“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.


Do Style Points Count More Than a Record? – The UFC Releases Jake Shields

2010: "He's mine..."; 2014" "He's all yours..."

2010: “He’s mine…”; 2014:” “He’s all yours…”

What a difference four years makes.

News this morning that one-time UFC contender and former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields has been released by the promotion sent pugilist pundits from the MMA hemisphere of the combat sports world running for their Twitter accounts to voice their immediate reactions.

It’s a tough pill to swallow given that when Jake Shields in on his game, as when he fought Dan Henderson or Mike Pyle in Strikeforce,  his is one of the most smothering and constrictive styles to counter.  However, when Shields isn’t firing on all cylinders, like in the case of his fights against GSP or Hector Lombard, he bears the brunt of criticism from fans and promoters that his style is “boring”.

I’m not convinced that Shields’ lack of style points is the result of his release.  It’s hard to argue that, though, given the fact that other fighters with longer losing streaks and more “exciting” styles have been kept on board for a longer duration (Pat Barry, Leonard Garcia, and Dan Hardy come to mind).

Before his fight against Lombard, Shields hoped to use a spectacular win over Lombard to help him in negotiating a new deal with the UFC, as he only had one fight after UFC 171 left on his contract.  With Shields’ most recent loss, one that was so completely one-sided in Lombard’s favor, does it stand to reason that his UFC 171 performance was enough to leave a really bad taste in the promotion’s mouth, one it would use when it came time to re-negotiate for a new contract?  Or, in the case of Shields just completely cut ties? Perhaps.   Perhaps there’s more than just the surface “boring” accusations, though.

Consider Shields’ time in the promotion outside of his record.  Shields’ wins over Tyron Woodley and Demian Maia are solid wins on paper, but both were split decisions and far from as dominating and comprehensive as his wins over opponents like Dan Henderson and Yoshihiro Akiyama.  Add to the mix the dominating loses to GSP and Jake Ellenberger and a win over Ed Herman that was overturned due to a failed drug test, and suddenly the UFC seems to have a pretty big negotiating stick.  Or at least, it has plausible deniability regarding his release as being a case of the borings.   After all, what if Shields had been consistently as dominate over his UFC opponents as he was over Dan Henderson in Strikeforce or as he was over Akiyama?  Would that change how fans and the promotion view Shields?

When Jake Shields signed with the UFC in 2010, he used big wins over Hendo and Robbie Lawler as leverage to get a very favorable contract.  Could it be that now, at the end of that contract, the UFC felt the juice simply wasn’t worth the squeeze?   It’s all speculative as the fight world hears from Jake Shields, and he’s staying quiet for the moment.

The outrage from MMA analysts over Shields’ release seems more directed at the UFC’s promoter and his penchant for fighters who just bang, bro.  I understand it.  I see the hypocrisy in keeping around fighters on a losing streak and rewarding them, but objectively, I don’t know if this is the only reason Jake Shields found himself on the outs with the UFC.

Here’s the rub: while Jake Shields’ record may not matter to the UFC, the UFC shine may be just what catches the eye of Bellator or the WSOF, with Shields’ winning record coming in a close second (I say Bellator though Bjorn Rebney has a bias against styles like Shields’). Everyone gets used in this situation.  Did the UFC use Jake Shields to help put Strikeforce on its back and to help give GSP’s title reign legitimacy by having GSP fight a top-10 contender?  Yes.  Will Jake Shields use his run in the UFC to help him get a new deal outside of the promotion? Absolutely.

Shields & Lombard stare down before UFC 171

Shields & Lombard stare down before UFC 171

Furthermore, if all of the cosmic tumblers fall into place and Shields signs with someone like the WSOF and ends up running the table (a difficult task considering Palhares, Fitch, and Burkman are all studs at 170), Shields will be right back where this all started, on the arm of Dana White and with a larger price tag for the UFC to pay. It’s cyclical.  Just ask Dan Henderson.

It’s a shame that fight fans will not get to see Shields apply his brand of combat against the likes of Aidan Amagov, Matt Brown, Dong Hyun Kim, or Kelvin Gastelum in the Octagon just yet.  However, it also doesn’t mean he won’t ever be seen inside of the UFC again either.  Fight fans and pundits could take a page from the Jake Shields book of game planning—be patient because persistence and wins cannot be denied.

Unless you’re Ben Askren.