The woman at the UFC Fan Expo meant well, even if it didn’t seem like it at first as she put her arm around UFC commentator Jon Anik and leaned in for a little heart-to-heart.
"You know, the first time I saw you I was like, who the [expletive] is this guy and where are Rogan and Goldie?" she said, pausing just a little too long to let the former ESPN host wonder whether there was a follow-up sentence coming. "But now I think you guys are great!"
By ‘you guys,’ she meant the UFC’s second broadcast team, consisting of Anik on play-by-play duties and retired UFC fighter Kenny Florian as the color commentator. They’re the duo that the UFC has tapped now that it’s finally come around to the conclusion that the longtime broadcast squad of Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg might need a break every now and then. With a breakneck UFC schedule in 2012, which sometimes includes two events on different continents inside of one week, it helps to have a second set of voices on the mic every now and then, especially for events like Wednesday night’s UFC on FUEL TV 4.
It’s just that, for Anik and Florian, the transition has not been without its challenges, and ardent fans of the Rogan and Goldberg duo are only one of them.
For starters, there’s the schedule. Anik thought he’d gotten used to some long hours while working as an ESPN anchor and doing drive-time sports talk radio in Boston. Then he took the job with the UFC.
"It’s crazy," he told MMA Fighting. "I thought I knew how hard everyone at Zuffa works, but when you see it firsthand it’s kind of insane. Let’s just say, they didn’t have to send me a mass email to let me know I was working the Fourth of July. I knew it."
It’s not just the events, either. Anik also hosts the weekly UFC Ultimate Insider show on FUEL TV, conducted interviews on the first live season of The Ultimate Fighter, and emcees the occasional pre-fight press conference. It’s a job that required moving his family from their longtime home in the Northeast (Anik was born and raised in Boston, and attended Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he created his own major in political journalism) and to the scorching desert of Las Vegas, which turned out to be just fine by Anik.
"Every day I come home from work and jump in the pool," he said. "Every day."
But why would someone who always dreamed of working in broadcasting leave a job at a sports juggernaut like ESPN? The answer, according to Anik, has to do as much with his love of MMA as it does with his passion for live TV.
As the host of ESPN’s MMA Live, he became the network’s go-to guy for MMA. He’d fallen in love with the sport after covering an EliteXC event for a boxing radio show in Boston, and "the minute I saw it my wheels started churning and I knew that’s what I wanted to do." Hosting a weekly MMA show for the worldwide leader seemed fine at first, he said, but six months into the gig he knew he wanted to cover MMA full-time, "and I knew that opportunity, for one reason or another, wasn’t going to materialize at ESPN." If he stayed there, he might never get the chance to call a live fight, or do any play-by-play at all beyond a Rutgers football game.
"There’s nothing like doing a live event," said Anik. "It’s the lifeblood of sports television. For me, I wasn’t getting enough of that at ESPN. I did a little bit of college football at the end of my run, but I feel like I do my best work with the live event. There’s nothing in sports broadcasting like it. ...When the UFC first approached me, they said the most critical part of the job would be calling fights. That was a huge selling point for me."
But when you take over some of the commentating duties from UFC broadcast staples like Rogan and Goldberg, who are, according to Anik, "an institution," there’s bound to be some rough transitions, as Anik and Florian soon found out.
For instance, there’s the Facebook group "Jon Anik and Kenny Florian are Garbage," which has only four likes, but still isn’t the kind of thing you want popping up when your parents search for you on the Google. There’s also no shortage of criticism on forums and web sites, not to mention the occasional awkward in-person run-in, such as the one at the Expo.
"Honestly, I thought it would be worse," said Florian, who had an entire MMA career to get used to MMA fans and their eager use of the internet to express their opinions. "I actually expected a lot more criticism."
What Florian didn’t expect, he said, was that the toughest part of his new job would be learning how to criticize others. It sounds easy enough to sit on the safe side of the fence and pick apart those inside the cage, and for most people it might be. But Florian knows what it’s like to be the guy who’s getting his face sliced open while someone with a headset sits a few feet away talking calmly about what he should be doing differently, as if it were just that easy.
"I know what it’s like to prepare for a fight," he said. "I know what it’s like to go in to a fight and not be able to do what you wanted to do. I know how hard they train. Coming from that, it can be hard to [criticize]. I think I’m more comfortable criticizing a fighter now, because I have been there, but it’s something you just have to deal with. I mean, what professional athlete doesn’t have to deal with criticism? That’s part of the job."
Still, that doesn’t mean that the fighters he talks about are always so understanding. Florian first got a taste of that back when he worked with Anik on MMA Live. After he criticized heavyweight Josh Barnett for his performance in a 2009 bout with Gilbert Yvel, Barnett took it personally.
"It wasn’t even that harsh, but he went off and went on MMA.tv and wrote this whole thing," Florian said. "I thought that was kind of weird."
For Anik, this job is the culmination of a lifelong goal. He and Florian have now called over a hundred UFC fights, including a few "dry runs" before they made their on-air debut in January of 2012, and he feels as though the repetition of it all is starting to pay off.
"You get in a rhythm. We did three shows in four weeks in June, which helps. We’re still a work in progress, but this is my dream job," he said.
But for Florian, who’s thankful to still be working in the sport he loves even after officially retiring as a fighter, it’s hard not to feel a little sting when he sits down at the broadcast table and is reminded that, from now on, this is probably the closest he’ll get to the Octagon.
Don’t get him wrong, he loves his new job, he said. "But every time I see a fight, every time I hear the music, every time I do an interview or see a promo, there’s a competitor inside who wants to fight. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away."