There probably aren't many sports broadcasting legends who will outright say that one of the items on their bucket list is calling a mixed martial arts event.
And while some may shudder at the designation of Jim Ross, known by his friends, and some of his enemies, as "J.R." for short, as a broadcasting legend, few who follow the entertainment world of pro wrestling would argue that point. And if you ask current MMA broadcasters, many would agree with that designation.
In fact, the first time I heard it was many years back, from of all people, UFC's lead voice, Mike Goldberg. Goldberg had met Ross at an event and when Ross talked about enjoying Goldberg's work, Goldberg mentioned what an honor it was to get a compliment from a broadcasting legend.
Ross has made it no secret for the past several years, that he'd like to call mixed martial arts. Before what turned out to be his final contract with World Wrestling Entertainment, Ross even had talks with officials at HDNet (now AXS) about doing some of their shows, but he ended up staying with WWE, before departing from the company a year ago this week.
On Oct. 3, the BattleGrounds MMA promotion is running a pay-per-view event from Tulsa, Okla. And perhaps, for the first time in MMA history, the most noteworthy item about a pay-per-view event are the broadcasters, Ross, and controversial sidekick Chael Sonnen.
"The folks at BattleGrounds are Oklahoma-based guys," said Ross, who in some circles is almost synonymous with his home state, in an appearance on Monday's MMA Hour. "They contacted me and asked if I had an interest. I think they followed me on Twitter and know I have an interest in a lot of things. Doing play-by-play of an MMA event was a bucket list thing for me. It's a new challenge, a new gig, a new opportunity. We were able to work it out. I suggested, I thought Chael would be a great partner. I've worked with a lot of explosive, controversial broadcasters in my day, including former Gov. Jesse Ventura, Jerry Lawler, Paul Heyman and many others. It felt right. I felt we'd have good chemistry. I don't know. It may be a train wreck, but I assure you, it won't be boring."
Right now, announcing MMA is a one-time deal. Ross is talking of it as a bucket list thing, but it's also a way for the 62-year-old Ross to get his foot in the door, similar to a boxing announcing gig on Fox Sports 1 he took in May. He said he and FOX are also in talks about doing more boxing next year.
"I don't want to do it if I can't be good at it," he said. "I respect the genre immensely. I'll always be my own worst critic. If I don't think I can do a great job, or at least evolve into doing a great job, I'd rather let someone else have the chair. Right now, it's a one-time hit."
Ross started as a pro wrestling announcer in the 70s under unique circumstances, working for a blind promoter (Leroy McGuirk, a former NCAA champion wrestler in the 1930s). Ross not only had to paint the picture for the television viewer, but describe things almost like a radio announcer so his boss could visualize what he was promoting. He learned the craft studying broadcasts of matches from Florida featuring his wrestling idol, Danny Hodge, that were called by Gordon Solie, his broadcasting idol.
Ross came into prominence in the 1980s as the voice of Mid-South Wrestling, a ratings phenomenon in Oklahoma and Louisiana, before moving on to gigs with national companies World Championship Wrestling and a long tenure with World Wrestling Entertainment. Besides announcing, he spent years as the company's head of talent relations, personally signing wrestlers like Steve Austin, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Mick Foley, Brock Lesnar, John Cena and Adam "Edge" Copeland to the roster.
Ross has made it clear that his sometimes bombastic calls of pro wrestling won't be duplicated here. The cowboy hat, his pro wrestling gimmick, is staying at home that night. Whether his trademark phrases come with him is another story. Among them are "slobberknocker," for a wild brawl, "tougher than a two-dollar steak," for someone's ability to recover from a beating, or even "bowling shoe ugly," a phrase he would use to wink at the audience as a nice way of saying a wrestling match is not working out well.
"I'm a story teller and Chael's the expert," he said. "I'm the point guard. I'll ask questions and call the action. I'm not taking it for granted, but I think that I'm mentally ready to do it. I'm a big fan. I watch hours and hours of MMA. When you come from my background as a broadcaster, I listen intently to everyone, the UFC guys, I'm a big fan of Mauro Ranallo from Strikeforce, I listen to everybody and that will be good."
The show he's broadcasting is a throwback to the 90s, a one-night eight-man tournament in the welterweight division.
"A tournament is episodic by nature," he said. "You've got a fight, the winner advances, the loser is done, easy concept to follow. You bring the stories forward. It's no different from the millions of dollars generated by March Madness. You lose, you're done. You win, you continue. It lends itself to story telling. There's the story about the condition of the fighters. There's so many things you can talk about that you have to be careful not to be bogged down on the back story and address what's on the monitor or on TV."
Regarding Sonnen's controversies, failing a pair of drug tests by the Nevada Athletic Commission that led to a two-year suspension in the state, an announced retirement from competition and a loss of his FOX broadcasting gig, Ross is hardly defensive of his partner, but he champions a policy of forgiveness.
"He cheated and he got caught," Ross said. "No excuses. He and I have talked several times. I'm not the greatest shoulder to cry on, nor did he want to do that. He knows what he did was wrong. My story to him was that wasn't the end of your journey. You have to start another one. Even though he's never done color cageside commentary, I said, `We'll have a blast. You'll get the ball. I'll ask questions.' I want him to be the star of the show on the broadcast team. I know what my role is.
"I hope people can look back at that tape and say, 'Chael's great in this role.' Maybe it'll open doors for him down the road for this organization or others."
"We've all made mistakes," he said of Sonnen's situation. "If I lost respect for everyone I've worked with or knew who made a mistake, especially in a business like pro wrestling where you can count on guys making mistake, big mistakes, small mistakes, forgiveness is a good trait to have. He messed me around even, because I loved hearing him on FS 1 in the studio. I thought he was the star of their studio team, and they have good guys, but he was the star in my view."
Ross also knows there are people waiting for him to fail.
"There will be angst with me dong this pay-per-view on Oct. 3, obviously," he said. "I've seen it online."
Still, he feels the idea that wrestling and MMA have nothing in common is wrong. The bell-to-bell action couldn't be more different, but other aspects aren't that far apart, particularly from the wrestling styles he grew up broadcasting in Oklahoma where pro wrestling was presented more as simulated sport than outlandish entertainment.
"Not the predetermined endings (of wrestling), but the fight buildup, the dialogue building up the fight, there's a lot of things these two genres have in common, but that has nothing to do with what happens when the door closes on the cage or the Octagon."