How I Think About Fight Commentary

Josh PalmerMMA Musings

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Every so often I’ll get an email from someone requesting any thoughts I can offer on commentating Mixed Martial Arts. It’s typically a fighter who’s got a chance to fill in on a regional show and hopes I can give them some pointers. This can be tricky. It’s undoubtedly one of the most subjective areas of covering the sport and by no stretch of the imagination am I an expert.

Truth be told I have absolutely no formal broadcast training. Amateur dramatics in my school years does not count. Though I’ve never really considered it till now, I’m fortunate that I get a surprising amount of crossover from my day job as an Architect. A typical broadcast is not a far cry from the odd blend of creative performance and technical discourse that I’ll engage in with clients on a regular basis. Building a narrative for a design, selling the scheme and conveying how the thing is actually going to stand up runs surprisingly parallel to covering a fight. Of course a breakout of fisticuffs in the former is definitely not desired.

Several times now I’ve scribbled down a broadly similar set of notes and dispatched them without a second thought. As anyone striving to improve an area of endeavour will do, how I arrived at this arrangement has been a conscious process of change over the years. I’ve just never collated and expanded these thoughts before but it seems like it might make a fun blog post.

So what follows is what it’s like to be in my seat and why I call fights the way I do. As I hope would be obvious, these notes follow my own personal bias. As with everything, I’m sure it’ll continue to change over time.

Sports commentary as a whole really does stem from fighting. April 1921, a boxing match at the Motor Square Garden in Pittsburgh was the first noted instance. Though sports broadcasts had been around since 1912 this was the first time media had added the soundtrack to the violence. Thank you Florent Gibson from the Pittsburgh Star newspaper for getting it all started.

Typically there are two commentators playing separate but hopefully complimentary roles. A play-by-play broadcaster and a colour commentator. I’ve worked three man booths before and they can be hit and miss. Sometimes the dynamic is great, other times it’s just that little bit too crowded.

I have experience in both roles but primarily in MMA I cover the colour commentary angle so that’s what I’ll focus my thoughts on here. I do enjoy the play-by-play work as it really asks you to keep multiple threads going in your head. Between the action, sponsors, timings, biographical information and upcoming event plugs it can be a full plate. It’s a fun challenge to link all these items together in a flowing manner. Done right they fill in potentially blank moments in a contest, inform the viewer and sell the show.

Interestingly one of the most frequent criticisms I see on social networks regarding play-by-play broadcasters is don’t they know know what that move is or he doesn’t know XXXX about the sport. Here’s one reason why this can sometimes be the appearance: that’s their job.

One aspect of a good play-by-play guy is asking questions to set up lines of explanation for the colour analyst. I’m not saying it’s always the case but I’ll guarantee more often that not they already know the exact answer they’re going to get. I covered the play-by-play role a few times alongside, amongst others, former UFC champion Frank Trigg and that was my approach. I knew what I would’ve said were I in his seat so I just presented a question to elicit the answer I would have given. It should be said however that every broadcaster has their own style and I’ve worked with some that do nothing but ask questions and others who won’t ask a thing. My preference is a happy medium.

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As a colour commentator, my primary role is to give technical analysis of the fights as they unfold. There’s a lot of things it’s not necessary for me to concern myself with such as who sponsors the event or who’s wearing which colour shorts. Perhaps most bizarrely, as I’ll explain in a moment, I’m also less bothered about telling you a fighter just threw a punch.

It’s very common for the colour role in any sport to be filled by a former coach or contestant. There are insights they can offer that are somewhat unique though I feel these are limited more to the what’s going through his head type of questions. It doesn’t necessarily follow that their technical analysis of what’s actually unfolding or their ability to convey the information will be of a higher calibre. This is where, in my opinion, a former fighter can be an exceptional third man in the booth. MMA legend Jens Pulver joined Brad Wharton and myself at Cage Warriors Super Saturday last July and the interplay between the roles worked exceptionally well there.

As a commentator I know I’m not actually important to the fight. Central to the broadcast without a doubt but not the fight. The combatants are important to the fight, referees are important to the fight and yes, even the much maligned cage side judges are important to the fight. Commentators aren’t and here’s why: they cannot influence it. Fighters it goes without saying are in command of what takes place. Referees will decide their actions in a split second and can change the entire complexion of the contest. Judges will cast their verdicts and hopefully pick the correct winner. I’m talking about it, that’s secondary and what I say isn’t going to influence the fight…or is it?

The vast majority of the time that’s absolutely true but believe it or not there are circumstances where this is not the case. I don’t really mean influence the fight but instead become another factor for the fighters to deal with. Just like a vocal crowd opinion or the opposing fighters corner team. It typically falls into one of two areas: smaller crowds or very experienced fighters.

Smaller audiences or sometimes unfamiliar spectators don’t generate a lot of noise. Though I never experienced it I suppose the same could be said of the respectful Japanese crowds. There can be times in a fight when the arena is eerily quiet and as such a lot of people including the fighters can hear what you’re saying.

Back in February of 2011, Cage Warriors put on an event in the Lebanese capital Beirut. The crowd enjoyed it but they simply weren’t clued up to what professional MMA looked like. They just weren’t sure if or when they were supposed to cheer which led to some strange moments of complete silence. I became acutely aware of this very quickly and though it didn’t change what I said it can subconsciously affect the tone or tempo. Feeding off crowd noise can get you really amped up, as anyone who’s experienced an Irish crowd knows and to a certain extent it can work the other way as well. Try shouting explanations and clear syllables out loud with excitement when you’re the only one doing it. Feels very odd.

More experienced fighters have likely done away with the auditory exclusion that’s part and parcel of anyone’s early experiences of competitions. They can become extremely adept at picking out voices amongst the din of the crowd. Of course this is aimed at their own cornermen but trust me if they get even slightly close to your section of the cage fence, let alone stuffed up against it two feet from your face, they can probably hear some of what you’re spewing. I’ve had fighters, in both the top and bottom positions give me a look when I’ve suggested a possible course of action. This goes for good and bad situations alike depending on who’s perspective it is.

I know it’s not great being on the losing end of an exchange then catching wind of someone explaining in great detail what you may have done wrong or how you’re now losing the round. It’s a tactic I employ when I corner teammates at grappling or MMA events, spurring your man on whilst indirectly pointing out the opponent is tired, doing something wrong or has mentally lapsed from the fight. Regardless, what I’ll say is completely impartial and never going to change just because there’s a chance the fighter may hear. If they’re that close to me the view isn’t great from an observational perspective so I’m probably looking at the monitor on my desk anyway.

There are a number of things I’m going to try not to do when I’m speaking but I’ll stick with three that I feel are important to the way I commentate that might not be obvious.

Following the action. For the most part, I don’t think it’s down to me to tell you what happened right after it happened, at least not int he most basic sense. It’s surprisingly easy to get drawn into reciting what each fighter has done right after they’ve done it. Low kick, right hand, good one-two from fighter X. What’s that adding to the conversation? Not a lot in my view. The play-by-play guy can use that info to move the subject of discussion along and it’s sometimes very useful if a move is rare or interesting but in most cases I’m not one for churning out the name of each action like a ticker tape. There’s much more salient information to bring in as I’ll get into in a minute.

Lingering on a point. Fights move fast and often it’ll be faster than you can speak. I like to try and be aware of when the next sequence or scramble will happen so I’m not stuck half way through a point I was trying to make when something pops up. Otherwise I’m left with an unfinished sentence and having to decide whether to try and find a strange segue back to it. Having an idea of how much time I have to make a point is critical and avoiding lingering so that it might become an awkward dead end is best avoided.

Being scared of silence. There’s nothing wrong with quiet. Neither I nor my co-comms needs to be talking all the time and saying something just for the sake of it isn’t warranted. If there really is dead air then that’s when you’ll probably throw in a sponsor plug or a promo for the next event.

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Now I’ve got my negatives out of the way there’s a much bigger list of things I am going to try and focus on during the bout. I like to think of it as talking around the fight. Not necessarily the specific actions but everything else that goes into them. That being said there’s no getting away from the fact that you need to describe the technical aspects of how a technique or move works. That would seem obvious and how much I choose to describe depends on a number of factors mentioned later.

Intention. What is he trying to accomplish with any given action? Is he trying to play the ref or judges? Is he trying to wear the opponent out and drag the fight deep? Maybe he’s throwing the low kick repeatedly to break down the legs and make takedown slower? Why a fighter is doing something is a far more pertinent talking point in my eyes that stating the move itself.

Mindset. What’s going through the fighters head in any given sequence. Does he have self belief in his approach or is his confidence shaken? Is he playing mind games with the opponent? Did having that takedown stuffed change his approach? Is he feeding off the crowd?

Tempo and momentum. Who’s dictating the rhythm in the bout? Has one fighter slowed it down or taken hold of the control? Should one fighter have a greater sense of urgency than the other? Could one fighter gain the upper hand by simple attacking with greater frequency? Where is the overriding momentum in the fight? Has a momentum shift potentially broken an opponents will?

Past history. Are they doing the things they’d usually do? I’ve likely researched the fighters and I’ll have a good idea of their approaches to a given scenario. Can I bring any of this information into the conversation? Has the fighter suddenly picked up some new tricks since last time or is something he’s doing a direct response to an experience in a previous bout? Was this part of his training camp? Is it a hallmark or known trait of his particular gym?

Laying out the options rather than instruction. There are some instances where there are either very few, or maybe just one option available to the fighter but for the most part there’s a whole host of decisions he can make at any given time. It’s not up to me to say what he should do but it’s most definitely up to me to say what he could do. Maybe he favours one type of escape over another for example. I’ll aim to give an overview of what the options are rather than trying to sound like his cornerman.

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It’s not just the fighters you have to analyse. How are the judges going to see that round? Before I started commentating I racked up a few hundred fights as a judge. There’s no barrier to entry like the American athletic commissions here in the UK so I was fortunate enough to have that experience. I also made a point of attending UFC referee Marc Goddards officials seminar as soon as he started offering them. All these things were very helpful and aid me in giving a reasonably accurate account of how the scoring may play out. Of course there are close fights, or long five round fights at the end of the night where I either have no idea who’s won or have lost track round by round, so I’ll lay it out in a way that suggests the positives and negatives related to scoring for both competitors.

Referee’s are also a subject of discussion. It’s a tough job and it’s rare I’ll flat out throw them over the coals for a decision they’ve made. But you have to call it like it is and they know that. It’s all part of the sport. Having refereed an awful lot of grappling competitions I’ve been on the other end a few times! They make their decision based on the situation presented to them and they have the best view not to mention the real experience. I have instant replay and they don’t so if I can understand why they’ve interpreted a situation the way they have I’ll make sure I highlight that too.

Though I have the best seat in the house, it isn’t always. The amount of times I use my monitor in a fight would surprise most people. It’s essential. Sometimes I’ll forget to look back to the cage and realise I’ve just spent two minutes glued to the screen. If you’ve ever wondered why judges might miss something there’s your answer. They have a fixed view and no screen to utilise.

Another often debated point is what level of detail is it right for me to go to. My answer is simply as much as is necessary. To a certain extent I’ll tailor what I’m saying to the audience I know will see the fight. Generally speaking the bigger the audience the more my level of explanation will iterate the fundamentals of what is happening. Smaller show with a smaller audience that’s likely a hardcore fan base or comprising people who train themselves needs less.

A good example of this is something simple like a whizzer or omaplata. I know what they are, if you’ve grappled a little then likely you know what they are too. A member of the general public catching a broadcast for the first time probably doesn’t and they need to know it’s an over hook control grip and a shoulder lock. To date my favourite tweet was from an early broadcast that went out on a smaller channel when I’d used the term knee shield to describe the top leg position from a fighter in bottom half guard. The tweet read: knee shield? What the f### is a knee shield? Who talks like that?

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Have you ever wondered why most colour commentators in MMA come from a substantial grappling background? I have a theory. Or should I say I have a theory why it suited me well. Most people can understand a punch. Maybe they might not get the nuance of the movement or the timing but on a primeval level they can contextualise what punching someone represents and may feel like. This does not hold true for grappling.

If you haven’t done it then nearly all of what you’ll see, short of picking someone up and slamming them, is very hard to grasp. But all he did was turn his hips over? There’s a good reason. He’s holding him down, why doesn’t he just get up! That’s what the under-hook and shoulder pressure are for. In my opinion grappling exchanges in MMA inherently require a greater level of explanation than standup exchanges so it helps me that that’s where my background is based. Being critical of myself, the flip-side is it still takes me that split second longer to see what’s coming in a striking battle than it does when the fighters are on the ground.

I’m sure you’ve seen comments from some fans challenging analysts for sounding biased. I know I can sound biased in some broadcasts but for me there’s two simple reasons this might happen. The first’s that you won’t always know a lot of detail about both the contestants. Fighter X has fought on the promotion several times and fighter Y is a debut from the other side of the continent who can’t speak english, has no biographical information and any meagre amounts of fight footage there may be is in Russian. Though rare it happens and of course it’s much less of an occurrence the bigger the promotion. Secondly it may be that one fighter is doing nothing. If the offence and action is entirely one sided there’s only so many times you can suggest what the other fight may be able to do to stem the tide. If one guy is giving you more to talk about then chances are I’m going to be talking about him.

Research is another big thing. I’m sure, as with everything, everyone has a different approach. I like to do a decent amount but definitely not as much as some. I used to have this pretty hefty questionnaire I’d send to all the fighters a couple of weeks before hand but it’s so hard to get most of them to return it in a timely fashion that I gave that up after about six months.

Now I’ll grab the fighters detailed record, a bit of fight footage, scan any media interviews they’ve done about the fight and suck up to the matchmaker for his thoughts and statistics. Then if I get a chance to have a good chat to the fighter before the show that’s also a big help. For example, If I know they favour a particular move and I can see the cues for it ahead of time then it’s easier to spot and sometime completely pre-empt. It’s nice when you point something out and five seconds later it happens as though you’d had some mystical foresight.

So there it is! That’s my thought process for most of the contests I’m fortunate enough to call. As much as it may seem like a hefty amount, it nearly all becomes a subconscious process. Being that close to a fight has an incredible buzz about and I’m extremely thankful to have found myself involved in this manner. Perhaps I should have just written four words at the start: It’s an amazing job.

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