fearless and true. As they say, watch this space.