Words: Gareth A. Davies
This article originally featured in Fighters Only April 2020 – Issue 141
UFC color commentator Joe Rogan spoke for the fans of the sport when he claimed that ESPN’s Stephen A Smith played down the performance of Donald Cerrone against Conor McGregor in Las Vegas in January.
Smith lambasted Cerrone, and the people were not happy. It was a sports media ‘culture clash’ of epic proportions. MMA is consistently growing into the mainstream, and McGregor’s 40-second knockout of Donald Cerrone drew the attention of ESPN’s trumpeting, opinionated Smith.
But the real talking point was that Smith was given a platform beside the UFC Octagon post-fight, on the broadcast, and significantly, alongside Rogan. The fires were lit.
This was Smith being Smith, making a living as he does by starting and continuing arguments on ESPN platforms on a multitude of sports, notably on ESPN’s First Take. That is the platform where his bespoke brand of outlandish, stick-to-my-point-and-I-ain’t-budging (even if utterly wrong), was spawned.
Off he went. Smith bashed Cerrone for not being prepared. Rogan took exception to the analysis, and drama ensued through podcast and social media rants in the days following. Rogan, the UFC analyst who has the greatest profile in mixed martial arts, waited a day or so, but then spoke for the MMA culture and for fighters themselves.
It also brought in Dana White, the UFC president, who explained that he is, and will always be, a huge fight fan. Lorenzo Fertitta is a huge fight fan. Rogan is the same kind of fan. And that has been a cornerstone on which they have built the fight organization. It is also something which has always had a resonance with MMA’s huge following.
As Smith had said on the night, as he debated the performance of Cerrone: “ Far be it for me to refute anything that Joe Rogan says. But we haven’t learned a damn thing about Conor McGregor based on this fight… because Cowboy Cerrone just didn’t show up. I could have ran for 40 seconds.”
But the truth is that Smith chose an inauspicious setting and the wrong moment for his First Take-style rant. Specifically, Smith’s comments on Cerrone that stuck in the craw of Rogan – and many others – were these: “ I’m quite disgusted. Let me be very, very clear: I’m honored to be up here with you guys. I’m a spectator watching the sport. I expected to see more than 40 seconds. I predicted McGregor was going to win this fight inside of two rounds. I thought he would take him out. Here’s the deal: 15 seconds in, Cowboy Cerrone was done. He got hit with those shoulders in the clinch, and he was done. It looked like he gave up. It was just an atrocious performance on his part.
“Conor McGregor did not get the opportunity to show us enough. For us to believe Nurmagomedov or Masvidal, that’s something that could potentially happen to them. I didn’t see it, because Cowboy Cerrone, in his first pay-per-view match, folded. I respect him, but he folded like a cheap tent. Period. Bad night for him. Bad night. That’s all. And I stand by that. And I’m going to still stand by that.”
And that indeed is what Smith did. And he got hammered for it.
It was clear what Rogan felt as it was written all over his face in that moment. But it was not until his Joe Rogan E xperience MMA Show that he fired back at the ESPN commentator, who, lest we forget, has done similar things in boxing, getting Teddy Atlas, once Mike Tyson’s trainer, to boiling point on one studio broadcast.
Rogan claimed that there was “ no positive in downplaying the career of Donald Cerrone and what he can do as a fighter.” Rogan, perhaps rightly, suggested that this was not a discussion about hoops in basketball.
But White, the UFC president, not of course at his first rodeo of this type, knows that Smith has a role at ESPN which encourages this dimension. As White also remarked afterwards, there is something sacred about not taking a beaten fighter to task.
“ For Stephen A. Smith, that’s his thing, that’s what he does. It’s going to happen. You’re always going to have people who have difference in opinions, especially when you have two very opinionated guys like Stephen A. Smith and Joe Rogan.”
For White, it simply blew the news story into the week following the fight. It hyped the comeback even more, to another level of hysteria. Defence of Cerrone. Defence of McGregor. Defence of the UFC. All publicity is good publicity, that kind of thing. You know what? It would be no surprise to see Smith Octagonside at the next McGregor pay per view. It’s just the way it works…