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Interview

Jon Anik | The Interview

A Glimpse Behind The Curtain With The Play-By-Play Voice Of UFC Pay-Per-View

When I call Jon Anik at his Florida home, the distinct sound of an inkjet printer whirrs somewhere in the background throughout our conversation. The corpse of the UFC 265 pay-per-view—Anik’s most recent broadcast assignment—is still warm, but he’s already printing out fighter bios and studying for his next turn behind the mic at UFC Fight Night: Cannonier vs Gastelum…an event nearly two full weeks away. Already notorious for the amount of preparation he puts into his play-by-play work, it’s still impressive to witness it in real time, particularly as he carefully eyes a baby monitor of his napping son.

International Fight Week with Jon Anik
International Fight Week with Jon Anik
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“I do think that it's been sort of a cornerstone of what I do,” he explains. “And maybe I'm just not as talented as the rest of the guys and I need to bridge the gap with preparation. Or maybe I feel subconsciously that because it's an open book test--as Brian Stann would say--that I might as well show up with as many notes as humanly possible…even if by the time I show up I have too many and can't read them.

“But for me, handwriting my notes puts me back in school essentially and forces me to really study this stuff. If I had a database, a digital database with all of this stuff, it wouldn't force me to do much more than names, records, and add a few notes. I’m writing out these men and women's UFC history essentially every time they compete. It helps me commit it to memory because reading comprehension was never my strong suit.”

The preparation is apparent when you hear Anik on the call. The main pay-per-view play-by-play announcer for the UFC since 2017, Anik continues to endear himself to MMA audiences with a heady tapestry of encyclopedic sports knowledge, polished emcee artistry and a wicked sense of Bostonian humor. Add in the chemistry he’s built with cohorts like Joe Rogan, Daniel Cormier and Dominick Cruz, and it’s a recipe for one of the most consistently great consumer sporting experiences on the entertainment landscape. And one gets the sense that if Anik were a plumber or a carpenter instead of a broadcaster, he’d still undertake the same amount of dogged preparedness.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “When I was working for my late stepfather as an electrician's, assistant at Dunkin’ Donuts and he told me to dig a two-foot ditch around the building and break for lunch, I tried to make sure I went down two feet!”

Commentator Reactions to UFC Upsets
Commentator Reactions to UFC Upsets
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UFC: So take us behind the curtain a little. Besides the hand-written notes, what actually goes into your preparation for a broadcast?

JA: So, it starts about two weeks out. And certainly if I'm in a back-to-back situation, the actual fighter prep per athlete gets a little bit crunched, right? Like when I'm coming off of a Conor McGregor pay-per-view and then I'm calling fights again the following week, I'm getting a late start no matter how you slice it. And that’s not for any lack of effort.

But it starts with doing voiceovers, the combo features, the in-arena stuff about 10 days out and then I start doing the fighter prep. I try to give every athlete at least an hour, which on a 15-fight card is 30 hours, so it can add up. But I try to make sure my fighter prep is mostly done by the time I arrive at the fighter meeting, so that I know as much about the circumstances of their lives and their careers by the time they're sitting in the Zoom meeting with me as possible. Then it segues to a lot of the show format. For better for worse, a lot of my job doesn't have anything to do with fighting. I guess my biggest wish would be that people would be able to understand how much work goes into what we do.

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Writing for television and making sure that we maximize those locker room bumps…when you see the athletes in the locker room on camera, that's an opportunity for me to get some of those fighter meeting nuggets out there.  Because the action happens so quickly and walkouts often times are in break, I’ve got to maximize my opportunity. So, I think when a lot of my colleagues are having dinner Friday night, I'm writing locker-room bumps and I'm not sure I'd have it any other way.

Jon Anik and Joe Rogan anchor the broadcast during the UFC 240 event at Rogers Place on July 27, 2019 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Chopping it up with Joe Rogan at UFC 240 July 27, 2019 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

UFC: I marvel at how you guys on the mic can absorb the visceral experience of these huge events and enjoy the moment while still keeping the show moving. What’s the key to balancing that?

JA: Well, we've never had a perfect show, so I think we're constantly trying to balance. There’s a lot, obviously, that goes into it. I'm in constant communication with the truck and our producers. You know, the featured prelim ends and it's total chaos. That’s the reason I didn't get to that 30-27 Fiziev score [vs Bobby Green at UFC 265] because it's total chaos getting ready for the pay-per-view.

But I've found, I think, a pretty good wheelhouse. I called my first MMA fight in 2009, my first UFC fight in January of 2012. But more often than not, I'm staring to my right at mixed martial arts royalty, whether it's Joe Rogan or a future UFC Hall of Famer. So, I'm not afraid to stay in my lane. I'm not afraid to embrace my role and stick to what I perceive to be my skills and my strengths.

I cut my teeth with the UFC in a lot of two-man booths. I'm in a three-man booth now and it's a math equation in a lot of respects, right? I mean, if I am in a two-man booth and Dominick Cruz stops talking, there's nobody else who could speak  except me, right? But if I'm, if I'm a three-man booth and DC stops talking, there's a chance Rogan might chime in. So might I give it a beat and and lay out to give him that respect more than I would do in a two-man booth? Sure. But I really enjoy the job and it's crazy, man. Eight and a half hours on a headset? I'm not sure I'd wish it on my worst play-by-play enemy, but I am just so thankful to have this seat.

UFC: There are lots of things I enjoy about hearing you on the mic, but maybe what I appreciate the most are the little Easter eggs like “He is a man, he is 40.” If you know the reference, you’re cracking up, but if you don’t, it just sounds like part of the program.

JA: Thank you. That Mike Gundy reference* just left such an indelible imprint on my mind that when I see these fighters--however rare--at forty years old, I can't help but just say it. Even if some of the viewers are sort of getting tired of it, I just can't help myself.

But you know, Daniel Cormier obviously went to Oklahoma State, but he likes it because he's a collegiate athletics fan. So, every time I say it, it gets him. And the beauty of that one--just because you asked about it--Matt Brown absolutely loved when I said it about him and he has no idea the context of Mike Gundy, which makes it even sweeter.

I think if people saw me at my core or listen or watch the Anik & Florian podcast, they know that a lot of different things come out of my mouth. So maybe on a UFC telecast I have really found the ability to check that. Sometimes people would say I walk up to the line without crossing it. I'm certainly not testing things out. You’d be surprised how many of our fans ingest all seven hours on a Saturday night. So I inject my personality when I when I feel like I can do it without it taking away from the athletes, who are always at the forefront.

UFC: You mention the podcast you do with Kenny Florian. How does that complement what you do on fight night?

JA: Well, certainly if I didn't have a place to talk about everything that happens on a UFC Saturday night, you know within 36 or 48 hours, I would go crazy. So I think it's for the betterment of my family life that I have that outlet to get a lot of those things off my chest.

I still recognize my role in the sport doesn't necessarily allow me to be as opinionated as some other pundits and that's okay. I love the fact that I don't have to give fight predictions on my podcast. That's a beautiful thing. But it certainly gives me an opportunity to get things off my chest, really the positive stuff, like about Ciryl Gane and Jose Aldo. Like, I can't wait to hear what Kenny Florian says Jose Aldo. That’s why we started at six years ago and we both feel like it's a Little Engine That Could, right? We've always focused on the content and we haven't focused on money. We will never charge you for it. It will never be behind a paywall. And yes, I feel like it's not only therapeutic for me but it's the best way I can see to give back to the fans other than giving away tickets—and most of my tickets do go to fans--I feel like the best way to give back.

Jon Anik and Kenny Florian talk about an upcoming fight during the UFC Fight Night event at the Venetian Macau on March 1, 2014 in Macau. (Photo by Mitch Viquez/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
With partner in podcasting crime Kenny Florian, 2014 (Photo by Mitch Viquez/Zuffa LLC)

UFC: You popularized the phrase “One More Sleep” in the UFC pop culture lexicon; you even have gear with it now. What’s it like to utter a phrase that comes naturally and just have it take on a life of its own?

JA: It’s a good question. I think it's the sort of thing that anyone who is in the public eye to whatever degree sort of gets more used to, some of the attention. I love when things happen organically, whether it's the “No-nonsense Keith Peterson” or the “one more sleep” thing that just took off. It really wasn't until it started resonating with the athletes –Aljamain Sterling and Dan Ige mentioned it,  the fans in the hotel and Glendale start chanting “one more sleep”--it makes you feel pretty good.

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It’s obviously a very special job and because our sport is global and because people seem to care about the broadcast a great deal, every utterance is judged. Obviously I'm thankful and grateful for the pressure. I didn't always embrace it to the extent to which I do now. I'm super thankful for the support from the fan base, which I feel like I've had to earn over ten years.

UFC: Before you were ever paid to talk about it, do you remember the first time you ever saw MMA?

JA: Oh yeah. I hosted a Boston radio show and boxing promoter Gary Shaw was starting EliteXC and he invited a lot of the Boston radio shows and television shows to Mississippi to see EliteXC 1. I was at a time where I was very defensive of boxing and when I saw this mixed martial arts avalanche, I was like, “what the heck is this?” So, at first I gave it the Heisman, I would say. But as soon as I saw mixed martial arts live in person doing an event in 2007--interviewing athletes like Gina Carano, Frank Shamrock and Renzo Gracie were the main event-- my wheels started turning that night. I was like, man, this offers a lot more than boxing in a lot of respects. And certainly now talking to me 14, 15 years after I attended my first MMA show, MMA has effectively ruined boxing for me. There's just too much holding. I’m just so thankful that I found it when I did.

Because I had a boxing background--not as a martial artist but as a boxing journalist--when espn.com was launching MMA Live, I was in Bristol working radio and TV at the time there. If memory serves, I got an audition for MMA Live and once I got that show, I was completely obsessed with the sport and I did Bellator and then the UFC came calling a couple years later.

Matt Brown is interviewed by Jon Anik after defeating Diego Sanchez in their welterweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside the Ted Constant Convention Center on November 11, 2017 in Norfolk, Virginia. Matt Brown won by KO. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Man to man with Matt Brown in Norfolk, 2017 (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC)

UFC: And what was the transition like to being this guy who covers the sport, to the play-by-play guy and now, more important than that, you’re literally synonymous with the experience of watching UFC fights next to names like Bruce Buffer and Megan Olivi.

JA: Well, I certainly didn’t expect to ascend to the lead play-by-play seat as soon as it happened, but I certainly felt ready. That happened just probably about five years into my UFC run. But I wanted to do the bigger shows and I think it's certainly helped me to have the opportunity to go to Brazil 26 or 27 times, and travel the world and learn most of the bottom half of the roster, for lack of a better way to put it.

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I feel like [UFC execs] Craig Borsari and Zach Candito masterfully groomed me and obviously they felt like I was ready. I have a tremendous bond with Joe Rogan and I'm very thankful for the friendship that I hope transcends on the air.

But yeah man, as you know, it's a special sport. Sometimes it's hard to smell the roses or focus on that because there is a lot of pressure. I’m obviously very, very thankful for this job. Doing live events compared to being a highlight machine in the studio is incomparable. So, for me, this scratches the itch. Like I don't think anything else would sort get my heart rate going the way this does. I'm thankful to hear you say that and hopefully we keep earning it.

UFC: Who were some announcers that you admired when you were younger?

JA: Sean McDonough, man. When he was no longer the Boston Red Sox play-by-play guy, it was a bad day for me.

To this day, I feel like I picked the good guy to have as my mentor. I didn't have that much time with him. I did do updates on his radio show at the Sporting News Radio Boston affiliate back in the day. And I'll never forget, I said “first-ever” in one of my updates and he called me back in on the air and he said “first-ever is redundant, if it's first, you don't need the first-ever.” Obviously “first-ever” is one of the most misused words in the sports vernacular, so that always stuck with me. But yeah, Sean McDonough.

I think any play-by-play guy--even though hockey would be my weakest suit by far, you had to pay attention to what Doc Emrick was doing in calling a very hard sport. But mixed martial arts really is a different beast in and of itself. I always loved Mauro Renallo’s style and his energy, but I've really had to find my own style and my own way in a sport that sort of makes it hard to do traditional play-by-play. A lot of our analysts are calling strikes and I'm okay with that. But that means the play-by-play guy has got to make an adjustment.

But yeah, Sean McDonough is the first guy that comes to mind for sure, and I really grew up admiring Sportscenter guys like Stuart Scott, and Kenny Mayne. I didn't necessarily think I had the chops to be a play-by-play guy, but as soon as I got to Bristol and I was on a desk doing highlights, I had to get out of there. So here we are.

Conor McGregor of Ireland is interviewed by Jon Anik during the UFC 257 weigh-in at Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 22, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Mutual admiration with McGregor on UFC Fight Island (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

UFC: On Fight Island, Conor McGregor called you “an incredible asset to the company”. As an incredible asset to the company himself, are there any compliments much bigger than that one?

JA: It gave me so much confidence going into that pay-per-view because circumstantially, as his star has grown, I haven't had a lot of contact with him. I don't do a lot of sit-down interviews with the fighters because my focus is in other areas. So when I saw him on Fight Island I didn't know he had said that when I saw him, but it was probably our first embrace since I got a “209”** tattoo, right?

So obviously knowing that he's watching from afar and enjoying the commentary and my presence to whatever degree really meant a lot.

I understand that when you listen to an announcer calling twenty-five shows over eight hours you're not going to like everything that comes out of his mouth. We're trying to be as listenable as possible, understanding fully that probably by the end of this interview you're sick of hearing my voice. So we're trying to be as listenable as humanly possible and thankfully Conor seems to be on board.

 

*Oklahoma State University Head Football Coach Gundy famously ranted at the media critiquing his player in a 2007 press conference declaring “I’m a man! I’m forty!”

**After losing a bet regarding the winner of the UFC 196 main event between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor, Anik paid up by getting a tattoo of “209,” the area code of Diaz’s hometown of Stockton, CA.