By the time fighters step into the cage late Saturday at the UFC APEX, Laura Sanko will have put in three days of preparation to call the action at UFC Vegas 68.
The gig is new for Sanko, 40, who’s set to be the first female color commentator in modern UFC history. The routine and the nerves are not.
“I’m obsessed with watching film and seeing if I can dissect patterns and see how people set up various submissions, or preferred way of entering the pocket, as well as storylines,” Sanko told MMA Fighting on Monday after the UFC announced her promotion. “My biggest coping mechanism is just to do more and study more.”
Sanko was in the middle of another UFC project when she got the call from producer Zach Candito that she would be the third person in the broadcast booth. It was a logical choice considering she’d called the Road to UFC tournament alongside veteran UFC commentator John Gooden. But it was also a seismic one for the promotion and Sanko’s journey in the sport. It took her seven years to get to this point after working as a reporter backstage at a UFC on FOX event.
“I have a hard time articulating this, because it sounds like I’m being dramatic, I guess, but I love MMA so much because it very much saved my life in several different instances and in a variety of ways that I don’t have the time to go into,” she said. “And so when I stopped fighting because I got pregnant and because there really was no goal for me as a fighter because there was no atomweight division in the UFC, it was super important for me to stay close to the sport, and the ultimate thing I think I wanted to do, and [like] for any athlete, the ultimate thing was to leave a little mark on the history books of the sport we all love so much.
“So to be able to have that teeny, tiny little fingerprint, it makes me tear up, because it’s super meaningful. Records are amazing, but records can be broken, and there can only be one first. And that’s Kathy Long.”
That’s the self-deprecating way for Sanko to remind the world that she is not, in fact, the first female to sit at a UFC commentary booth. At UFC 1, former kickboxing champion Long sat alongside Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and Jim Brown, dryly noting the absence of Teila Tui’s tooth after it sailed by shocked onlookers.
Still, it was just a one-time gig. The UFC opened its gates to women in 2013 with the addition of Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche, and yet it took 10 more years for one to get asked back with a broadcast mic. UFC Vegas 68 will not be the last time octagon fans see Sanko. She said she’s already booked her next UFC gig. That means she’s a part of the rotation as she already was for Dana White’s Contender Series.
It’s one of the things she tells herself to chill out between video clips.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous,” she said. “I want to obviously make a good impression. But that’s what I keep telling myself. I’m going to be at the APEX. I’ve called plenty of shows. I’m going to be with Michael Bisping and John Gooden. I’ve called lots of shows with Mike, and John and I did the entire Road to the UFC tournament just the two of us. It really isn’t necessarily all that new.
“I feel the responsibility of the new, more elevated role, and I think commentary in general is a big responsibility, because at the end of the day, you are trying to connect the fighting art, that an athlete has poured their heart and soul into, to an audience that can’t see or feel or touch it in real time, and you’re the conduit to connect that art with the people at home, which sounds a little bit high and mighty, but it’s a big responsibility, and I take it really seriously, and I’m incredibly honored to be able to be in a position to do that for the men and women on the UFC roster.”
The ultimate goal for Sanko is to call a pay-per-view event. The cast of characters for major events has shifted in recent years, with Sanko’s colleagues Jon Anik, Daniel Cormer, Michael Bisping, Dominick Cruz and Paul Felder standing beside the promotion’s most stalwart presence on the mic, Joe Rogan. Sanko knows she has a long way to join that list, but she believes she and Rogan share an asset that translates to a larger audience.
“It’s really difficult to compare yourself to Joe Rogan for a number of reasons, but on this one tiny level, I’ve very much admired his path, and I think what fans love about Joe is his genuine excitement every time he’s on a call,” she said. “I feel that way when I’m calling Contender Series fights, and I really hope that continues to come through, because it’s truly how I feel. I genuinely care, and I’m excited about every single fight that I call. It’s the same thing when I’m watching at home.
“The reality is I’m a fan who was so in love with the sport that I decided to train, and then I was so in love with training that I decided to fight, and then I was so in love with fighting that I couldn’t give it up even when I had to, so I went into this outlet. There’s just that theme of purely loving the sport, and I feel like Joe embodies that, so if I could do that with him, man, that would be the ultimate.”