Dana White might be the face of the Las Vegas-based UFC, but these days he’s getting a run for his camera time from host/announcer Jon Anik, who jumped right into his new role on the UFC’s broadcast team in January and has barely had time to catch his breath.
The 33-year-old, Boston-born Anik, who started his sports career as a print journalist, left his role as host of ESPN’s MMA Live last fall to take over hosting duties of the UFC’s revamped The Ultimate Fighter reality show. In addition, he was handed the reins of the weekly magazine-style show UFC Ultimate Insider and has provided commentary for several of the fight cards that air on free TV.
While it might seem like a cushy job, Anik—whose polished, straightforward style is more SportsCenter anchor than animated UFC commentator Joe Rogan—occasionally has to play referee. That was the case recently when the featherweight-size host had to intervene during interviews with light heavyweight champ Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, who traded verbal barbs in preparation for their April 21 grudge match at UFC 145 in Atlanta.
Do you recall your introduction into mixed martial arts?
I remember watching UFC 1; it was a huge event when we were in high school. It’s all anyone was talking about. [Years later], when I was doing a boxing show on radio in Boston, [EliteXC President] Gary Shaw, of all people, invited our staff to come to the event in Mississippi. I got to go cover the EliteXC debut in 2007 when Frank Shamrock fought Renzo Gracie. Gina Carano was also on the card. That was my first time seeing it live. I was completely hooked. Afterward, our boxing show talked MMA. I don’t know if I have missed a UFC event since.
For most people in sports journalism, ESPN is the pinnacle. Why leave?
I told my agent there’s only one place I’d leave ESPN for, and that was the UFC. Part of the reason I came on board is I’m so confident in this brand and the people behind it. I’m hoping this is a lifetime commitment. I have no doubt in my mind that when people are exposed to this sport for the first time, they will like what they see. We all, at one point or another, became addicted to this product.
Once at ESPN you began MMA Live, which gained quite a following. How challenging was it to build a show from the ground up on the world’s leading sports network?
Rarely will ESPN put a news and informational show on TV when they don’t have rights to that product. The reason NHL Tonight is not on ESPN is because they don’t have the NHL rights. So for us to get MMA Live from a digital entity onto TV, when they didn’t have fights on their air, is something we all are very proud of.
It’s tough. There’s still ignorance for the sport. There are some very powerful people at ESPN that are very much behind the UFC, behind MMA. But it’s still a tough sell to a lot of people. There’s a lot of education that still needs to be done.
How much did the UFC’s big summer TV agreement with Fox play into your move?
Lorenzo [Fertitta, who owns UFC] and Dana were very patient to find the right TV partner. To say they hit a home run just undersells it. It’s ideal. I was coming on board whether it was Fox or G4. [Fox] was just the icing on the cake for me. I didn’t care if I was on the Internet, as long as my business card said UFC.
I just joined an organization filled with people who have been there from UFC 1, some since UFC 40, but no one is resting on their laurels. You get the sense that it is an upstart. People are fighting for the sport and recognizing how much education for mixed-martial arts needs to be done. When Dana White gets us all together after a big announcement and has a celebratory tone and says go home for the day—no one leaves. They love what they do. They’re passionate about what they do.
How big can this sport become? Could it ever overtake the NFL?
I think that’s pretty ambitious. Globally, I don’t think there’s any doubt it has a chance to be right there. I’ve said when this generation turns over once more—when the 18- to 25-year-olds are 28-35 and become decision-makers and become immersed in professional settings—it’s going to explode even more.
In this generation of texting and Tweeting and everything else, this ADD generation, your product better compel and entertain. … The UFC is certainly the best live event I’ve ever seen. It translates on TV better than a lot of other sports, too.
Here’s the analogy I use: If Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are playing one-on-one on one end and a fight breaks out on the other end of the playground, what are people watching? They’re watching the fight, because it’s compelling. Now to have two highly skilled guys who are well-rounded in every martial art, you now have the greatest sport in the world. I grew up on baseball, football, basketball and a little hockey—but now this just trumps them all.
Is there a danger of the sport becoming oversaturated?
For NFL fans and UFC fans alike, they want it 24-7. Every free minute at work, they go to UFC.com, or are immersing themselves in the UFC. We have eight divisions now, and a roster of more than 300 fighters. I don’t know if the appetite has ever been stronger for this stuff.
At some point, you run the risk of oversaturation, but we’re not at that point yet. We’re still in the relative infancy of the sport, and showcasing these fighters and their backstories is the best way to grow the brand.
There’s such an increased curiosity from the mainstream sports fan, and maybe the casual combat sports fan. “What is this? Maybe I should get on board and check this out.” I know for someone like my twin brother, to be able to get this much free content, it will take him from being a casual fan to being a hardcore fan.
Do you have a favorite fighter?
Ben Henderson and Donald Cerrone are the first two that always come to mind. I just can’t remember either one of them ever being involved in a boring fight. I think for fighters there’s always a balance between risk and reward, and winning versus entertaining. I think those guys do it as good as anybody.
Do you train in MMA?
I took boxing lessons for two years back in Boston. I think I’m gonna train Brazilian jiujitsu for a little bit. Just because I think it will help me do my job. I feel like I have a good working knowledge of the sport, and I know I can call a fight without training in it. But it’s only gonna make me better at my job. I owe it to the UFC to get a gi [a jiujitsu uniform] and get out on the mat.
What was it like to play yourself in the movie Warrior, and are any other roles coming your way?
Not that I know of. But what a thrill that was. It was certainly more of a statement about MMA Live than it was about the host. I had six wardrobe changes in seven scenes. I got to narrate. I got my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card. It was awesome.
The ironic thing is I have an identical twin brother who lives in Florida. He went to Rollins College, majored in musical theater. He moved out to L.A. for four years and poured himself into the acting thing, and it didn’t work out. And here I stumble into it. But he honestly is my biggest critic and has been the person who has helped me the most to get to where I am.
Word on the street is you might gamble from time to time?
I know better than to sit at those blackjack tables. I enjoy [betting on] a game every now and again. I have a budget, and I’m pretty disciplined about it. I always enjoy the lines. It’s fascinating. It’s always been something that has interested me to see how the oddsmakers view things, compared with how I see it. I try not to be a member of the betting public, but I am.
You’ve been an East Coast guy all your life; what’s it like to sleep in three hours later now?
We love the Pacific time zone. The NFL at 10 a.m. is outstanding. The weather is great. It’s a bit of an adjustment being on the West Coast, when you wake up and half the day has elapsed on the East Coast. But we also had a lot of time to process that this was probably going to happen. We’re loving it out here.
As big of a deal as it was to leave ESPN and move across the country, your biggest moment was the birth of your daughter, Riley, last summer. What’s it like to be a father?
That is a game-changer. You think it’s gonna be great, then it’s even better than that. I don’t know if any verbal advice from anyone can quite prepare you for what it’s gonna be like to have a kid. It’s the greatest thing in the world. I think it makes it a little more exciting that we’re doing all this together, moving and the new job. I can’t wait for her to see her first fight.