Photo by Al Powers/Zuffa LLC
This past weekend at UFC 208 there was an air of professionalism and reserve to the proceedings longtime fans of MMA may have found disconcerting. After all, this was the first UFC pay-per-view event since the departure of longtime promotional play-by-play man Mike Goldberg in December and for those of us who grew up in the sport to the sound of Goldberg's voice the results were simply bizarre. Gone were the untimely outbursts and strange melodramatic claims and the bouts of over-romanticization and questionable technical acumen and overwrought catch-phrases and ungrammatical slips and occasional malapropisms we'd come to expect from UFC pay-per-view broadcasts, replaced by an efficient three-man team that was calm and succinct and appropriate and informative and damned professional, and yet strangely lifeless. One couldn't help but feel something was missing—something ridiculous and shaggy dog, true, but still something fundamentally UFC, something that spoke to the whole soul of MMA. Yes, Mike Goldberg was a middling play-by-play man with a questionable understanding of his sport, a halting and sometimes combative relationship with the English language, and a strange fetish for the "Rocky-like toughness" of white fighters from New Jersey, but he was our middling play-by-play man with a questionable understanding of his sport, a halting and sometimes combative relationship with the English language, and a strange fetish for the "Rocky-like toughness" of white fighters from New Jersey. For better and for worse, Mike Goldberg was the voice of the UFC, a voice that made up in joy and delight what it lacked in everything else. It's enough to make one wonder if sometimes there aren't more important things than mere competency to consider when making staffing decisions.
This week, just in time for the long-awaited return to America of Russian superstar heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko this Saturday at Bellator 172, rumors have been circulating that Goldberg, who called his last UFC event on Dec. 28 after WME|IMG opted not to renew his contract, is in talks with Bellator to take his talents to that organization. Though Bellator has its own commentary team in place, play-by-play man Sean Grande also calls games for the Boston Celtics, and Bellator President Scott Coker has confirmed that he has been talking to Goldberg about covering for Grande on those dates when Celtics games conflict with fights.
It's a wise move on Bellator's part. While the UFC, under the direction of WME|IMG, is clearly moving in the direction of the NBA and the NFL, sanding down the edges of its scrappy, ramshackle past and buffing itself up to a nice, professional sheen—firing "friends of the promotion" like Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell from its payroll and seeking a more professional tone from its announcing booth—Bellator is free to sell itself more and more as the spiritual home of MMA's more carnival-like past: before Reebok deals and anti-doping partnerships came along to gussy up cage-fights. And what better way to connect MMA fans to the emotional history of the sport than the sound of Mike Goldberg's voice calling a fight?
Goldberg's rumored move to the Bellator does put the UFC in a bit of a spot, though. Now that they've moved beyond Goldberg's loveable shaggy-dog amateurism, and now that their chief competitor is very likely going to grab onto that amateurism and make it their own, that only leaves the UFC one direction to go in: toward more professionalism. And while the UFC commentary teams are good and getting better, they're still a far cry from the gold standard set by organizations like the NBA and the Premier League Soccer over in England. The commentary teams for those leagues know that professionalism is great, but vitality is key, that their job is to communicate not just authority but joy. Iconic, I-was-there sports moments are amplified and given immortality by the sound of a great sports announcer lost in the moment. Now that Mike Goldberg is gone and very likely on his way to the competition, Jon Anik and friends need to find a way to walk that strange and elusive line between respectability and abandon, to make viewers both see something and believe in something, to create not just understanding but moments, to—dare I say it?—add a little bit of Mike Goldberg into the mix.