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Controversy is central to Stephen A. Smith’s brand, and in that regard, his contribution to ESPN’s coverage of UFC 246 was very much on brand. Smith, as is his custom, responded to Conor McGregor’s quick finish of Donald Cerrone with a loud-mouthed rant. He excoriated Cerrone for being unprepared for a big fight and ostensibly accused one of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s most respected and experienced veterans of quitting. It was a vicious takedown that surely added salt to the wounds stemming from Cerrone’s TKO defeat.
It was also a wildly off-base tirade. Cerrone has competed against and beaten way too many top-flight fighters over the course of his career to suggest he isn’t up for the challenge of a major stage and a prominent opponent. Well-traveled older fighters eventually see strong declines in performance. We’ve seen that from Cerrone in recent bouts, and it’s ridiculous to chastise older fighters for not being up for the big stage because you didn’t see the big-stage wins from their career primes.
While the idea that Cerrone wasn’t mentally prepared for the big fight is misguided, it’s at least a criticism that is sometimes leveled by aficionados of the sport due to his 0-4 record in UFC-World Extreme Cagefighting title fights. What really drew the ire of those in the MMA community was the implication that Cerrone gave up. That’s a strong charge to direct at any professional fighter, let alone the fighter with the most wins in UFC history. To make such a heavy accusation, there ought to be a lot stronger evidence to point to than he didn’t respond well to heavy strikes from a proven knockout artist.
Given that reality, it wasn’t surprising to see the MMA community hit back hard at Smith. In particular, Joe Rogan called Smith out on his podcast even after working with him on the broadcast. Rogan was measured and respectful in tone, but his observations were pointed. As a martial arts practitioner, Rogan took umbrage with disrespecting a fighter’s effort given the inherent dangers of the sport. Rogan then expanded his point to critique the fact that Smith was there in the first place. He called it a bad look for ESPN, a bad look for Smith and a bad look for the sport.
That it was a bad look for Smith is hard to argue. He looked like not only a jerk but an uninformed jerk. As far as whether it was a bad look for ESPN, it certainly doesn’t speak well for a media entity when it has people covering sports about which they seem to be ignorant. ESPN has largely accepted that as part of its brand, trading respect for what it perceives to be an approach that attracts more eyeballs. Still, it ultimately doesn’t reflect well on ESPN. That then raises a final question—and the most interesting one: Is Rogan right that having Smith out there running his mouth is a bad look for the sport? I’m not nearly so convinced of that.
It’s true that sports fans who watch Smith talk about MMA and take what he says seriously are over time likely going to end up with strange perspectives on the sport. However, it’s important to recognize that Smith’s role at ESPN is not to educate people as to the complexities of any sport. Fans recognize him for what he is: a bloviating talking head who takes strong positions to generate discussion. Fans are much more likely to react strongly in opposition to one of his takes than in agreement with it, and if they react in agreement, it’s usually because he’s making the point in opposition to another ferocious agitator.
Smith is not brought into the UFC to offer a unique perspective that will be particularly illuminating relative to any other commentator. He’s brought in because he’s one of ESPN’s signature stars, and having him talk about a subject flags it as important. That’s it. Over time, involvement of ESPN’s biggest stars with the UFC teaches average sports fans that mixed martial arts matters, regardless of what those stars say. Just like commentators fret about Rogan’s podcast because of an unjustified lack of confidence that his listeners can hear a bad perspective and recognize it for what it is, so too does Rogan underestimate viewers’ ability to reject bad sports takes.
One can argue in opposition that MMA would benefit from the best possible analysis of its events, but ESPN’s talking head shows aren’t really about analysis. They’re about quick takes on the biggest sports stories. MMA-specific personalities just don’t command the same attention, and they make the sport seem more of the niche variety. Rogan is an exception as someone with deep MMA knowledge and mainstream notoriety, but it can’t hurt to have more major names; and Rogan isn’t an ESPN property able to regularly fill TV time on the weeks of big events.
In addition, the television analysis provided by MMA-specific commentators often isn’t that good these days anyway. The tendency is to overhype everything, and discussion of big events way too often revolves around prematurely declaring the main event winner as the new GOAT of something or other. Smith’s blindside of Cerrone was uncalled for, but a less sycophantic culture would benefit MMA in the long haul. Fans see through a purely celebratory approach; it’s also less suited to debate and discussion.
Smith didn’t do himself or ESPN great credit at UFC 246. However, for all his negatives in general, the sport on balance likely benefits from his presence. Baseball, football and basketball shouldn’t be able to hog all the reflexive overreactions themselves.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.