“Sometimes these things happen in MMA.”—Gus Johnson
Being an MMA commentator is an utterly thankless job. For every fight fan who praises Michael Schiavello’s enthusiasm during a fight or Joe Rogan’s rapport with fighters in post-fight interviews, there are droves of critics who decry Mike Goldberg’s responsibility to plug the next UFC event mid-fight or Mauro Ranallo’s attempts to give a live fight more context and illustration.
And fighters-turned commentators don’t get any latitude either. Guys like Pat Militech, Brian Stann, Kenny Florian, and Bas Rutten offer a unique perspective but get lambasted by fight fans who perceive their insights as attacks on and personal biases against the viewer’s favorite fighter. Even the fighters sometimes fail to give the commentators the credit they deserve. From Josh Barnett taking offense at Kenny Florian or Rampage Jackson coming down on Rich Franklin for stating the obvious, MMA commentators seem to bear the brunt of criticism from all directions. and this is likely before they even get production notes from producers. It’s a lose-lose situation, but it does speak volumes that the number of commentators, especially in the UFC, is so few. It’s a challenging job that not just anyone can fill.
A good commentator is one that complements the action so the audience barely notices the contribution as being a part of the broadcast. So when a commentator draws attention to himself or herself in spite of the action, it makes the commentating task that much harder. It’s also a trap that every commentator falls into, at one time or another, directly or indirectly. But when veteran sports commentator Gus Johnson jumped into the bear trap during the CBS broadcast of Strikeforce: Nashville, MMA fan reactions were vitriolic.
In the main event, Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields dominated Dan Henderson with a gutty performance after Shields was rocked early. Looking back, Johnson teed-up Shields perfectly. Johnson set the scene, talking about how the perception was that Strikeforce had expected Shields to lose by bringing in Henderson, and Shields was more than ready to respond with his thoughts.
Then, the wheels came off.
Self-promotion machine Jason Mayhem Miller had just interrupted Jake Shields’s victory interview with Johnson when the extras from Shields’s camp, including Gilbert Melendez and Nate and Nick Diaz, took umbrage and began to throw punches at Miller. The production cut to a shot of an empty arena from the prelims, briefly, to distract the audience. However, when the live broadcast returned, the melee intensified, and Johnson, wisely, exited the swarm like a thief in the night. The disgust from the crowd and Mauro Renallo was audible. And then Johnson added to the ridiculousness in the cage saying, “Sometimes these things happen in MMA.”
Fight pundits and critics took aim at Gus Johnson for his response. These things happen in MMA? Thanks a lot Gus! We’re trying to get on national TV here!
The dirty little secret that no one likes to mention is that yes, these things do happen. Maybe not as frequently in MMA as the connotation suggests (though even recently Johnny Bedford and Rani Yaha engaged in a post-fight kerfuffle). They happen in MMA (and they seem to happen with frequency when the Diaz brothers are in the cage). They happen in the NBA. Hell, they happen in the NFL after practically every play where there’s a holding penalty. Johnson just happened to acknowledge this on a live mic instead of trying to spin out of it. But the connotation was out there, and fight fans to this day still cry foul.
The criticisms about Johnson’s calls that night and his knowledge of the sport aside, the simple fact is there was really no way for Gus Johnson to steer the brawl in Memphis into an acceptable landing. It wasn’t Johnson’s fault the fight took place to begin with. And to his credit, he attempted to right the ship and interview Jake Shields once the cage had cleared. Still, Johnson’s quote lives on in infamy partly because of the time and place and the infancy of the sport. In a piece by SI’s Loretta Hunt, Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker says of the brawl in Nashville, “It’s was a national event and letting that situation happen was an embarrassment.” At the end of the day, the brawl was embarrassing. Gus Johnson’s call simply ended up complementing that embarrassment.