It’d be understandable if some newer fans of mixed martial arts were concerned that UFC play-by-play commentator Jon Anik could become a casualty of the promotion’s impending move to ESPN. After all, Anik effectively became the voice of the UFC during the UFC on FOX era, and he first signed on with the organization in 2011, the same year the UFC inked its seven-year television deal with FOX.
But fear not, Anik fans: your man is indeed safe. The fate of the 40-year-old broadcaster’s career rests in the hands of the UFC — not FOX — and Anik will be in his usual spot cageside on Jan. 19 when the UFC kicks off its new five-year ESPN deal with a champion vs. champion fight between T.J. Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo at UFC Brooklyn.
“I am a full-time UFC employee, which is somewhat unique I think in broadcasting,” Anik recently explained on The MMA Hour. “That’s the situation right now. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t do things for ESPN and expand my role a little bit, but our focus right now honestly is making sure that these live events don’t miss a beat, and I know January and February are going to be tough months in terms of, I think, just graphically there’s just a lot of different things that are changing and there are a lot of different jobs that are impacted pretty profoundly by this change.
“I think my channel of command is going to stay very similar, and if our TV formats stay very similar, I might not feel the reverberations as much as some other guys. But we’ve got to get off on the right foot, and this is something we all take seriously and we’re ready to attack it January 19th.”
The promotion’s new partnership with ESPN, which was announced in May 2018 and officially launched this month, will mark the beginning of a new chapter for the UFC. But for Anik, the move to ESPN is more akin to a return home.
Before he was in his current position, Anik was a ESPN employee who served as a broadcaster for a variety of shows and spearheaded the network’s fledgling mixed martial arts coverage. His duties led him to serve as the inaugural host of MMA Live, ESPN’s first MMA-centric discussion show which debuted in 2008. And Anik remembers that even a decade ago, there were some at ESPN who saw the potential the sport carried.
“There have always been some high-powered people in Bristol [Conn.] and in those buildings that loved the UFC and recognized where it was going and what it could be,” Anik said. “And they have pushed that envelope. That’s why when we launched MMA Live in April 2008 on ESPN.com, that thing got to ESPN 2 in some part because we made the show good enough, I think — as humbly as I can say that — but also because we had Glen Jacobs, who is still running this mixed martial arts operation now, 10 years later, pushing for us. Because he felt like the sport had value, and he even though we were on at 2:30 in the morning, goddamnit, we were on ESPN 2. So things have changed a lot.
“I think the sport has really benefited domestically from the FOX relationship. I do feel like globally, obviously we’ve always felt huge when we go on the road. But we go to San Antonio, Texas [and] sometimes I wonder why people don’t necessarily give a sh*t. And now I feel like if we were to go to San Antonio, maybe we do better than we did seven years ago. So I think the sport’s in a good place. It’s also a short-term commitment from ESPN. That’s why when I say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to earn it,’ like, [the broadcast deal is for] five years — that is a short amount of time in TV. So, they’ve dipped their toe in the water. I think you’re going to see a lot of content and a similar embrace to the way even FS1 did it. Not that type of hour allotment on a channel, but you’re going to see a lot of mixed martial arts content, and I think it’s going to help us get to the next level, at least in the U.S.”
The five-year UFC/ESPN broadcast partnership is set to kick off proper on Jan. 19 with the first-ever mixed martial arts card to air live on ESPN’s new streaming service, ESPN+.
The 13-fight event will begin airing with three preliminary card fights on ESPN+, then move over to ESPN for a four-fight card headlined by Donald Cerrone vs. Alexander Hernandez, then jump back over to ESPN+ for a six-fight main card headlined by Dillashaw and Cejudo’s flyweight title collision.
“I think it’s exciting,” Anik said. “I think it’s very interesting that you’re going to have this great set of prelims on linear ESPN, and then all of a sudden people are going to realize that if you want to see Dillashaw and Cejudo, you’ve gotta either go on some device or if you’ve got one of those fancy TVs — I think it’s going to be a transition for a lot of people.
“But big picture, I’m excited. When Francis Ngannou and Cain Velasquez fight on ESPN, with respect to Cain-JDS 1 on FOX and the launching of FS1 in 2013, and you know how much respect I have for those people, but a UFC fight night in primetime on ESPN, that’s been the goal since we started MMA Live in 2008. So, even if I wasn’t around for that, for a lot of us who were sort of grinding our gears at ESPN and getting nowhere in mixed martial arts setting back then, it’s like, mission accomplished. We’ve got a UFC fight night on ESPN? That’s what we’ve always been working for.”
Reflecting back on the promotion’s seven-year run with FOX, Anik said his most memorable call from his spot in the play-by-play booth was the infamous first showdown between Mark Hunt and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in Dec. 2013 at UFC Brisbane. In a legendary war of attrition, the two heavyweight titans fought to a majority draw that left both combatants bloodied and exhausted.
Now, with the UFC’s ever-shifting landscape heading to its new broadcast home, Anik expects the sport of mixed martial arts to become a significant talking point in the mainstream discussions held across the ESPN networks.
“I think that will help ESPN from a content standpoint because there’s always interesting shit to talk about in MMA,” Anik said. “So I think they’re going to get a big push there obviously, and it’s just very exciting. You can already see it, right? I mean, we haven’t even started and you can already see some of the transitions. And hopefully we can talk three or four months down the line, when a lot of things that are in my head and things that I know are coming, I can share a lot of details with you on. But dude, it’s going to be amazing. It really is. I couldn’t sort of curb my enthusiasm. I’m very excited.”