Ikon FC commentator TJ De Santis has been at it for quite awhile and has seen many stars cutting their teeth before they make it to The Show, but Bo Nickal’s pro MMA debut just might be the biggest star he’s introduced the world to.
Making his commentary debut in May 2004, De Santis has covered regional shows across the country and beyond the U.S. borders watching future stars come and go along the way. There are times you know coming into the fight that a fighter is going to go from a guy to “The Guy,” there are times where you see it coming after a strong performance, and some fighters bloom later.
For all of these reasons, De Santis sees every one of his fights as must-see TV.
“This is why you pay attention to mixed martial arts,” De Santis said. “Bo Nickal might fight to become a UFC champion, or he might not. He might fight five times and decide he doesn’t want to do it, or he might fight 25 times and decide he’s all-in and go as far as he can go in the sport. We live in a time now where it’s so accessible to watch fights and to watch these stories evolve long before the UFC.”
Growing up in the Midwest and having secret BJJ accolades to his name, De Santis has been all-in on MMA since the days of message boards and Iowa PPVs, but he’s no stranger to the sport of wrestling. While he’d call himself a “casual” in his wrestling fandom, in 2022 he knows the sport enough to know Nickal and the head start his skills on the mat have given him in his MMA career.
“I grew up in Minnesota. Wrestling is a thing there,” De Santis laughed. “I’ve always had some granular interest in wrestling, especially when I began to work in MMA where I was led to believe, and I still believe, that wrestling is the cornerstone of any good mixed martial artist. When you’re a wrestler of a high level, you’re already 2/3 built into becoming a well-rounded mixed martial artist.”
Call it his Midwestern roots, call it his devotion to the core of the sport, but De Santis represses the idea that wrestling is a boring style in MMA or that Nickal will have the tendency, as a wrestler, to “lay on guys the whole time.” It’s a very present narrative that makes the rounds frequently, and the 18-year veteran of calling sports wants it to come to an end.
“Is Michael Chandler boring?” De Santis asks. “I think that just because they’re wrestlers doesn’t mean they’re going to subscribe to the label of being ‘a wrestler.’ I haven’t met a lot of these wrestlers, these high-level wrestlers who find success in MMA, who aren’t all of a sudden excited to be able to punch and to kick people.”
Throughout the years, it has actually played out quite differently for wrestlers, as De Santis recalls. Sure, there have been wrestling-heavy fights that may have turned the crowd off, but it doesn’t often come from the blue-chip NCAA vets.
“When you see guys like Johny Hendricks or Josh Koscheck, high-level wrestlers, National champions in some cases, you see these guys become top five in the world,” De Santis said. “In the case of Koscheck and Hendricks, a lot of their wins came by knockout; their wrestling became secondary. I think it’s interesting anytime you see a high-level wrestler make that transition. They’re already built to a certain extent, and to see where they’re going to go in a short amount of time is always exciting.”
De Santis called nearly every Invicta show, got plenty of mic time in with TPF, as well as dozens of other promotions. He’s called some of the greatest grapplers in the world at EBI and he’s called the debuts of former UFC title challengers. It’s already been a long road for De Santis, and while he’s still got plenty of gas in the tank, it’s fights like these that have him counting down the minutes until his next day on the job.
“Sure, I would love to call the UFC,” De Santis admitted. “I would love to be right there with Jon Anik and Brendan Fitzgerald, but I love being part of the come up for these athletes. There’s two stories that unfold with every fight. Hardcore MMA fans, and I’m guilty of this too, love to flex their knowledge like, ‘I saw this guy fight in Tuff N Uff.’ I get to do that and be incentivized because it’s my job. More often than not, when I look at anybody who’s a hardcore MMA fan, if someone’s making their debut and they have a high wrestling pedigree like a Bo Nickal, you’re tuned in, or at least you should be, and if you’re not, you’re not a hardcore.”
Catch the debut of Bo Nickal at iKon FC 3 on June 3, ONLY on UFC FIGHT PASS!