The Rising Tide: Jon Anik Meeting Challenges of New Role Head on

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The Rising Tide: Jon Anik Meeting Challenges of New Role Head on
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There is a distinct feeling to a televised UFC event. The cameras go live, scanning the raucous crowd in attendance until they finally settle on the two men who are going to guide us through the evening. It's fight night ladies and gentleman--and the show is about to begin.

For the past 16 years, the duties of calling the action inside the Octagon have fallen on play-by-play man Mike Goldberg and his color commentator partner Joe Rogan. The pair has worked nearly every event together since 1997, and has become an integral part of the viewing experience. While the two fighters settling business inside the cage are always the main attraction, the voices detailing the action, and at times educating the viewers at home, are a necessary part of the machine.

When every aspect of the show is put into one sleek package, it's easy to see why the Zuffa Era UFC has become the standard in mixed martial arts. That being said, the sport's most successful promotion has never been one to rest on their laurels, and as UFC President and front man Dana White has said time and time again, the organization is "only as good as the last show." 

The brain trust directing the UFC ship has never been afraid to take chances, and in late 2011, the details of the company's next venture began to take shape. After years building the brand’s name on Spike TV, White and Co. announced the UFC was moving to Fox, with a large portion of the content being placed on FX and the infant station Fuel TV. This of course meant more events to fill those commitments, which opened the door for another broadcast team to carry a portion of the weight from the newly expanded schedule.

At the press conference for UFC 137, White announced Jon Anik as the new leader of this effort. As host of ESPN's MMA Live, the Massachusetts native became one of the leading voices in the mixed martial arts community and his selection was met with a positive reaction from all corners of the MMA world.

Nevertheless, the task ahead was going to be a unique challenge for the 34-year-old, as he was about to take his talents from a studio-based program and enter the rapid-fire environment of a live UFC broadcast. The road ahead was going to be a bold new endeavor, but one Anik was excited to get underway.

"It sounds trite, but this really was my dream job," Anik told Bleacher Report. "When I arrived at ESPN seven years ago, that was always the destination as a sports broadcaster, and I never thought I would leave. But a few years into my stint there, I attended my first MMA show. In 2007, I went to the Elite XC debut in Tunica, Mississippi, and it was really shortly after that where my whole career focus sort of shifted.

I developed a huge passion for MMA. I didn't really get it on television as much as I did when I saw it live, but once I saw it live, I was hooked. It really made me want to get involved in MMA and more specifically, play-by-play. Had the UFC job not been primarily about calling fights it wouldn't have held as much interest from me.

It's been a whirlwind, man, and we've traveled the world. It's been a crazy 18 months or so and it has been everything I hoped it would be and more. I obviously still have a lot of learning to do. It's a lot harder for me to call mixed martial arts than it is for me to call basketball, baseball, or football--sports that I really grew up playing and watching. I love that part of it because it is definitely a challenge. I wouldn't change a thing and I'm happy with my decision. Hopefully the UFC is happy with the job I'm doing so far."

While Anik's duties under the UFC banner fall into a variety of categories, the lion's share of his work was set to take place Octagon-side at the broadcast table. During his stint at ESPN, the Gettysburg College grad had covered a handful of live events, but nothing quite as unique as the madness that is a UFC event.

From the date of his signing with the organization, Anik had just a handful of months to prepare for his live debut at UFC on FX 1 in Nashville, Tennessee. With much work to be done, and a short time to get his game in order, Anik set about the task of preparing himself to be a new voice for the UFC fan base.

Aside from Anik's personal development, one of the major hurdles the UFC faced for this new endeavor was finding the right analyst to make up the other half of their new broadcast team. After several auditions with multiple fighters jockeying for the role, the organization selected seasoned veteran Kenny Florian to join the newly minted play-by-play man in the booth. 

"We did a lot of auditions," Anik said. "I was already hired but they auditioned me with four or five different fighters to try to see what would be the right mix. It was really invaluable to me because before I called my first show - which was January of 2012 in Nashville - I had already called 60 or 70 UFC fights.

"I had done three pay-per-views and those repetitions really helped me when the lights came on for good. But it also gave me an opportunity to work with different fighters and have to make those adjustments. Chemistry isn't something you can develop overnight but you can also tell pretty quickly if that chemistry is going to be there. I thought that was a great learning experience for me, working with different fighters, many of whom had never called fights before. It really helped me cut my teeth and get ready for going live in January.

"It's absolutely valuable working with a seasoned fighter," Anik added in regard to working with Florian. "A lot of the UFC's vision for their broadcasts are to have the analyst shine and to have the analyst handle a chunk of the play-by-play, which is a broadcast relationship that is unique to mixed martial arts. In other pro sports you really have clearly defined roles for the color commentator and the play-by-play man.

"With the UFC, that line is definitely blurred and you really need an analyst who is articulate enough and able to simplify complicated action enough to handle some play-by-play. I think a lot of analysts in other sports are not necessarily equipped to do that. Kenny is a stud, man; as is Joe Rogan. I had the opportunity to work with him on one occasion and these guys are one and two as far as I'm concerned. They are the two best guys in the business and thankfully we have them here at the UFC."

Kevin C. Cox/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

During the viewing experience of a UFC broadcast, the labors of the broadcast team calling the action can be easily taken for granted. It is a position that comes with heavy doses of criticism and those involved are responsible for guiding the viewers through the action at hand.

The ever-changing environment of live-action sports presents a unique set of circumstances, and there are numerous difficulties the players involved are forced to deal with. Anik was fully aware the realm he was about to enter came at taxing measures, and he's put the task of bringing the best presentation possible on his shoulders. 

"I'm sure I'm a broken record when it comes to this, but it really is about repetitions," Anik said. "Everything in life is. Now I've called a 150 or more UFC fights and I feel like I'm getting better every time out. I'm my harshest critic. I've already watched the Japan show back and I see a lot of room for improvement. I get disappointed at certain things but you have to keep moving forward and try to improve upon the things you might not do well on just yet.

"Improving each and every time out is truly my focus because the UFC can fire me at any time without cause, and I take that very seriously. Just like a fighter, I can be fired after any show. Every time I sit in that seat I recognize it is a privilege, and I recognize it may be my last show. If I don't treat it as such that is when the pink slip is going to come, and that is how I approach it.

"I think the most difficult part is accurately calling which strikes land and which strikes don't. You really have to ignore the live audience because every time someone throws a high kick, the crowd reacts. Whether that kick is blocked or it lands; the fans still react. We really have to focus on what lands and be able to inform the audience of what is really going on. For me that has been a big challenge and to really focus on the action to make sure we are not over-reacting when a strike doesn't land.

"There are a lot of different promotional elements that go into the broadcast," Anik added. "Sometimes when I lay out, which means I don't say anything for 30 or 40 seconds, it is because I'm communicating with the producer. I also think as a play-by-play guy you are so used to handling 60 or 70% of the action and that's not how the UFC wants it. That has been an adjustment for me to 'lay out' and let the analyst handle a lot of the action on the canvas. That has been a bit of a tough adjustment for me because sometimes the perception is that I can't handle the action on the ground when in actuality I'm just executing the vision of the promoter. Those have been the two biggest adjustments for me."

As the show rolls on from the Facebook prelims and into the televised bouts on the main card, the broadcast team is tasked with carrying the dialogue from fight to fight. As the next scrap approaches, another job begins and the team involved has to reset and lock in on what is about to go down.

Once the cage door closes and the leather starts to fly, emotions have to be kept in check in order to keep the call steady. Where Joe Rogan's enthusiasm—or over-excitement—is a topic of healthy debate among the UFC fan base, Anik acknowledges the ability to keep his cool while fisticuffs are flying can be a difficult challenge.

"At our core we are fans," Anik said. "When you see what Wanderlei Silva is doing against Brian Stann, if I were at home I'd be jumping up and down going crazy. Whether I had three or four Crown Royals in me or not--I'd be going sick. When you are in the moment you really have to keep control of your emotions and make sure you are still focusing on the broadcast. That has been a big challenge for me as well.

"Another challenge has been that you never know when the next star is going to emerge. Sometimes during a Facebook prelim I might have a tendency to go a little bit overboard and maybe get too excited for a guy who is making his UFC debut. You really need to leave room in your register to sort of up the ante as the fights get bigger as the night goes on so the first fight on Facebook doesn't necessarily get the same reaction as the main event.

"The time involved for the broadcast is another aspect of the sport you have to deal with. It's like doing back-to-back football games because we are on headsets for six-plus hours. There isn't enough Xyience or Red Bull in the world to keep you up for seven hours and you really have to pace yourself because you aren't hitting the main event until five or six hours into the broadcast. That is something I obviously didn't experience in other sports and that has been part of the learning curve here. I need to make sure I still have the energy five or six hours into the broadcast."

If his first year on the job wasn't hectic enough, the end of 2012 came with a unique opportunity when Anik was tapped to fill in for Mike Golberg at UFC 155. The longtime play-by-play announcer took a brief leave of absence for personal reasons, and with the pay-per-view event rapidly approaching, the UFC called on Anik to step up and fill his position beside Joe Rogan for the end of the year show.

The comedian/podcast/mixed martial arts enthusiast is a staple in the MMA community, and the chance to call an event alongside the premier analyst in the sport wasn't something Anik was about to pass up.

"It was crazy, man," Anik said. "We watch these UFC pay-per-view as fans for years and it was really a 'pinch yourself' moment when the lights came on and you are sitting next to Joe Rogan getting ready to call a pay-per-view event. Certainly when I took this job, it was candidly an opportunity I hoped would materialize, but I certainly didn't think it would happen as quickly as it did.

"It was a great experience. As humbly as I can say it, I do believe we had an instant chemistry. I feel like we had a nice contrast and hit it off pretty well, but the actual week leading up to that fight was a blur for me. I got the call on Christmas Eve and did most of the voice-over work in advance on Christmas Day. The week was just nuts.

"Trying to get all of the preparation done and it was condensed into a very short amount of time, but it was a thrill, and I think when I look back on my broadcasting career it will be a moment that I really reflect back upon fondly. It was definitely the biggest sporting event that I've ever done. I did a WBC heavyweight championship for ESPN and some college football as well, but I hadn't called a sporting event as big as a UFC heavyweight title fight, and hopefully the opportunity comes around again. If it doesn't, I'll certainly be glad I had that one under my belt with Joe."

Making the call alongside Rogan at UFC 155 may have been a career highlight for Anik, another mark on the list was recently added this past weekend in Japan. The UFC made its return to the legendary Satiama Super Arena for UFC on Fuel TV 8, and it provided the host of The Ultimate Insider the opportunity to work in what is considered to be sacred ground with the mixed martial arts fan base.

When the return of Pride legend Wanderlei Silva is factored into the equation, and the frantic dogfight that played out between "The Axe Murderer" and Brian Stann is added in, the trip to Tokyo was one Anik won't be forgetting anytime soon.

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

"It was insane," Anik said describing the experience. "Calling UFC fights is such a unique experience to begin with, but when you add the element of one of the all-time greats, Wanderlei Silva, in his adopted home country of Japan, in an arena where we've all watched so many seminal moments in mixed martial arts go down; it really was something Kenny and I were just so happy to have the opportunity to do.

"Then of course the fight played out the way it did and it was an unbelievable experience. I don't know that calling any other sporting event would compare to that. As great as it was to call Cain Velasquez versus Junior dos Santos, there is something so special about experiencing that moment in Japan with Wanderlei Silva. That is my career highlight to date. I know I'm only several days removed from it but that was the most fun I've ever had doing a live broadcast.

"One of the great things about working for the UFC is that there are so many special moments card in and card out. Vitor's fight in Brazil was nuts and those are things I really get up for. Part of the reason I left ESPN was because I wanted to be on the road doing live events and not in the studio all the time. This is what gets me going and gives me a buzz. Needless to say, I had a natural high in Tokyo last Saturday night."

Part of Anik's fight night duties takes place inside the Octagon once the action has come to an end. The post-fight interview is a staple in MMA, and over the years has changed from a platform where fighters thank their sponsors and their coaches, to an opportunity to grab the microphone and capitalize on the moment.

The interviews are an aspect of the position Anik wholeheartedly embraces. He loves the chance to give fighters their moment and is excited to share the stage with the men and women of the sport. On the other hand, post-fight scenarios can be shaky ground and the interviewer has to be prepared on what does or doesn't happen in those few minutes.

Following Mark Hunt's brutal knockout victory over Stefan Struve, Anik was excited to get answers to what he believed were key elements in the fight. What followed was a limited exchange, in what fans following on Twitter considered to be one of the best post-fight interviews in history. It wasn't the typical post-fight interview Anik is used to, but few things about Hunt fall into that particular category. 

"It depends on how you define the word 'best'," Anik said. "I had seen [Hunt] with Joe Rogan so I knew what to expect. My entire career has sort of prepared me for situations like that. When you are doing an interview and the guy either doesn't answer your question or is very short-winded with their answer, you have to be ready to react and prepared with that next question.

"You really just approach it as if you are having a conversation with a buddy. When he or she stops talking, then you chime in. I was ready for the short answer there for sure. But I sometimes think it's disappointing when a fighter doesn't necessarily use that opportunity to help advance his situation within the promotion or doesn't answer your question.

"I was curious from a strategic aspect why Mark Hunt wanted to go to the ground with Stefan Struve or was willing to, and we didn't get that answer. It's a funny thing, man. I'm very thankful I get the opportunity to do post-fight interviews because it's an opportunity a lot of play-by-play guys don't get the chance to do. I love it. It's really fun being in there and being a tiny part of that moment with the fighters involved.

"I certainly prefer the guys who are long-winded than to those like Mark Hunt, but hey...that's his style and more power to him. As everyone well knows, he is a guy who didn't want to accept the buyout and now here he is on a four-fight win streak in the heavyweight division. It's been quite a stretch for him and I'm sure I'll change my approach if I get to interview him again in a post-fight situation."

Another difficulty in the realm of post-fight interviews comes when there simply isn't the time to get them in. It has become somewhat of a misconception as to why or when they are done, with many in the MMA community believing the reason some post-fight interviews are skipped is due to the performances of the fighters involved.

Anik was quick to clear up the confusion on this matter and hopes fighters understand it has nothing to do with the action inside the cage, but simply a matter of keeping with the production schedule.

"I hope people recognize it has nothing to do with the performance of those fighters and everything to do with the clock," Anik said. "Basically, when you look at a fight card that is heavy on decisions, we are going to be light on post-fight interviews. That is really how it works. When Cub Swanson and Dustin Poirier fought a few weeks ago, I hated not being able to get in there and interview Cub, but we had eight or nine decisions on the card and there wasn't going to be enough time to do it.

"Even when I interviewed Renan Barao, they told me I could only ask him one question. We were just very heavy on decisions for that show and some times those decisions dictate what we are allowed to do going forward. A lot of fighters really like to use that moment to propel themselves forward or call somebody out. Obviously it is a great opportunity for them to be get the face time on camera. Believe me, man, I wish we could do 12 post-fight interviews on every fight card but it's just not an option some times."

With 18 months of cage-side work under his belt, and a hectic schedule on the docket for 2013, the life of Jon Anik continues to move at a rapid pace. He is meeting each challenge with the determination to improve his craft and a tireless work ethic to become a voice the UFC fans can count on.

The difficulties of the job are something Anik is taking in stride, but those demands also affect his life beyond the lights of the Octagon as well. The former ESPN anchor has a growing family at home in Las Vegas, and the rigors of international travel can be a laborious aspect to manage.

Nevertheless, dreams never come easy and the soon-to-be father of two is hitting the grind with the passion to excel and a level of professionalism that allows him to overcome the obstacles in his path.

To put it simply, Anik is looking to raise the bar every time out of the gates and honing is craft at each and every turn is the only way he knows how to work.

"It's tough, man," Anik described of the demanding schedule. "I certainly didn't expect the volume of international travel with a young girl at home and another daughter on the way here in April. It has definitely been the toughest part of the job for me.

"Another thing that can become difficult is that we don't always have the same production team when we are on the road and maybe there are some audio issues that we deal with elsewhere that we wouldn't necessarily have in Las Vegas. Then of course there is the time difference. The fights in Tokyo started at 9:40 in the morning so I'm on the treadmill at 3:45 a.m. trying to get my mind right and adjust to the time difference.

"Jet lag is a very real thing. A huge part of what I'm focusing on when I'm on the road is to make that adjustment, not unlike the fighters, to make sure when I sit down to call the fights I'm on point. Whether I'm doing them at 6:00 a.m. or in Brazil, where the main event goes off at 1:30 a.m., I put the effort in to make sure I am performing optimally. That is a big challenge.

"The past six months have been all over the globe. I was in China in November, Australia in December, Brazil in January, England in February, and Japan this month. It's been crazy, but we just keep trying to bang them out and keep the bosses happy. That's really the goal. We strive to execute the company's vision and make them feel, show in and show out, that they made the right hire." 

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.

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