Monday, March 19, 2007

Joe Rogan Has My Respect: Commentating Ain’t Easy

It was the hardest and scariest thing I’ve ever done. On a Friday in November I sat ringside for an MMA event at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, and though that itself was nothing out of the ordinary, this time I had a microphone. And a camera in my face. And a producer in my headset. And a co-commentator, nudging me when it was my turn to speak. For the first time ever I was a commentator, voicing observations and opinion on the action before me.

It was terrifying.

Promoter Lou Neglia had approached me the week before. With MMA’s sudden rise in popularity opening a lot of doors for people in the industry, his Ring of Combat promotion was primed for a jump to pay-per-view, and with all of the other requisite pieces in place, he needed someone on the mike. Of course, I’ve never had any on-camera aspirations (after all, writers should be read, not heard), but after some consideration I agreed. How often does one get the chance to make a fool out of themselves on pay-per-view?

Lacking any television experience, I had no idea what was in store until the production meeting the night before. At that meeting I was introduced to the producer, some tech-types, and other key players. I was also told who would be play-by-play commentator to my color commentating: NBC 4’s Bruce Beck.

The same Bruce Beck who’d commentated some of the early UFCs. The same Bruce Beck who I see sportscasting whenever I catch the news. Holy crap.

At that first meeting, a rough draft of the show’s schedule was fleshed out. An opening would be shot here, fighters would be interviewed here, are we cutting to backstage here? No? Okay, here Bruce and Jim will talk about what’s happened thus far… You get the idea. Bruce hadn’t yet arrived by the time this meeting was wrapping up, but I knew I’d have no time to be starstruck at the Friday morning production meeting. The meeting ended. I went back to my hotel room, anxious as hell, and the first thing I said to my wife when I walked in the door was, “I’m so in over my head.”

I slept only a little, and when I woke I began writing out index cards full of info on the fighters on the card. The advantage of having covered almost every Ring of Combat event (really, of covering every MMA event in New Jersey since the dawn of time and following every aspect of the sport as a whole) is that I had a wealth of knowledge to draw from. This Ring of Combat featured the opening round of three eight-man tournaments – one in the lightweight, one in the welterweight and one in the middleweight divisions – and it had competitors from all over the country (plus some dude from Spain). Welterweight Jay Coleman? Yeah, a badass, seen just about every one of his fights. Welterweight Phillipe Nover? Yeah, a killer, I remember his debut bout at Reality Fighting as if it were yesterday. Kevin Roddy? Grappling stud. Rich Boine? Tough rookie. Landon Showalter? Goddamn survivor. Dominic Dellagatta? Bad motherfucker. I filled out an index card for every competitor, often filling in the blanks with internet research.

And after the morning production meeting, when Bruce and I were introduced and we went to the weigh-ins, and when I got to watch him in action, interviewing each fighter and gleaning all the info he could from them, I realized what I’d done with the index cards barely even scratched the surface. Bruce compiled a ton of data on each guy, from quotes to where they went to high school to whether they boxed southpaw and ate Wheaties (okay, not the Wheaties thing, but he did ask if they “ate glass or caught rattlesnakes with their bare hands”), and it was all organized in such a fashion that he could draw these facts up whenever needed (read: written in magic marker, and circled when important).

I spent the hours before the show writing and memorizing what I was going to say during the opening sequence. Bruce and I got to the venue early and quickly did my makeup (apparently that’s a necessity for TV? Something about oil, sweat and skin being one uniform color, I think). There were a couple fighters he still had to interview, so we wandered around backstage. Matt Serra was there, fresh off his Ultimate Fighter Season Four win and deservedly all smiles. A battered and bruised Pete “Drago” Sell was there, too, as was the always-reserved Luke Cummo. Jay Coleman grinned when I told him I was hyping his bout as a potential fight-of-the-night in the opening. Marc Stevens laughed when I realized I’d gotten some of his background wrong (okay, so he didn’t win the gold medal in wrestling at the Empire State Games. He did medal, though.).

Things began moving quickly. So quickly that I didn’t really have time to be crippled by fear. We practiced the opening sequence once and I didn’t slip up, and we were already doing it again – for real – before I could marvel on how I’d adhered to my lines. Meanwhile, Bruce was spot on with everything. The voice-over for the opening shot (cue external of venue; "We’re here at the Tropicana Casino & Resort for Ring of Combat…"). The explanation of the rules, the tournament setup, the names of the announcer and referees and athletic commission members – if we were in a gym, I’d be bobbing and weaving, trying to avoid getting knocked out, while he would be throwing bolos and dropping sparring partners left and right. The man, as expected, was amazing.

I’d been advised by Thad Campbell, who was tasked with doing all the on-camera fighter interviews, to try my best to predict the next move. Not just point out, “Oh, they’re trading punches,” but more of, “He’s bringing his legs up – expect a triangle choke attempt from the bottom.” Bruce advised me to fill in all the blanks when it came to the nuances of the MMA, as it had been a while since his last UFC gig (UFC 15, actually). My wife, who’s sat with me on the couch while I’ve waxed poetic about whatever bout is currently on SpikeTV, said to just be myself. I’d like to think I listened to them all. And maybe I did.

But I haven’t seen the tape of the show yet, so I only have those things that stuck with me in my mind. When Team Quest representative Ian Loveland was in his corner, I extolled the virtues of his cornerman, Art Santore, who’s an accomplished fighter himself. Sorry, Robert Follis, if I’d have known that was really you in there… Oh, and Bruce, sorry about all those times you gestured for me to talk and I had nothing for you but a shrug and a wordless mouth agape. And to the producer who told me to “vamp” while an unaired ring card girl contest happened off-screen, I sincerely hope whatever I said made sense. Without question, though, I said what I believe – if a fighter had heart, skills, or both, then no, I wasn’t kissing anyone’s ass by pointing that out.

The handshakes afterwards. The sighs of relief. The come-down from over twenty hours of pure adrenaline and utter fear. And the kudos, from Bruce Beck and others. I’d never done anything more frightening in my life, but when all was said and done, it was worth it. For all the color commentating he does, Joe Rogan has my utmost respect.

Now watch it on pay-per-view and tell me what you think.