Almost all historic moments in sports have a soundtrack and an iconic voice to compliment them, provide insight, reasoning, knowledge, and a narrative. Jon Anik has helped provide his voice to the top MMA promotion in the world, the UFC, for the last eight years.
Prior to being in the UFC, Anik was working for ESPN in 2008-2011 covering sports and MMA while the sport was still in its teenage years. From 2010-2011 he was a host for MMA Live on ESPN 2, and when the UFC landed on FOX, Anik and Kenny Florian were made the second announce team for the UFC, making their debut on the UFC on FX: Guillard vs. Miller broadcast. It would be some time before Anik would be the lead play-by-play voice for major UFC pay-per-views, becoming one of the household voices fans have grown to love.
“I spent the first five or six years with the UFC, at least the first five, doing half the amount of shows, but the smaller shows. I wasn’t calling championship fights and wasn’t necessarily charged with providing the soundtrack for these historic moments even though I was calling as many fights as anyone during that time. But it’s been special, obviously, to be able to help put a capstone and contextualize these moments,” said Anik.
The preparation for fight night is an arduous one. With 12-13 fights per card, Anik must prepare for the coverage of 24-26 fighters and preparation doesn’t begin until the previous show is complete. The script for the voice-over features fans hear in the arena and at home are recorded approximately 10-11 days out.
“I’m certainly a better parent during non-PPV weeks but I don’t shortchange any show. I have treated every single show since January 20, 2012, the same way with almost an identical number of hours and preparation. I have a very detailed process I go through that hasn’t failed me yet. It’s an open book test. Might as well show up with some damn notes, you know?” said Anik.
The UFC compartmentalizes footage for him so his studying and research can be as smooth as possible, but the majority of information Anik feeds to the audience is acquired from fighter meetings that are held a few weeks out. One fight card requires a great amount of time and research. Anik is no stranger to the hard work and the grind that comes with the job. In many cases, there have been plenty of back-to-back shows that he has had to prepare for.
“It makes back-to-back weeks more challenging because obviously if I have a PPV followed by a Fight Night, then obviously the voice-over work can happen. But the fighter-to-fighter preparation doesn’t happen until that previous show is in the can. In a perfect world, you would have at least one week to prepare, but I’ve done six in seven weeks and collapsed at my front door by the end of it, but that’s the world in which we reside,” he said.
Anik isn’t alone on fight nights, as he is accompanied by elite talent. From the likes of Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier to Dominick Cruz and Paul Felder, it’s a team he would easily put up against any other in any sport.
“I feel like I’m a broken record when it comes to talking about our analysts and how good they are as a group,” he said. “Our analysts, our color commentators, the guys I sit next to, I would put that group against any group of analysts in any sport. Go give me the top five guys in the NFL, Tony Romo on down, and I’ll raise you with Rogan, Daniel Cormier, Dominick Cruz and everybody else. We are very fortunate to have a dozen guys who are truly elite.”
Anik also has high praise for the production crew that puts the whole show together. While you may not see a lot of recognition for the UFC at the Emmys, Anik assured that the production crew is filled with Emmy-award winners.
From the first round of the night to the very last, Anik helps capture every moment. He is as close to the action as he can be without being a fighter or referee. When asked about the standout moments he witnessed cageside, he couldn’t pick just one.
“There have been so many to even think about. There’s Kevin Lee vs. Gregor Gillespie or Beneil Dariush vs. Drew Dober. Edson Barboza, I feel like I’ve had a lot of good seats for some of his seminal moments. The roster certainly gives us a lot to work with,” said Anik.
While being a commentator for the UFC for the last eight years, Jon has been cageside for many Hall of Fame-worthy fights. Before the world went into quarantine, Anik had the privilege of once again providing a soundtrack to what is currently being considered as one of the greatest title fights in UFC history, the March bout between strawweight champion Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. By the second round, you could feel the electricity in the building as both women wasted no time getting started.
“I think what was most surprising is you could feel that early on, even in round two, you knew that if this thing went the full 25 minutes that this thing could really be something special,” Anik recalled. “Sometimes you need a 25-minute back-and-forth affair for it to be that classic Hall of Fame type fight. Thankfully, both chins held up to just a barrage of volume, technique, power, and skill. It’s probably the best fight I’ve ever called, man or woman.”
The Massachusetts native is aware that there may be some recency bias in those claims, but it’s a hard thing to argue against. As a commentator for the sport, and as a professional fan, Anik would love to see both women heal up and run it back. And though he is fully aware that many may be opposed to this idea since the once dominant Jedrzejczyk has gone from 6-0 in title fights to 6-4, it seems as if people were forgetting about the dominance this woman once had over the division for years.
Anik was really taking note of the last few weeks leading up to the fight, as almost everyone could tell something felt different about Jedrzejczyk. It felt like the old Joanna fans grew to know back then had returned. Her weight cut was a success and her coaches couldn’t help but sing praise for her preparation and focus leading up to the fight. Her intensity and seriousness towards the fight seemed stronger than ever.
“I think it is insane that people are questioning her heart, her hunger, and her motivation. Mike Brown is obviously a stabilizing force in her corner; all of her coaches deserve a lot of credit, and she deserves a lot of credit for her work ethic. I think Mike Brown is this unifying force when you put it all together. He has her clicking and motivating. You saw it on the scale; she mastered a weight cut that used to give her hell,” said Anik.
“For my money, she is richly deserving of the rematch. I thought there was a good chance she won that fight, if I’m being honest. We’ll see what happens. It’s a great division and they couldn’t have put on a better show, honestly.”
While he thinks highly of Jedrzejczyk’s performance that night and believes she may have had a good chance of getting the nod instead of her opponent, Anik was very impressed with the performance from the defending champion, as well. She answered many questions as she left it all in the Octagon that night.
There is already a big enough challenge in winning a championship, especially in a stacked division, but there is an even greater challenge in keeping and defending the title. As if the challenge of defending the title wasn’t enough, Zhang’s home country of China was tragically the first to be hit by the devastating Coronavirus.
To ensure she would make it to Las Vegas for fight night, Zhang had to relocate her camp to Thailand. Despite the stress and worry about life back home, the champion still had a job to do, and with all those variables against her, Zhang was able to overcome those odds with a hard-fought victory, going toe-to-toe with Jedrzejczyk for all five rounds in a world-class performance.
“I think Zhang Weili answered a lot of questions. She had to answer all those questions despite all the variables outlined and what she was dealing with before the fight. To answer the five-round fight question, whether or not she was really a championship fighter who could get stronger in rounds four and five, she had a big fifth round in this fight. She answered a lot of questions in terms of her longevity, her staying power, and her ability to not just defend the belt, because at 115 pounds it’s going to be hard to find someone to constantly defend this belt, but to be competitive in that top five.”
Like many fans, and the millions watching around the world, Anik is very excited about the state of the strawweight division and to see what these two athletes will do next. On that same night, prior to the co-main event, Anik would find himself in another moment that would be remembered by fans for years, as Beneil Dariush knocked out Drakkar Klose in the second round, spawning not only a memorable night for Dariush, but a moment that would also go viral on the internet.
After the fight was stopped, a replay of not only the finishing blow was shown, but the commentators’ reaction to the knockout. The facial expressions of Daniel Cormier, Joe Rogan, and Jon Anik caused an eruption of laughs throughout the crowd as it was shown on all screens in the arena and to those watching around the world. All three men screaming, falling over each other, holding onto one another, and holding their heads in disbelief and shock. It’s moments like that which Anik is extremely humbled to be a part of. Despite being professional fans, at the end of the day, he is well aware of what he contributes to these moments and the job that needs to be done.
“Largely our focus is to not be the focus, and that’s why I think when we run back that announcer camera on broadcast it’s weird for me because we’re running a replay of our reaction and not the fight,” said Anik. “When Dariush shows that to his kid in ten years, you know that moment is big for him, as big as can possibly be because these really are one moment in life, one moment in time. That’s something we take very seriously and that is something I’ve taken very seriously since I’ve called any sporting event. So, we take it seriously, sometimes too seriously, but we’re having fun.”
In 2019, Anik could once again find himself back at ESPN as the UFC would make ESPN their new broadcast home. It was a full circle moment for the New Englander, as the perception of MMA just ten years ago was completely different compared to now. Many protested and were very outspoken about the sport for many years. And though it was still a young sport, then and now, the potential of this new movement was clear as day. For many fans. it is easy to say, “Well, it’s about time,” in regards to the recognition and coverage of the sport. But like all things, it takes time.
“Well, it is crazy,” he said. “I’m gonna try not to sound too trite about it being like a dream sequence that mixed martial arts, with all the traction we had or didn’t have in 2008, 2009, and 2010 when I was there, could actually be on the network a decade later. It’s very thrilling for every single person who worked on MMA Live back in 2008 and 2009.”
While the new partnership between the largest MMA promotion and the largest sports network is one to celebrate, Anik still sees plenty of work to be done. Having the UFC be exclusive to ESPN now puts mixed martial arts on par with every other major sport. With competition from leagues like the NBA, MLB, and NFL, there is plenty for the UFC to accomplish in terms of business and global growth.
“It’s amazing to see the enhanced coverage but there is still work to be done. The NFL is king. There is a domestic gap that needs to be closed, as far as I’m concerned. Internationally, the UFC is enormous. But getting that domestic footprint, getting that traction with American fans, FOX spent seven years and a whole lot of resources trying to get that foothold. I think ESPN has done a masterful job taking that baton.”
With the current state of MMA being as healthy as can be, the future of the sport is always a hot topic. The sport is still going through growing pains in regard to certain rules and judging. Anik has been cageside for some horrific scoring outcomes that always result in an uproar from fans and fighters demanding change. As for what he hopes to see in the near future, Anik knows it’s an uphill battle the sport faces.
“We just have these wayward scorecards where you’ve got 30-27 for fighter A and 30-27 for fighter B on two of the three scorecards that matter, leaving a lot of fighters and fans feeling unfulfilled,” said Anik.
With a recent controversial decision in the Jon Jones vs. Dominic Reyes fight, talk about judging and scoring caught fire again. In response, the Kansas Athletic Commission will now offer MMA promoters an option for “real time” scoring. Instead of waiting until the very end of the bout, fighters could know if they won the previous round before the next one even begins, as it would be shown to them and to the audience. Open scoring is nothing new to combat sports, as the World Boxing Council and Glory Kickboxing have open scoring in certain jurisdictions.
“Score reforming is a loaded conversation because you don’t want it to affect the score, or at least I don’t,” he said. “As much as I’m a fan of open scoring, I do think you effectively change the sport a little bit, so even though if I got a vote on if we did open scoring or not it would be an affirmative yes for me. It’s not a constant that is not without its issues. I do think that having five judges instead of three on paper, in theory, sounds like an absolute must.”
The lack of consistent judging is something fans may not be aware of. Amongst the judges, only eight to ten may be considered elite and truly knowledgeable when it comes to judging the sport. Making note of the dismal number of competent judges, Anik isn’t quite sure how you would make these judges available for every fight card. It’s a task that is nearly impossible, yet so crucial for the betterment of the sport. Training former fighters on how to properly judge a fight could be a possible way to create true professional judges.
“I think an answer may be to have some sort of monitor at their houses and some sort of coordination, you do it that way. They certainly don’t need noise. All they need is noise to be watching what the people on TV are watching,” Anik explains. “I think you’re right that former fighters may be good in that role, but you also have to have an acute number of scoring. A lot of these guys don’t have that. There is some pretty attentive training that would go on. And yeah, I would love to see it as a financial conduit for all the fighters to make money after their careers, so I think you’re certainly on to something there. But I don’t know if there is a lot of money in judging, at least right now. I think that’s a good way to affect change. I think the sport is in a good state. I think talk is good.”
As mixed martial arts continues to grow, the landscape and talent of the sport grows exponentially every day. Anik looks forward to the future of combatants training at such young ages, as well as what the sport currently has to offer. The bantamweight division certainly has his eye, as he enjoys watching the talents of Peter Yan, Cory Sandhagen, and Aljamain Sterling. Anik was also giving high praise to a fighter he believes could be the future of the middleweight division, Edmen Shahbazyan.
“I get this question a lot and, for me, the answer is middleweight fighter Edmen Shahbazyan. He is 22 right now and I think he is as good as any 185lber in the world. I think Shahbazyan is competitive with Adesanya next weekend. All in on Shahbazyan. I think he is a top 5 middleweight, for sure, and in 2020, I think he’ll get to prove it, if not become champion.”
The sport of mixed martial arts is still growing and only just beginning, and the UFC isn’t even 30 years old, so there is still plenty more to achieve. Gentlemen like Jon Anik continue to treat the sport with the utmost respect and help drive the sport forward. He, as well as his team, continue to educate and entertain the rapidly growing fan base of mixed martial arts. His voice is one fans look forward to hearing on fight nights as he continues to help capture and create the magic that the sport has to offer, one moment and one fight at a time.
Podcast: Anik and Florian