It is ironic, indeed, that a sport that is at its essence novel has fans who hate change so much — even in secondary or less-important things like fight commentary. Want to draw the ire of an MMA fan? Say Bruce Buffer is not that good at announcing. Want to see a contrarian/hipster fight break out among friends? Say Joe Rogan is no good at calling fights.
Or maybe, for the love of humanity, don’t say either of those. Everyone has been through enough these past couple of years. Even some of the commentators themselves have weighed in ... (cough) Cruz!
But as we are on this journey about commentary in MMA fights, we could use a little reflection. It is probably helpful to get our expectations ironed out before strapping on the sparring gear with our buddies.
All that will be said applies to all promotions, so you can think of Joe Rogan and “Big” John McCarthy interchangeably here. Or Jon Anik and Mauro Ranallo. The history of sports broadcasting has followed the play-by-play and color model for a while, and this includes MMA.
Jon Anik, for example, is currently the primary play-by-play commentator for the UFC. It could be Joe Rogan (for pay-per-views) and/or a former fighter or two manning the color-commentary duties. It is odd in combat sports because those monikers almost seem reversed in recent years as fighters are doing the primary explaining of the plays, i.e., techniques.
Without delving too deeply into the intricacies of broadcasting best practices, suffice it to say that there is supposed to be something that happens in these duties being performed.
Observers are supposed to be getting something of the stories of the fights and the fighters in the contest — with the implications of the contest itself — but also there is supposed to be an explanation of what is unfolding on a technical front. What is happening in the fight is supposed to be understood by the viewer. If this is done well, the viewer is engaged in the athletes and the work they are doing.
Sometimes, this is extremely entertaining and can have zero instructional value such as those slo-mo shots of the booth reacting to a knockout. Sometimes, it is entertaining and yet captures the moment in a way that galvanizes it for the viewer — such as Daniel Cormier’s ready-made, meme-worthy “Thug Rose! Thug Rose! Thug Rose!”
But other times, it can be extremely meaningful. It might even be some of the greatest value in partaking as a viewer. There is education, and then there is on-the-job training. One of the best things a fan can do is listen carefully to good commentary.
This is not the place to rate who might or might not be good at delivering good MMA commentary, but those former fighters like Daniel Cormier, Michael Bisping, Dominick Cruz and so on are at the very least credible. If you love the sport of MMA, listen to Jon Anik or Mauro Ranallo. If you want to know the sport, listen to Dominick Cruz or Paul Felder.
Want to see real value in commentary booths? Watch the prelim fight between Fares Ziam and Luigi Vendramini at UFC 263 with this in mind. Specifically, Paul Felder’s incredibly cogent comments having just spoken to the legendary Mark DellaGrotte off-air that happened between rounds two and three.
Quoting him here would not adequately convey just how pointed and helpful it was to see what was happening. It was precise and technical, yet perfectly understandable. When coupled with the replay of video, even a casual fan would have understood exactly what Paul Felder meant when he spoke of how Fares Ziam was performing and in particular how his “feet are underneath him whether he is striking and moving forward or moving backward.”
Fight commentary is a little like a good song or meal. Sometimes you really know it is happening only when it is happening. Keeping the antenna up to receive it can really add depth to MMA fandom.
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