With apologies to Mr. Mike Goldberg, Mr. Joe Rogan, Mr. Jon Anik and Mr. Brian Stann, I have a new favorite mixed martial arts commentary team: Jim Ross and Chael Sonnen.
Ross and Sonnen teamed up on Friday night, for the first time ever, to call the action from something called Battlegrounds: O.N.E. It was a clever pairing designed to create a buzz for an event that otherwise featured Cody McKenzie as the lead star. And while this is an appealing idea for those of us who enjoy terrible mixed martial arts, it is not a good look for a promoter who is attempting to sell a show to the masses or even to the curious.
Ross, the voice of a generation of professional wrestling fans, was making the leap for the first time from the world of professional wrestling. I first spoke to Ross about his love for mixed martial arts in 2010. It was a 45-minute interview with plenty of topics.
But we continued talking for three hours after the tape stopped rolling. It was clear, even then, that Ross knew about this mixed martial arts stuff and would probably like to give it a try someday, if only somebody would give him a chance. Only nobody did, which seemed a little bit ridiculous when you consider just how skilled Ross is at making you care about the people behind the personalities.
The Ross who showed up to broadcast Battlegrounds was not Good Ole' J.R., the cowboy hat-wearing gimmick character he'd become in WWE. This version of Ross was much more sporting-inclined. For the most part, he took the proceedings seriously but still gave you a sense of who everyone was when they weren't fighting.
This is an important thing that other broadcast teams—namely the ones that work for the Ultimate Fighting Championship—tend to overlook. They tell us about the moves and why this person does not like this other person. But they do not tell us, for example, that McKenzie did not train for this tournament a single time because he spent the last two months on a salmon fishing boat off the coast of Alaska.
They don't tell us that McKenzie is 26 but has the liver of a 37-year-old man. This is what Ross said, and it was funny, but it also held a bit of truth. Those who know McKenzie are aware of his haphazard training and nutrition methods, but this was the first time they were brought up to the public. It gave a sense of depth to McKenzie and perhaps made you empathize with him when Brock Larson choked him out.
Ross was shaky at first but established himself as the show went on. Sonnen, meanwhile, was golden from the beginning, mixing a bit of his character-driven personality from the past five years in with a lot of skilled technical analysis.
This was not a broadcast designed for the fighting experts in the audience. This felt like something of a bar gathering, where a bunch of casual fans are hanging with an actual expert who does his best to explain things in terms they can understand. Ross provided character details and personality traits and then set up Sonnen with questions regarding the action in the cage. Sonnen answered them in simple language, explaining things in layman's terms.
Sonnen still had a bit of the old Chael P. Sonnen character in him, of course. Here are a few choice lines:
On why he doesn't have any tattoos: "I've never liked needles. Or at least, I've never liked needles with ink in them."
On having (terrible) announcer Dean Stone narrate his life: "I would like to have him follow me around and announce my life. 'He's waking up! He's eating breakfast! He's going to the pharmacy! Again!'"
On a Battlegrounds ring card girl, who did not fit the typical UFC ring card girl mold: "Let me tell you something. That's an easy job when you're a supermodel. But it takes a lot more confidence when you're a six."
All told, Ross and Sonnen were the stars of the show. Roan Carneiro won the whole thing, by the way, beating Larson in the main event. The promoter handed Carneiro a stack of bills totaling $50,000, which seemed a fitting conclusion for an event where a fighter actually gave blood in order to lose weight.
That was McKenzie, in case you were wondering. And you aren't surprised, so don't pretend like you are. This is the same man who once forgot his fight shorts for a UFC bout, so he showed up wearing a pair of swimming trunks he'd purchased at Target. With the price tag still attached!
But the fights weren't the point of this thing. Yes, it was fun to revisit the tournament format, at least until people started getting tired. When Carneiro and Larson struggled their way through a Nik Lentz-style main event, you had to remember why tournaments maybe weren't so great in the first place. You remembered why these guys fight three times per year instead of three times in a single night—because fighting is a lot of work and makes you tired, and when you're tired, you're not nearly as good as you are when you're not tired.
The point of this Battlegrounds event, and the enduring thing we'll remember years in the future, is that Ross and Sonnen showed up with a lot of intrigue, and then they delivered on that promise. There is no announcing team like them in mixed martial arts, and while a future with the UFC is probably out of the question, there is no reason Scott Coker can't sit back and say, hey, perhaps these two men would be a good fit for Bellator. Or AXS TV, or someone.
Somebody out there needs a great announcing team, and they've got one right here in front of their eyes.