As the voice of the Bellator Fighting Championships and host of ESPN’s MMA Live, not to mention the nightly rundowns and other segments you do with your work at ESPN you stay pretty busy. How did you get into your job at ESPN? Where did you get your start?
Jon Anik: It was a long road to ESPN. I began as a print journalist just outside of Boston, but quickly realized that I wanted to get into broadcasting. I eventually got a job at Boston’s Sporting News Radio affiliate. There, I co-hosted an afternoon drive show for about two years before moving on to ESPN. I began as an ESPN Radio SportsCenter Anchor and later got an opportunity as a fill-in host, in addition to doing the SC updates. In 2007, I made the full-time move from Boston to Connecticut. Shortly thereafter, I joined the ESPN Digital Media department and switched my focus from radio to TV. MMA Live was born in 2008. I had hosted a boxing radio show for four years out of Boston, so it was that combat sports background that led to the opportunity to host MMA Live.
For those that follow you on your twitter (@Jon_Anik), they know that you really are heavy into MMA. What got you hooked on MMA and when did you discover your passion for the sport?
Jon Anik: When EliteXC made its debut in February of 2007, Gary Shaw invited our Boston-based boxing show to come to Mississippi to cover the event. As a die-hard boxing guy, I was a little skeptical at first, but had watched several UFC shows and really enjoyed them. There were a lot of big names on that EliteXC show- Frank Shamrock, Renzo Gracie, Gina Carano. And other proven fighters like Joey Villasenor, Javier Vazquez, and Mike Pyle. Because there wasn’t a great media presence at the event, we had great access, any interviews we wanted, and I really enjoyed getting to know the sport and the fighters. I’ve basically been hooked on MMA ever since, and am just so thankful to be covering the fastest growing sport in the world—and covering it for ESPN.
With lots of big fights possibly on the horizon in 2010… Which fights are you most anticipating and why? Rampage Vs Evans? Lesnar Vs Mir/Carwin winner? Or maybe some other fight?
Jon Anik: Certainly a lot to choose from early on in 2010, but it’s hard to go away from the Rashad-Rampage grudge match. I expect Rampage to come back in tremendous shape, and he will be a tough out. That said, Rashad gained a lot of confidence from the win over Thiago Silva. He was able to get the W and execute the game plan despite not necessarily having his best stuff that night. UFC 111 is absolutely loaded on paper, and I’m intrigued to see what Dan Hardy can do against Georges St. Pierre at the top of the card. Also excited to see a reinvented Miguel Torres work his way back to the WEC bantamweight gold, which I expect he will do. And I’m intrigued to see what kind of progress Mamed Khalidov and Tyron Woodley can make in 2010.
With season 2 of the Bellator Fighting Championships kicking off April 8th, what can we look forward to this season? And which fighters should we keep an eye out for?
Jon Anik: Bellator has really stacked the deck with talent for Season 2, as the promotion gets set for its English-language US TV debut. It kicks off on FSN with the much-anticipated rematch between Jorge Masvidal and Toby Imada and will only get better from there. The matchmaking team has signed several top prospects across all of the weight divisions, and I think you’ll find that the tournaments are even more competitive than they were in Season 1. The top two names to watch for me amongst the newcomers are welterweights Dan Hornbuckle and Ben Askren. I think Hornbuckle could emerge as the challenger for Lyman Good. But I’m actually most looking forward to the return of the aforementioned Masvidal, who I believe will be a Top 10 lightweight by the end of 2010. He is a versatile fighter and a dynamic personality, and I fully expect him to get his revenge against Imada, win the Season 2 tournament, and move on to an eventual bout with Eddie Alvarez during Season 3. It’ll also be cool to see all four current champions (Alvarez, Good, Hector Lombard, and Joe Soto) involved in super-fights during Season 2. MMA fans really should keep an eye on Hector Lombard. He remains supremely underrated and would be a hugely difficult match-up for most UFC middleweights right now. Dude is absolutely vicious.
Every week you host a live chat on ESPN.com. Can you tell us a little about that and what is the best and worst questions someone has asked you to date?
Jon Anik: Probably the most enjoyable thing I do at ESPN. It’s every Wednesday at 1 ET/10 AM PT and it gets bigger (and hopefully better) every week. When I did my first chat, we got about 60-80 questions. Now, even going head-to-head each week with Mel Kiper Jr., it’s not uncommon for us to get over 1,000-1,500 submissions. The chat is my best opportunity to truly interact with all of the great MMA fans out there. The lone frustration I have is that I can’t respond to every single question, but I try to use Twitter as another means of interaction. It’s just a lot of fun to hear from fans across the world, including several regulars from abroad, give my fight predictions (which I do not reveal on MMA Live), and talk all things MMA for 1-2 hours. It’s a nice mix of casual and hardcore fans and a huge tool for us, as we at ESPN try to bridge that gap and cater to both segments of the fan base. Best question I ever got was ‘Are you single?’. Worst question? I think the ‘when are you and Kenny Florian getting married?’ stuff is starting to run its course. But the passion is awesome, the response is consistent, and I love doing it.
MMA Live (which airs on ESPN new every Thursday), has brought MMA mainstream in my opinion. And has had a pretty successful run so far. What has the show been like for you and did you think it would be this successful when it first started?
Jon Anik: We all had faith that MMA Live would take off, if the product was strong. But I’m not sure we could have envisioned such a loyal, committed response from MMA fans. Our numbers have been consistent each week, and it’s hard to believe we are just a few weeks away from our 100th show. That response has led to the show being picked up by ESPNUK, which airs MMA Live several times each week. MMA fans had been waiting for the Worldwide Leader in Sports to pay proper respect to what they believe is the best sport in the world. A news and information show like MMA Live was long overdue at ESPN, and I am thrilled to be in the seat that I am in. I do feel we have a responsibility to help the sport’s mainstream growth and exposure. I can only hope MMA fans, hardcore and casual alike, believe we are doing right by the sport and contributing. It’s definitely a labor of love for me and it has been the best opportunity of my broadcasting career. I just hope this is only the beginning, and MMA Live will lead to and be a part of even more Mixed Martial Arts coverage from ESPN.
One of the great features of MMA Live are the guests. Whether its Kenny Florian and Franklin McNeil or special guests like Rashad Evans and Miguel Torres. Who have been some of your favorite guests so far and who do you hope to get on the show one day that you haven’t been able to yet?
Jon Anik: Certainly the biggest thrill for me has been the ability to interact with most of the best fighters in the world. It’s been a revolving door of UFC talent since we started, and I feel privileged to get to work with several talented analysts like Kenny, Rashad, Miguel, Frank Mir, Dan Henderson, and Stephan Bonnar. We’ve also had several huge names join us during live remotes, such as Royce Gracie, Georges St. Pierre, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Roy Jones Jr. One particular highlight for me was when we had Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, and Dana White all in Bristol before UFC 91, when Randy ended his retirement. Couture just screams legend the minute he walks in the room, and Lesnar has been nothing but class in all of our encounters. To have them both here, with the always dynamic Dana White, was pretty cool. We’ve crossed off most of my wish list, but I would like to get Anderson Silva to Bristol sooner rather than later. I believe his English is stronger than he lets on.
I’ve noticed a lot of sports media like yourself, Molly Qerim, other ESPN personalities and media personalities in general use twitter and social media a lot recently to not only promote what you do but spread news and most importantly connect with your fans. How do you feel twitter and social media has changed what you do? And do you feel it’s better or worse because of it?
Jon Anik: Self-promotion has never been my best skill, nor has it been at the top of my priority list. So I had always been reluctant to get into the social media stuff. I don’t have a Facebook or MySpace page and don’t plan to. But Twitter is pretty unique and a very helpful tool for sports media. I sort of use it as a personal blog, to link up MMA Live shows or chats and other radio/print interviews I may do. Or, I just update what I’m doing and try (fail) to be funny. Twitter isn’t invasive. It’s only 140 characters per entry, and I think that limitation is very helpful. I think it has definitely changed sports media b/c of the immediacy. If you don’t break news the minute it crosses your desk via Twitter, you can be sure another journalist will beat you to the punch. But overall, I think it has only enhanced coverage and sped up the time frame for information.
If you could see one mixed martial arts fight. No matter the era, no matter the promotion, who would it be? Who would be your dream fight and why?
Jon Anik: Such a difficult question. There are several fights involving Royce Gracie that any MMA fan would love to see. A prime Royce versus a prime GSP or B.J. Penn would be ridiculous. But in this era, I’d love to see Anderson Silva-GSP, which is MMA’s obvious mega-fight. I would also like to see either Brock Lesnar or Frank Mir take on Fedor Emelianenko. Fedor’s greatness doesn’t get nearly the recognition or attention it deserves and I believe a win over Lesnar or Mir would give him a huge mainstream boost.
What are your plans for the future? Would you like to do more announcing or are you more at home in the studio? What’s next for Jon Anik?
Jon Anik: Just will continue to plug away, man. I’ve worked hard to try to establish myself in both MMA and ESPN circles. I hope someday that MMA is my full-time focus, even if that’s not in the cards right now. I enjoy the studio work a ton, and I get the opportunity at ESPN to do a lot of different things. As I type this, I’m getting ready to do some NFL recaps with Cris Carter and Eric Allen, and it’s nice to be able to switch it up and do different things. That said, there is nothing in broadcasting quite like play-by-play. And there is nothing in play-by-play like MMA. Sitting cage-side calling Bellator’s first season was an unbelievable experience and as comfortable as I’ve ever been in this field. I really hope, in the future, that play-by-play is a big part of what I’m doing.