Jon Anik: I do my best work live
This is number eighty-seven in Jack’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature one of the voices of the UFC, Jon Anik. Anik currently does television play-by-play for about half of the UFC event broadcasts and he also hosts the “Ultimate Insider” television program. Anik did not just luck into this dream job. He worked his way up in broadcasting to become the polished professional that the UFC hired two years ago. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: I first came to know you as Jon Anik, co-host of “The Diehards.” That was an afternoon-drive, sports radio program on 1510 AM, “The Zone,” in Boston. Tell me about what led you to that point in your career. What got you into sports and broadcasting when you were young?
Jon Anik: When I was about fifteen or sixteen, in high school, I understood that I wanted to work in sports, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I ended up being the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper. I would say that midway through college, at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, I was doing a ton of writing and I sort of started thinking that maybe print journalism wasn’t necessarily going to be my avenue. I thought that maybe I would be a better fit in the broadcasting world. I still stuck with the print thing, and I did a radio show in college, but print was my focus. I got out of college and worked for the MetroWest Daily News for a couple years, but that’s what really turned me off to newspapers and print media. I was sick of laying out the agate page until four o’clock in the morning. So I tried to make the transition to broadcasting and I really couldn’t get an internship in radio without going back to school. So, somewhat reluctantly, I enrolled in the Connecticut School of Broadcasting, where I would later teach. Enrolling at CSB allowed me to get an internship with Anthony Pepe, who I interned with at WEEI, a Boston sports radio station, back in 2000. So I interned with him at 1510, The Zone, and I was able to parlay that into a job at the radio station. Then, ultimately, there was an opening on the afternoon drive show, The Diehards, and thankfully Ryen Russillo and Anthony Pepe welcomed me. I always tell people that you just have to be ready when you get an opportunity because you just never know if it’ll come around again. For me, I honestly believe that had I not been ready to step onto The Diehards on 24-hours-notice, I probably wouldn’t be working for the UFC today.
JB: It’s my understanding that after working locally in Boston, you began your radio and television work with ESPN. During that period of time, as your career advanced, you were responsible for staying knowledgeable about many sports. How much were you aware of what was going on with MMA during that time?
JA: For a few years I was splitting time between Boston and Bristol, Connecticut. Then in 2007 or 2008, I became full-time at ESPN. But at that time I was also hosting the “Mouthpiece Boxing Show” on 1510, The Zone. We had done a lot of Gary Shaw’s boxing shows, and in 2007, he was starting Elite XC and he invited a lot of the boxing radio shows. He paid our whole way to come to the Elite XC debut in Mississippi. For me, the rest is history. I had watched UFC 1, and then maybe took a break for about forty pay-per-views or so. I was aware of mixed martial arts, but it wasn’t until I saw it live for the first time that I really understood what the fuss was all about. So shortly after attending the Elite XC debut, I wanted to do more with mixed martial arts. ESPN, thankfully, on the digital side on ESPN.com, allowed me to do it. Then eventually it led to MMA Live being launched in April of 2008. I think you put it well when you talked about having to have your finger on the pulse of all sports when you’re at ESPN, and I think that one of my frustrations towards the end of my six years there was that I wasn’t given the opportunity to focus exclusively on MMA. I thought that they probably needed someone in that space and I thought it was a worthwhile investment to have a broadcaster that was full-time on mixed martial arts. I was frustrated that it was only like a day and a half of my five-day week. That’s ultimately what led to the move here.
JB: In 2011, about two years ago, you were hired to work for the UFC. Looking back, what were the key events that eventually led to your employment with the promotion?
JA: Well it wasn’t an opportunity that I thought would necessarily materialize because I wanted to do play-by-play and Mike Goldberg had a stranglehold on that job. I didn’t foresee an opportunity with the UFC that would be play-by-play. I knew that they were familiar and liked my desk-work, but I wanted to do play-by-play. So towards the end of my time at ESPN I got to do several boxing matches. I did the Vitali Klitschko vs. Shannon Briggs heavyweight title fight. I got to do some college football as well. I just really got the bug and wanted to do play-by-play. So when Shogun fought Jon Jones in New Jersey, I was approached by the UFC and they mentioned that they had an opportunity for me. I found out about forty-eight hours later that play-by-play would be the core of the job and I would be doing about half of the shows essentially. Once I found that out, it was a very easy sell. I think when I ultimately verbally agreed with the UFC, the rumors were that they were going to end up on G4. There was no FOX deal. But I didn’t care if I was just calling fights on the internet. I wanted to do play-by-play and I wanted to work for the UFC. I was just very thankful and appreciative and a little caught off guard that the play-by-play opportunity came when it did. So for me, as long as calling fights for the UFC was going to be part of the job, I was on board no matter what channel they were going to be on.
JB: As you first began your work for the company, what stood out about your experience of the UFC events from an “inside” perspective?
JA: I had somewhat of an inside perspective already because we worked very closely with the UFC production team when we were doing MMA Live. We had done eleven on-site remotes and at the time they weren’t really doing a lot of that. So I was familiar with some of the staff members, and I think that ultimately led to the opportunity. I said at the press conference for BJ Penn vs. Nick Diaz, when Dana White introduced me, that, “This is just a well-oiled machine and I’m just trying to not get in the way.” That’s really the way I still feel two years later. I’m just so impressed with the way they will bring people in from all walks of life, from all different companies, in all different departments. They really do seek out the best across the board. That has been my biggest takeaway. I also think that from an adjustment standpoint for me it was very difficult when you work for a network like ESPN and then you’re making the transition to work for the promoter. It’s just a different methodology. I might have carte blanche at ESPN to say whatever I want about either college football team, but I think there is just a different approach when you’re working for the promoter. You have to make sure that you’re putting the best foot forward when it comes to describing these fighters. The agenda is just a little bit different when you are working for a team, like if you work for the New England Patriots vs. working for FOX. But I feel like I always know where I stand with these guys. They tell it like it is. Sometimes there are things you don’t want to hear, but I really have always known where I stood. I’m just trying to get better show to show. I do believe it’s a high pressure gig, but it’s the gig that I wanted. I just try to take it one show at a time and make them want to keep me on the payroll, I guess.
JB: You currently play many roles for the UFC and FOX Sports. What role has been the most challenging thus far and what role has been the most fun?
JA: The most fun, without question, was hosting The Ultimate Fighter Live season. I found out that I would be hosting that probably a month before I moved to Las Vegas, and I was just so excited. I really felt that the show needed a kick in the ass. Not that the show had gotten stale, because I still watched every season, but I thought that the perfect elixir to cure what had ailed the show was to have live fights. Lo and behold, Dana White and Lorenzo pulled the trigger and made it happen. I thought that it was great, and just being in that Ultimate Fighter training center every week with a live fight there was such an adrenaline in that building. It was so cool for me, and to be a small part of it is something that I will always look back upon fondly. I really hope that they run it back for a live season at some point down the line.
As far as the most challenging, it’s definitely the play-by-play and I think a lot of people don’t realize how much traffic copping is involved and how much communication is going on between the play-by-play guy and the truck. All the different promos and things we need to hit at certain times, it’s just a marathon. It’s like calling back-to-back Superbowls. We’re on a headset for seven hours. If you go call a college basketball game, you might only be at the venue for three hours total and the live game action is less than an hour. We’re going seven full hours and that has been hugely challenging for me to pace myself and make sure that the first prelim on Facebook has a different energy level than the main event. I think some of that energy comes from the building, but it’s really important that you make the main event sound like the main event and that you don’t make the first bout of the night sound like it’s a championship fight. I’ve also worked with different partners and that’s certainly a challenge as well. But the live event is always where I feel like I do my best work, as humbly as I can try and say that. Even though I do feel like it’s the most challenging part, I wouldn’t change anything. I love doing live shows much more than anything on tape.
JB: Though you are, of course, eminently professional, you are human, I believe. What fight, that you witnessed live at cage-side, gave you the most thrills or chills?
JA: It’s a great question. Kenny Florian and I have been fortunate that our main events have really stolen these fight cards time and time again. Whether it was Brian Stann vs. Wanderlei Silva, The Korean Zombie vs. Dustin Poirier, Vitor Belfort vs. Luke Rockhold, there are so many that come to mind. I would probably say that it was Chris Weidman vs. Mark Munoz because, even though there was a lot of steam behind Chris Weidman, I think that was really his coming-out party and when he really landed on the radar of hardcore and casual MMA fans alike. So that fight is always the first one that comes to mind.
Also, you may remember that when I got hired by the UFC, they auditioned me with like five different fighters. So in November, December, and January, of 2011/2012, I was going to all the pay-per-views and calling the whole fight card with Frank Mir, or Stephan Bonnar, or Rich Franklin. So I got to call the Hendo vs. Shogun fight at UFC 139 with Frank Mir. That remains to this day the best live fight that I have ever seen in person. The fact that I had been on the job three weeks and I got to call that fight, even though the audio will never see the light of day, that’s always something I feel like I got to mention for this type of question. Just imagine, you take this job after you leave ESPN after six years, and then you sit on the apron of the octagon and you watch Hendo and Shogun do that for five rounds. So that just cemented the fact that I had made the right choice.
JB: Your responsibilities have required you and Kenny Florian to travel the globe quite a bit for the UFC’s live events. What has been the best trip thus far, and what has it been like to team up with another Boston native in Florian?
JA: Kenny and I met back in 2008, shortly before MMA Live launched. I remember when I was going to meet him that I re-watched season one of The Ultimate Fighter just to sort of re-familiarize myself with him from his time at middleweight. But it’s been great. I would have been more than happy working with Stephan Bonnar or Rich Franklin or Frank Mir or Randy Couture or whoever, but Kenny and I certainly have a friendship that runs deep. I consider him one of my dearest friends. So the fact that he was able to get the nod was outstanding. We’ve done thousands of shows together, not just hundreds, but thousands of broadcasts. We really cut our TV teeth together in a lot of respects on MMA Live so the transition, as far as that is concerned, has been smooth. I wouldn’t call it seamless, but it’s been smooth because we had that familiarity with each other. I believe, in broadcasting, that instant chemistry is a real thing. I feel like Joe Rogan and I definitely got off on the right foot at UFC 155, but I still think that there is no replacement for repetition.
As far as the international travel, I haven’t made it a secret that it’s my least favorite part of the job, and I didn’t necessarily know when I took the job that 90% of my shows would be outside of North America. It has been wonderful to meet fight fans all across the world, and I’ve been to places that I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would go. To call fights in the Saitama Super Arena with a main event with Wanderlei Silva is just something that you really dream of. It’s not something that you think is just going to fall in your lap. The Gold Coast in Australia was absolutely beautiful, and that Ultimate Fighter, “The Smashes,” season didn’t get a lot of run in the United States, and I don’t even know how many people watched it, but it really was one of the better season of The Ultimate Fighter in recent memory. I loved that season, and to be able to go and do The Smashes Finale in The Gold Coast was outstanding. I had never been to England before, and I enjoyed going there twice. And I have been to Brazil five times and their live crowds don’t need me to sell them. At 4:30 in the afternoon for the first prelim, they have standing-room only. For a broadcaster, there is just nothing like it. You feed off of that energy and that atmosphere. I love seeing the globalization, and though I miss my daughters and my wife for sure, it’s something that I’ve accepted and I’m becoming more conditioned to. I just try to see the positives in it, meeting some of the best MMA fans in the world and seeing a lot of beautiful places along the way.
JB: So many great fights are scheduled for the remainder of 2013, some of which you will be calling. What are a few of the fights that you are looking forward to the most?
JA: Vitor Belfort vs. Dan Henderson is just an enormous fight, maybe not in terms of title implications, but in terms of two future hall-of-famers and mixed marital arts legends. So when I see a main event like that, and it’s not on pay-per-view and I get to call it, I am like a kid in a candy store. I’m pumping fists in my office at home. We’ve been very fortunate, as I mentioned, with main events. It’s hard for me to look too far ahead, with Bader vs. Teixeira and other fights coming up soon, but I would say the fight I’m most looking forward to, from a main event standpoint for the rest of the year, is Johny Hendricks against Georges St-Pierre. From talking to fighters, a lot of them believe that Johny Hendricks is, not unlike Chris Weidman was against Anderson Silva, the best equipped to beat Georges St-Pierre. So that’s the main event that I’m most excited for the rest of the way, but I cannot wait to do another Vitor Belfort fight in Brazil. And for Dan Henderson, it could be his last pro fight. I don’t think it will be, but you just never know at this point. He’s got a lot to prove and needs a “W.” So I’m really excited to be getting the nod for that main event on November 9th.
JB: Watching you work recently in Boston, both at Ronda’s Q and A and at the live event, I was struck by how much physical and mental energy is required to perform your job. What can you share about how you physically and mentally prepare or maintain yourself in order to be successful?
JA: I appreciate you saying that. Mentally it’s more taxing than I think it is physically, with the exception of those seven hours on fight night. With play by play, we may only use twenty or thirty percent of the materials that we prepare, but you always feel like you could do more. There’s never really enough time. If all of a sudden there was a blackout in the arena, and the fight card got delayed five hours, I could make great use of those five hours, whether it’s hopping on the UG or watching some video interviews or watching some fight footage. The mental preparation is pretty exhausting. I go back and watch the previous fight involving every fighter on the card. So that takes a decent chunk of a day to do. Then I handwrite all of our fighter bios onto note cards, which helps with my memorization and reminding myself about these guys and their UFC histories. So instead of just reading those bios and taking it with me to the arena, I manually write them all, which takes about seven hours. My anxiety is in the preparation and not in the performance. Once I get to the arena, my heart is beating very consistently. Any anxiety I have is in the days leading up, to make sure that I’ve done everything in my power to make sure that I am as prepared as I can be. Physically, I just run five miles every day leading up to the fights. I usually run five miles five days a week so I will just get my cardio going. That’s really all I do from a physical standpoint. I also just try to take care of my throat and my voice as best as I can.
We beat ourselves up pretty good, man. There are a lot of critics out there. I’ve become conditioned to that, but we really beat ourselves up the most. I’ve never had a perfect show and I don’t ever expect to. You just want to try to be yourself as best as you can. Sometimes over seven hours it’s hard to do that because of all the elements and everything that’s involved in the broadcast.
Sometimes you feel a little misunderstood by the audience, but we really feel like we’re prepared and just trying to do the best job that we can.
JB: Last question, Jon, and thanks for taking the time to do this. You are a young man, with a young family, and your career is going strong. What plans or goals do you have for the near or distant future?
JA: I would say that my end goal is to call an NFL football game. Maybe, if you had asked me two years ago, my end goal would have been to call a UFC fight, but I do think that you always have to be looking ahead. I would love to get an opportunity at some point to call NFL football and do some more college football. And I’d love to cover an Olympic Games. Ideally, it would be 2016 in Rio. Those are two things that I have always been interested in, especially the Olympic Games. I just think it’s so exciting. The pressure of four years of preparation just seems so incredible to me. So those are things that I think about fairly often, but I would be more than content to just work for the UFC for the next twenty years. I was always hoping to get the opportunity to work a UFC pay-per-view with Joe Rogan, and even though the circumstances maybe weren’t ideal at UFC 155, with getting the call on Christmas Day and three or four days’ notice, that was something that I had always hoped to get the chance to do. So I was able to scratch that one off, but it is an exciting industry to be in. I also believe that it is a recession-proof industry despite anything that could happen globally or economically. I believe that people are always going to want their sports and they’re always going to want mixed martial arts. I’m just hoping to stay here. You are only as good as your last show.
Visit JackJohnBrownMMA on Facebook for links to all of Jack’s past interviews. Previous interviews include: Dan Hardy, Rose Namajunas, Joe Lauzon, War Machine, Tom Lawlor, Bas Rutten, Chris Leben, Phil Baroni, Julie Kedzie, Michael Bisping, Duane Ludwig, Sara McMann, Matt Lindland, Duke Roufus, Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Dan Severn, Nate Quarry, Ken Shamrock, Matt Serra, Jeremy Horn, Ray Longo, Kevin Randleman, Dennis Hallman, and dozens more.