Jim Ross will call a mixed martial arts event on Oct. 3. | Photo: Bob Levey/WireImage
Jim Ross is regarded by many as the greatest professional wrestling announcer to walk the earth. On Friday, he takes on a different beast when he calls Battlegrounds MMA 5 “O.N.E.” alongside Chael Sonnen.
The pay-per-view card, which revolves around a single-night, eight-man welterweight tournament, will serve as the first mixed martial arts event J.R. has ever called. Ross realizes that while it’s not the Ultimate Fighting Championship, you have to start somewhere. And there’s no better place than Oklahoma, his beloved home state.
“I realize we’re not the big dogs like Bellator and UFC, but we are trying,” Ross told Sherdog.com. “I’ve always loved being ringside. I’m going to be right back in my element.”
Instead of ringside, Ross will be cageside, manning a two-person booth with Sonnen, the controversial former UFC fighter and on-air personality. The relationship between the two men began prior to UFC 117, with the pair becoming even closer after Sonnen began working on Fox as an analyst.
“I’m going to meet Chael [Sonnen] for the first time -- in person -- tomorrow [Wednesday],” Ross said. “Chael and I have been in contact a lot since his Anderson Silva debacle. I’ve been following his career for a long time. I think in the studio for Fox, he was their most entertaining analyst. He knew when to be funny, when to be serious. He made very valid points, had good timing and understood the term ‘sound bite.’”
When the opportunity arose to call an MMA event, Ross’ decision hinged on a few things. The first was making sure the card fell on a Friday. That way he would not miss his beloved Oklahoma Sooners play Texas Christian University on Saturday. The other factor was having the chance to help decide who his partner would be.
“I said the only thing I would you like to discuss with you [Battleground] guys is that I would like to have some influence as to who I am going to work with. The last thing I wanted to do was have an MMA person who is resentful that I’m there. I didn’t want that,” Ross explained. “I knew that with Chael’s background of being a wrestling fan, he wouldn’t have an issue working with me.”
If there’s one thing MMA fans enjoy criticizing as much as a fighter’s choice in walkout music, it’s a promotion’s choice in announcers. For Ross, having a partner like Sonnen will make for the perfect combination of play-by-play and color commentary. He even goes as far as to compare Sonnen to one of the most successful personalities in wrestling history, Paul Heyman.
“Chael reminds me a lot of Paul [Heyman], meaning he’s naturally easy to dislike. He knows how to be a villain; he knows how to be a good guy; he knows the product inside and out,” Ross said. “Heyman was that way, sometimes to his own detriment in the land of showbiz where you’re obligated to protect all those that are participating. This isn’t so much the case in MMA unless you’re the company announcer, where you don’t want to soil the seats of the company that’s paying your salary.”
Don’t expect Ross to spend Friday trying to convince viewers they are watching something that they aren’t either. The 62-year-old will also work to not isolate any casual viewers watching with the hardcore MMA fan, a demographic Ross feels is shunned far too much by most announcers today.
“All good announcers will let the event that they are broadcasting come to them. I have no idea what kind of level of fights we are going to have, but all the fans are going to hear from me is raw guttural reaction. If it’s good, they are going to get good. If it’s an average fight, I’m not going to stand on a soapbox and sell it,” Ross said. “I believe one of the issues that I hear as a broadcaster/MMA fan is that sometimes MMA announcers take for granted that everyone watching is a highly-read MMA fan. They take things for granted without explaining. Best example I can give is back in the day when announcers would discuss ‘BJJ’ skills -- I didn’t have a damn clue what Brazilian jiu-jitsu was.”
Ross also has an interesting take on MMA as a whole, a sport he has loyally watched since the UFC was purchased by Zuffa. Battlegrounds 5 will be a huge moment for the regional promotion, a burden that Ross feels falls on the competitors vying for a victory on the card. With his and Sonnen’s promotional efforts, Ross also foresees people paying the fee and tuning in to see what the fuss is all about.
“I think they have to start somewhere. I can tell you that this group -- albeit small and undermanned -- have done an excellent job of getting the word out and letting people be aware of the event. I think they have it fairly priced at $19.99, which is smart. I think that price point will encourage some MMA fans to purchase the event out of curiosity,” Ross said. “We all know that the fights make the show. I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on UFC pay-per-views over the years. The vast majority of the time I’ve always felt like I’ve gotten my money's worth, but there have been fights within those cards that make you scratch your head and wonder why it was booked. Sometimes it’s booked out of necessity to fill out a card and you’re hoping [it]will overachieve, so I think on Friday night we have to have a bunch of fighters that come motivated to make their mark.”
Will any of the fighters involved with the card on Friday make a mark with viewers? That’s has yet to be seen, but it’s undeniable that Conor McGregor did just that at UFC 178. So much so that UFC President Dana White compared him to the likes of Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre during the post-fight press conference. Ross sees the similarities too, but is waiting to pass final judgment.
“I love Dana’s boldness and brashness. I’ve met him once -- he reminded me in some ways of Vince McMahon. I liked him. They are both two very strong alpha males. I don’t know what he is basing the comparison on, but in the context I would say maybe he meant McGregor has the potential to be bigger than Brock,” Ross said. “What I do see in common is when Brock came to the UFC he was that pro wrestling guy, coming from that phony world, but people were still paying money to see Lesnar get his ass whipped. This McGregor kid has this infectious personality, and when he does start fully headlining his home field advantage is going to be in Ireland. So here’s my marketing perspective and where I think Dana is coming from.
“How many fights are you going to be able to have in Ireland featuring McGregor? Not always. Everywhere else he goes, he has the ability through his mic skills and promos to be the big-mouthed Irishman that needs his mouth shut, so now he assumes the Lesnar role. I think McGregor has the potential to draw. You put him up against an American in Las Vegas and let him sell the fight just as simple as this: ‘I’m going to go whip this guy’s ass, then take it back to Ireland,’” Ross said. “Can you imagine him fighting a red-hot Canadian at the Rogers Centre in Canada? So that’s what I think Dana means as far as Conor, the heel aspect. I can see some similarities to them both playing the antagonist role.”
As far as Ross is concerned, the similarities between pro wrestling and MMA don’t end with Lesnar and McGregor. The two entities are synonymous with one another in more ways than one -- it’s just taboo for either to admit it.
“I think MMA and pro wrestling have the same relationship boxing and wrestling used to have. Fast forward to present day, there are so many common denominators between the two products. Both the UFC and WWE have so much in common that neither want to admit, which I find humorous at times -- it’s silly. You have to create reasons for fights, and you have to have fights between stars,” Ross said. “Both companies main event level depth has taken a hit and it shows. Both are so leery of offending their audiences of admitting their similar qualities, which they are involved in marketing and promotion as opposed to in the ring/Octagon presentation.”
While his foray into MMA on Friday will serve as a new direction in his career, it could also potentially be the end of it. J.R. signed on to announce one event for the promotion, knowing that it ultimately will not lead to calling fights for the UFC. The only thing Ross is concerned with is Battlegrounds 5, then getting down to Fort Worth, Texas, so he can watch his Sooners play.
“Look, UFC isn’t going to hire me, I’m 62 years old. I don’t look it; I don’t feel it,” Ross said. “They are building their own team, but Chael and I are going to be different and bring a new excitement and interpretation to what we have to call.”