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Brendan Fitzgerald anchors the broadcast during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30 2020 in Las Vegas Nevada (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Brendan Fitzgerald | The Interview

Play-By-By Announcer Reflects On The First Four Big Years In The UFC Broadcast Booth

The start time for UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Volkov was early that week, 10:30am PT to be precise. So UFC play-by-play commentator did what any normal person would do before a demanding television broadcast: he went for a run in the scorching Las Vegas heat.

“I find to get some energy out almost brings me energy, too. We’re going to be sitting there for six and a half, seven hours. I might as well use my legs and stand up and run around while I can, knowing that I’ll be in front of a TV monitor and calling the fights.

“It started about six weeks ago. I was just like, ‘I need to do something hard every day. Do something hard. Get through something.’ I always used to get up and do a run or a walk around the city wherever our fight nights were. So now that we’re at home, it’s like, mimic that however you can. It’s become a mini-ritual for me.

For many, the prospect of hosting a lengthy international television broadcast would be “something hard.” But staying golden-voiced and poised while covering the most wildly unpredictable sport in the world is where Fitzgerald continues to make it look easy.

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“I try to give my body a boost because I think what I realize after doing this job for a little bit is that even though we’re just sitting there—on the surface we’re sitting there watching TV—watching a monitor and talking. It doesn’t seem that challenging. But we are kind of asking a lot out of our bodies to sit there, be on high alert for six, seven hours at a time, using your voice a lot. There are physical elements to it. I think I was overlooking that at the beginning, and once I started taking that into account, I’ve been able to get a little better prepared with it.”

The “little bit” Fitzgerald speaks of is going on four years now, first with the inaugural Dana White’s Contender Series and then a seamless transition to UFC Fight Night coverage, where he regularly shares the booth with the likes of Paul Felder, Daniel Cormier and Dominick Cruz. His status as the “new guy” quickly metamorphosed into a personality indivisible from the UFC universe.

UFC News caught up with him for a long-overdue check-in during a rare break in the action.

UFC commentators Brendan Fitzgerald and Paul Felder pose during Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series at the TUF Gym on August 29 2017 in Las Vegas Nevada (Photo by Brandon Magnus/DWTNCS)
With Paul Felder On The Early Days Of Dana White's Contender Series, August 2017 (Photo by Brandon Magnus/DWTNCS)

UFC: You didn’t have the most traditional path to the UFC broadcast booth. For those that might not know, can you tell that story again?

Brendan Fitzgerald: I always wanted to work in sports broadcasting, and what I wanted to do changed over the years. My dream job was always to be an anchor on Sportscenter; be a studio guy who did highlights, interviews and that sort of thing. And so I came up by being the local sports guy on a local NBC or CBS affiliate, the guy that comes on at the end of your local news and does the highlights for three to five minutes and then “back to you on the news desk.”

So I did that at a handful of different stations. Got to my home city of Boston, covered Boston sports for a couple years and that was amazing. Then I went to ESPNU to cover college sports. That got a little bit more specialized in that it was only college sports, mainly college football and basketball. You go a little more in-depth on certain subjects.

Then after ESPNU they were looking for broadcasters for Dana White’s Contender Series when it launched in 2017. I auditioned for that with very little experience in the world of MMA in terms of knowledge. I’d never called a fight before. But I did well enough that I got the thumbs-up from Dana and company and here I am all these years later.

It’s been the best job because it’s been the first job I’ve had where it’s hyper-focused on one thing and you can really go just as deep as you want into it. That’s number one. Number two is I love the hell out of it! If you go deep into something and you don’t really love it, it’s going to be a chore. It’s going to be work. The great thing about this job is it’s never felt like a chore to watch old highlights to get ready for broadcast, to learn more about the sport, to start training jiu-jitsu…anything that’s revolved around it, I’ve loved doing it.

UFC: What was that early learning curve like, all the nuances not only of UFC fighters but also mixed martial arts, in general?

BF: When you do bounce around to different cities like I did, you find yourself covering some diverse stuff. I had that benefit. I worked in Wyoming and I covered college rodeo. They have rodeo teams. Then I went down to south Texas, where there is a big Hispanic population, to cover high school soccer and they’re not really speaking a lot of English. Once you find a way to be successful at that, you kind of can cover anything. You find yourself comfortable in learning about something and then relaying it to the viewer.

So, for me, it was never too daunting to be like “I don’t know anything about this. I can’t do it.” It was like, “Here’s another thing to learn. So, let’s watch the sport and how it’s covered. What sounds good to you?” Then try to come up with your own version of what it should sound like.

Anybody can watch a UFC broadcast and understand. When a fighter walks out, what do they talk about? They talk about where he’s from. They talk about things that have happened in their life. They talk about their coaches. They talk about their family...something of interest that ties into the fight and what we might see coming up based on what kind of athlete they are. Then they step in and you call the action. When you really break it down, you can kind of do that with anything. If you can do that with a quarterback that’s playing in an NFL playoff game when he runs out onto the field, then you can do it with a middleweight contender as he’s walking to the Octagon. It’s storytelling when it comes down to it.

Urijah Faber is interviewed by Brendan Fitzgerald during the UFC Fight Night weigh-ins at Golden 1 Center on July 12 2019 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
With Urijah Faber At UFC Sacramento Weigh-Ins, July 2019 (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

UFC: How important was starting on Contender Series?

BF: It was supremely important. It was a way for me to get introduced to the world in a way that wasn’t too crazy. There’s no other sport where they ask you to be on TV for seven hours. There are no games that last that long. I guess golf, maybe [laughs]?

So, to kind of get my feet wet with fighters that not a lot of people knew about—because they’re the up-and-coming---to learn about them and not feel like I didn’t know anything. So, to feel like “Yeah, I did my research on these people, and now I’m introducing them to fight fans,” and to also just start calling the fights and getting a feel for the broadcast, working with the fighters, working with the producers that do the UFC. I wouldn’t have called UFC events if I hadn’t succeeded at doing Contender Series first.

UFC: And what was the experience of calling that first UFC event?

BF: December 9, 2017, Fresno, CA. Brian Ortega vs Cub Swanson in the main event. I could tell you so much connected to that weekend because it was my first UFC show; it was like “Ok, I think this is going to work out right now.”

I had got laid off at ESPN and then it was like “what’s going to be next in my career?” I knew I did well enough on the Contender Series to know that I’d continue working with the UFC, but I didn’t know in what capacity, for how long, how busy I would be. And so Fresno was the first show that I got. It was on FS1 and to that point in my career it was the biggest broadcast I’d ever done, no matter the sport.

I just knew what an opportunity that was. I remember having a ton of fun that weekend because I became fast friends with Paul Felder and our producers Zach Candito and Michael LaPlante. I was just so welcomed by everybody on the staff; production staff, UFC staff from PR to the people in the TV truck. I never felt like I was the new guy that had to prove myself. I was the play-by-play announcer that they were happy to have.

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We had fun fights that night. Paul Felder was still getting used to commentating. It was still this new experience. Then right after the main event and we were done with TV, we walked to the back and our VP of Production Zach Candito, who runs the ship from a live production standpoint, came out of the truck and said, “Do you want to do St Louis?” I was like, “Sure!” I called my wife and said, “I’m doing St Louis next month!” From there, it spiraled into what it has become now. It’s been great.

A lot of people who are able to travel the world with this UFC show and see New York City and Stockholm, Sweden and Sydney, Australia won’t be the most thrilled about Fresno, California. But Fresno is a place with very good memories for me.

UFC: What’s it like going from a relative newcomer to the sport, to being a personality that’s almost synonymous with watching the UFC on television?

BF: I try to never lose the special quality of what I get to do. Obviously living in Las Vegas and having most events at the UFC APEX right now, it’s very different than it was or will be again, but it has just felt so comfortable. I feel so comfortable talking to the fans, working alongside fighters to the point where it’s weird when you step back and think, “I didn’t know much about this sport a few years ago.”

I’ve always been looking for this job. When you get into sports media, it forces you to move around a lot. What you want to do is find a job where you can thrive. Those early jobs of mine were to get to the next job. Now I’m in a job where I don’t want to get to the next job. Now my job is to learn and grow and continue to get as good as I can and find other fun projects connected to the company that I’m with. Before, it was always “Where can I go next that’s going to pay me more? That’s going to give me a higher profile?” Fill in the blank, whatever you’re looking for.

Now I’m in a city I love, my family is well-settled. I don’t want to continue to move every two years like I did for a while. I work for an incredible company. I get to connect with awesome people and athletes and tell great stories.

UFC: Speaking of telling great stories, you’ve got your FitzNation podcast on iTunes and Spotify. How did that come about and how does it fit in with what you do on Fight Night?

BF: When I was at ESPN, there was a guy that came in and taught us how to interview. It was a three-day seminar. It was 9am-5pm in a conference room for three days. At the beginning of the first day, I was like “What is going to happen? He can talk about interviewing for three days?” And by the end of the third day, I wanted more. I wanted a full college semester and more. It was so fascinating to learn the ins and outs of what makes good interviews.

Since then, I’ve really wanted to do more interviews and the job I had at ESPN really didn’t allow for that. It was mostly just studio hosting, highlight shows, halftime shows, things like that. When I got to the UFC I kind of pitched it to my boss that I’d love to start an interview project, and he said “yeah, sounds good, would love to have you do it.” So I started with UFC doing sit-down interviews with different fighters. But based on our production schedule or who is fighting, they can be few and far between. I did one with Bryce Mitchell in Nashville in March of 2019. After that I was like “That was a lot of fun, I can’t wait to do the next one.” But I knew it was going to be a while.

So, I was like, “I’m in Las Vegas, there’s fighters coming into the UFC Performance Institute all the time. I could just start my own podcast where I interview fighters.”

It’s different. It’s not talking about the big fights coming up or reacting to last weekend. It’s not talking about Jake Paul or Conor McGregor. It’s a focused interview about that fighter’s life and career.

My wife is from Hawaii. We were visiting her family in April, and I just bought some microphones that would plug into my phone. I texted Yancy Medeiros and I said, “Hey man, could you meet me at this parking lot? I’m starting a podcast,” and he was like, “Yeah, sure!” So we were leaning on the hood of my father-in-law’s Toyota Camry by a Starbucks in the middle of Oahu, and we did like an hour-long interview.

I didn’t really force it. I didn’t have this plan of what it’s going to be, I just said “Let me start interviewing fighters. If nobody listens, it’s incredible for me to connect with them.” I’ll sit down with them and truly listen to them about their story. I’ve kind of leaned into the personal development, self-help focus of it. To not only ask about their lives but pick their brains about what has allowed them to achieve to the level they’ve been able to achieve, to get to the highest level of fighting or other things that are important to them. Because I think one thing that’s in common with every fighter in the UFC is that it takes battling through a hell of a lot of adversity, belief in yourself, finding any way that you can improve mentally and physically. They’re always looking for these little edges they can have, and I think a lot of people can take that into their own lives. Even if we’re not professional, world-class athletes, there are certain things we can do to get better, whether it’s our family or our careers or taking care of our bodies a little better, we can learn from these fighters. That’s kind of what it’s turned into a little bit.

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UFC: Speaking of self-help, we’ve seen you champion stoicism and specifically Ryan Holiday books on social media. For someone that’s new to that school, how would you sell them on it?

BF: When you boil it down, when you zoom out on your own life and your own problems and whatever is stressing you out, you have to understand that for thousands of years, people have been dealing with the same thing that you’re dealing with and often times much, much worse. It can really snap it into perspective right away. It can really make you go from having a stressed-out day or a bust day to: every day can be a good day.

With Ryan Holiday, I think he just does a masterful job of saying “Do you think what you’re going through is unique? This guy from ancient Rome wrote this paragraph.” And it’s like “Whoa, that pretty much sums up what I’m feeling like right now.”

So whatever issues arise, whatever headlines get your blood boiling…if you step back and realize that we as human beings have been going through the same things and fighting the same battles for thousands of years, then you can sit back and realize what is important. The battles are what make life worth living. If everyone could just sit on a beach and drink a margarita all day every day, I promise that gets boring after maybe a week…maybe two weeks if it’s an especially nice place [laughs]. But we need a purpose to strive for and you need to find out what that is for you and not get deterred by things that pop up along the way. That’s the way. The Obstacle Is The Way is the title of one of those books.

That’s one thing about Dana White. You’ve got to just love our leader for taking a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic and turning it into the year that we’ve had. There’s a lot of people that would just fold up the doors. He could be like “I’m rich, I could sit in my house forever.” But it’s like, no, let’s figure out a way to deal with this and move forward. The people and the companies and the organizations that do that are the ones that last a long time because they’re not scared by anything.

Brendan Fitzgerald Daniel Cormier and Michael Bisping anchor the broadcast during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30 2020 in Las Vegas Nevada (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Chopping it up with DC on Fight Night at the UFC Apex, May 30 2020 in Las Vegas Nevada (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

UFC: When you’re in the trenches and working on Fight Night, do you have time to actually enjoy the fights in the moment, or is your mind on the broadcast?

BF: I love it. With our job---being able to talk through it—it almost allows me to enjoy it more. When I’m not working a show and I’m on the couch, I’m watching it and I’m enjoying it, but I’m not outwardly speaking about what’s happening. I’m not as locked in.

So, when I’m working, you’re as zoned in as you can be, with two experts that have fought in the Octagon that can bring things to life. With producers in the truck talking to us throughout, as well, it’s like a hyper, 360° experience of what’s going on in there. I find myself totally able to enjoy it. It’s like little moments that you just get to live through. One fight’s gone, and then here comes another one. That’s one of the great parts of the job.

UFC: What makes a good show for you? When it’s finally over and you take off the headset, what makes you go, “Yeah, that was a good one”?

BF: Without great fights, we’re nothing. Without great fighters leaving it all in the Octagon, we have nothing. It takes them. So obviously some nights are more memorable in terms of the types of fights we have, the action we have, the stories of who wins and in what particular fashion.

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I saw a social media post the other day, and it was three Knockout of the Year contenders halfway through 2021. It was Cory Sandhagen’s flying knee vs Frankie Edgar, one was Derrick Lewis’ uppercut vs Curtis Blaydes and another was Jiri Prochazka on Dominick Reyes. I was like “Man, I called all three of those. I’ve had a pretty special year already.”

With a crowd it just makes the big moments bigger. People ask me all the time what fights were the most memorable, what’s your favorite call, that sort of thing. Like Urijah Faber coming back after four years away in Sacramento, his hometown, and then getting his first knockout since 2007. That’s a special moment and I was privileged to be on the headset for that. Cowboy Cerrone setting the all-time record for wins and finishes in his home state on the 25th Anniversary show. There are some nights when you put down the headset and go “That’s a moment that’s going to live for a while.”