Coloring MMA Badd

By Jordan Breen Apr 6, 2009
When I settled on a topic for this latest post-event opining, I thought I might have some 'splainin' to do as to why I was so sickened with Frank Mir's color commentary for WEC 40. However, after a quick peek into my inbox and a cursory glance at the Sherdog forums, I feel as though my objections are justified.

In case your TiVo exploded, here's a recap: Mir, routinely celebrated as a stellar technical analyst, ignores any and all offense from Joseph Benavidez and Takeya Mizugaki in otherwise brilliant fights while butchering the names of any and all brave enough to step into the cage with the UFC's interim heavyweight champ on the mic (though I suspect Jameel Massouh may be used to it.)

Along the way, Mir confused grappling legend Saulo Ribeiro, who has no recollection of giving Jeff Curran his BJJ black belt (see: Pedro Sauer), before leaping into the cage during the main event to give Miguel Torres a sponge bath between the third and fourth rounds, though it may be hard to imagine why MMA's bantamweight king would have needed one. According to Mir, he didn't have to break a sweat over his 25-minute war with Mizugaki.

As a devout pedant, I could spend the next thousand words explaining why bungling names and facts is deplorable and undermines the WEC product, but based on how much flak Mir is getting from the MMA populace, I feel these ideas are understood if not entrenched. What I am keener to expose is why Mir's color commentary performance was so objectionable, and that it's not simply his own malfeasance that's to blame for this kind of gaffe-fest.

Mir's announcing indiscretions are particularly aggravating because he's clearly capable of more. Most people took note of his skills on the stick when, following his motorcycle melee, he took up color duties at UFC 50. It wasn't the first time he was in the booth (he also lent his insights to UFC 37). Yet at UFC 50, Mir was able to fully flex his mental muscles on the technical grappling game, where too often all that fans are given is a heavy-handed endorsement of Eddie Bravo's "Mastering the Rubber Guard." Four and a half years later, one would hope that Mir's commentary chops would've improved.

However, there is a simple reason why Mir's UFC 50 erudition is now an exception rather than the rule. Imagine starting any meaningful job in the world; there is an inherent marriage of performance anxiety and preoccupation with success. Naturally, people want to succeed. Coupled with their personal reservations about their new role, they tend to be efficient and impressive, just as Mir was. Now working WEC events routinely, Mir is complacent. There's no need to research, to learn names or to feign impartiality because there are no consequences, unless you're silly enough to think Versus and Zuffa care enough to axe him.

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According to Mir, Miguel
Torres barely broke a sweat.
It may not even be realistic to suggest that Mir is capable of doing an outstanding job as a color commentator. Frankly, the attention to detail and research that should be part and parcel of preparing for a broadcast may not jive well with the fact that Mir happens to have another fairly important job in the industry.

If it came down to sitting in production meetings, learning about fighters on the card and watching tape or spending time in the gym to make sure Brock Lesnar doesn't put one of his canned ham hands through your face come July, which would you choose?

Complacency and time restraints don't address arguably the biggest and most fundamental plague facing Mir or any color commentator in MMA, though. Mir may be forced into his better instincts if he had a legitimate broadcast partner, which Todd Harris is not.

There is a real reason racing fans revolted against Harris (including a pathological obsession with Danica Patrick) and why he remains on the sidelines during college football telecasts. I can't feel total contempt for him, despite being a professional broadcaster and not having to worry about defending his heavyweight title any time soon. To me, his presence typifies the painful realities of MMA commentary booths.

Commentary is difficult, period. The fact that there are so few unanimously heralded and beloved commentators in sports that have been around for centuries speaks volumes as to how challenging the role can be. For MMA, which has been alive in its current form for roughly two decades, the talent pool of play-by-play commentators to draw from is very, very shallow. This creates an enormous technical difficulty in MMA booths, as play-by-play commentators who are normally the heart and soul of a great sports broadcast are forced to be essentially professional straightmen and facilitators.

The title "play-by-play commentator" denotes the calling of action; this is supposed to be the most basic requirement of the job. Yet, because of the technical complexities of the sport, MMA is replete with clueless "professionals" whose knowledge doesn't extend far beyond traditional stick-and-ball sports.

So, Harris is inadequate ... how does that impact Mir's performance? Unfortunately, commentary doesn't exist in a vacuum; it's about interactional chemistry. Because Harris can neither offer context, insight nor even properly call action, Mir is forced to call essentially all of the technical action himself on top of describing its intricacies. This pattern exists in basically every MMA booth because of the fact that there are really no gifted MMA play-by-play announcers. Even the comparatively hyper-experienced Mike Goldberg, who has called UFC events since before the Corn Laws were repealed, barely calls any action. Instead he relies on Joe Rogan, who is forced to fulfill both traditional commentary roles.

This is a fundamental flaw that is endemic to MMA and one that's not about to change in the near future. Therefore, guys like Mir, who are already ill-suited to color commentary because of their in-cage requirements, are forced to pick up an enormous amount of slack for a human being who is fit to do nothing but take a broadcast in and out of commercial breaks. As a result, on top of being ill prepared, Mir has to talk endlessly until the fighters in the cage can chill out momentarily and let Harris plug “Crank 2.” (Side note: How the hell is Crank now a franchise?) Of course, this is the complete inverse of how sports booths tend to functionally operate, where experienced professionals can carry the insightful but unnuanced athletes.

As gabby as I am, I could write volumes on the nature of MMA commentary, its semiotic failures, its lack of context and its inability to inform viewers. I'll save that for another time; this is about Frank Mir specifically. He has a mass of forces working against his success in the booth: a secure job, Brock Lesnar breathing down his neck with only 24 hours in a day, a failure of a broadcast partner who puts an enormous conversational load on his shoulders.

However, we’re talking about an individual who overcame a near-fatal motorcycle accident and a string of atrocious, out-of-shape performances to regain a version of the UFC heavyweight title, from getting pounded to a pulp by Pe de Pano to being the first man to stop Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

Fighting itself is about defying the odds. Here's hoping that, whether it be through YouTube, flash cards or a 25-hour day, Mir can salvage his status as a color commentator, too.
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