A new era of Bellator will debut on Jan. 20 when the promotion holds its first show on the Paramount Network, the newly re-branded channel that formerly went by Spike TV. But MMA fans will notice another big change as well. Bellator 192 will mark the promotion’s first event without its longtime color commentator Jimmy Smith, who parted ways with the company in a surprise announcement at the end of 2017.
Smith’s departure from Bellator was an unexpected development to many within the sport. The ex-fighter was one of the few holdovers from the Bjorn Rebney era, and, over time, his presence in the broadcast booth became synonymous with the Bellator brand itself. But the situation didn’t come as a surprise to Smith, who appeared Monday on The MMA Hour to speak about his exit from his longtime broadcasting home.
“It was a process,” Smith explained on The MMA Hour. “A lot of people don’t understand, it was a long time coming, and that I was informed — God, what was it? — October, that they wouldn’t pick up my contract for next year. They wanted a different contract, they wanted a new one. And we worked out some terms over the next few months, and it just didn’t work. The changes they wanted to make, I didn’t like — and so formally it ended, I think, the day after Christmas is when we let them know that I wouldn’t be back. And so it was a long process. It wasn’t (as if) I got a phone call in the morning that I wasn’t going to be around next year.”
Smith, 40, revealed that he had a four-year broadcasting deal with Bellator with an additional one-year option for 2018. Without mentioning specifics, he indicated that when Viacom executives decided to renegotiate a new deal for 2018 rather than picking up his option, the new offers he received lacked in certain regards compared to his original contract. That crossroads ultimately led him to choose free agency rather than take a step backward.
“In a sense, you’re dealing with an entity in Bellator and Viacom, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” Smith said. “And it’s so funny, people always in the mainstream media say, like, ‘Oh, they got Viacom money. Viacom has billions of dollars. Viacom has this, this, and that.’ Viacom has a lot of properties. Bellator is one show on one network, and the idea that the people running that go, ‘Yeah, but I really like Jimmy Smith’ — that’s in MMA, and they have a lot more businesses than MMA. So one thing, you talk about Zuffa, all Zuffa does is make the UFC better. That’s they care about. That’s all they wake up and think about. Viacom doesn’t work that way. They have a lot of properties and a lot of things, and a lot of times it’s, ‘Look, we’re giving you ‘x’ to make the show, and that’s it.’
“Bellator really made a good-faith effort to keep me,” Smith continued. “They really did everything they could. I truly believe that. It’s never an easy call because of the people you’ve worked with, the people you’ve gotten to know and the relationships you’ve formed. They’re great guys over in Bellator. It wasn’t easy, but I don’t step back. I don’t step down. I felt it was time for a change and a move because of that, in a sense. Like I said, if it doesn’t come up to the standards up the option I already had, you know what, I’m going to take a risk, I’m going to take a jump, I’m going to test out free agency.”
While parting ways after a long working relationship is never easy, Smith reiterated numerous times that, ultimately, he and Bellator left on good terms.
“It was amicable,” Smith said. “They called me and went, ‘Hey, we’re really sorry it didn’t work out.’ I wasn’t blindsided. They were totally professional, they were totally friendly. My boss called me the next day and we talked about it, and in no way was I blindsided. It was an amicable split. It was tough, but they were great all the way around, so I wasn’t blindsided and all of those guys have my utmost respect.
“They were even like, ‘Look, we’re not going to release this press release if you don’t think it’s worded well.’ They sent it to me and my management and go, ‘If you have any problem with the wording, let us know.’ I mean, they were great about it. So it wasn’t bitter at all. They’re great guys.”
As one of the top broadcasters in the fight game, Smith now enters the open waters of free agency without having to worry about a non-complete clause in his old Bellator contract, and reports have already surfaced that the UFC could be interested in his services.
Smith was unable to speak much about a potential move to the UFC, but he admitted that he could have news to share soon.
“We will see. Things are in the works, that’s all I can say,” Smith said.
“I would say (things will be finalized) within the week. That’s my guess, within the week.”
The UFC certainly has no shortage of bodies to throw in the broadcasting booth. Alongside longtime color commentator Joe Rogan and play-by-play man Jon Anik, the promotion has employed a rotating cast of fighters to be on-air analysts, such as Daniel Cormier, Dominick Cruz, Dan Hardy, and Paul Felder, just to name a few.
That could potentially mean less work than Smith is used to if he enters the UFC fold, but it’s not something he’s concerned about.
“The way I see it, I do a lot of stuff and they do a lot of programming,” Smith said.
“When you sit there and if you search UFC on your TV, a ton of stuff comes up. They do a ton of stuff, and I have history and experience and background in all of that stuff. So it doesn’t particularly worry me, it doesn’t particularly concern me. They’re doing a lot of three-man booth stuff too. Getting the airtime wouldn’t really be a consideration I would have, should I go there.”
If his next chapter does take place in UFC, Smith knows there’s another barrier to entry he’ll need to overcome as well: The fact that a vocal minority of people view him as a Rogan doppelganger, even though Smith rocked the bald-head look long before Rogan ever did. But it’s all in good fun for Smith, who isn’t bothered by the conversation.
“The only thing that gets me that I never seem to understand is, yeah, of course we look similar; we’re bald white guys. But what’s funny to me is, when people say that I’m trying to be Joe, how does one even do that?” Smith said, laughing. “I get so confused about, like, do they think I stand in front of the TV and try to emulate Joe? I don’t think we call fights very similar. I think we have a slightly different style of commentating fights. But that’s what’s so funny to me, is the people who assume I automatically emulate the guy.
“People go, ‘Man, you look like Joe.’ Yeah, well, we didn’t until he shaved his head. It’s funny, I told [Rogan], ‘The moment you shaved your head’ — because when I watch old UFCs, when I’m studying something and I watch old UFCs, when he had hair, we didn’t look that similar. When he was on News Radio, nobody compared me to him or thought I looked like him. And as soon as he shaved his head, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to suck.’ I knew immediately what was going to happen, so we kinda laugh about that when we see each other, like, ‘Thanks, dude. Thanks, I appreciate that.’”