In between Strikeforce mega events at huge arenas like the HP Pavilion in San Jose and the Sears Centre in Chicago, the promotion and their broadcast partner Showtime take a step back and build for tomorrow. Strikeforce Challengers cards don't pack major venues or feature the sport's biggest names like Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson. It's a show designed to build fresh faces from the ground up, in many ways a much more challenging task than turning A-list stars loose and watching them collide. Helping make the champions of tomorrow recognizable talents today takes a light hand and an experienced crew of storytellers. Their story led me to Jackson, Mississippi, and a Hilton in the dodgy part of town.
A single hotel room is a cramped fit for four grown men, but there's only so much you can do in the hotel lobby. In room 321 at the Hilton Garden Inn, Mauro Ranallo sits at the desk, taking the lead just as he will at the broadcast the next night. Lounging on the bed is former UFC welterweight champion Pat Miletich; in a chair across the room, the "Fight Professor" Stephen Quadros looks pensive, fingers steepled in thought.
Ranallo is fully in character as the three men rehearse what will become the opening segment of Showtime's Strikeforce Challengers broadcast the next day. Mauro is on point every time, voice booming in the small room. Miletich has carefully crafted his segment, attempting to get the diction and timing just so, the nerves showing even in the run through. Quadros, the veteran of a hundred mixed martial arts broadcasts around the world is less tied to a script. Each time he says something slightly different - he's not working from notes but from feel.
Much of what is said is informed by a fighter's meeting earlier that day in the hotel's conference room. Some insurance salesmen are in town and Strikeforce has one of the smaller rooms in the business- first Hilton. That's fine - sliding two tables together creates more than enough room as, one by one, a parade of main event fighters is marched in the room by Showtime's PR superstar Annie Van Tornhout, all save Waachiim Spirit Wolf who is still looking to get on weight. It's a little different than a typical media interview. The announcers ask the fighters specific questions about their tactics and training. For the most part, they expect real answers. The information won't leave the room but will be key when they call the fights the next night.
Ranallo, sits in the corner typing furiously on a tiny notebook computer, almost never looking up after shaking hands. He's looking to confirm basic biographical information, records, spelling, all the administrivia that will make sure the broadcast is on point fight night. As he types, Quadros asks each fighter about their keys to victory, informing of course, his prefight segment cleverly called "Keys to Victory."
"Some of the fighters get really nervous," Quadros said. "And it feels like a police interrogation in there. But we're actually there to help them. Anybody can see what they are going to do. But why do they do it? I don't want it to be redundant or obvious. Everybody knows what B.J. Penn, or Cung Le, or a wrestler wants to do generally. I want to know if there have been little adjustments. Especially changes for that particular fight. That's important."
It's Miletich who shines in this setting. The fighters all respect him - a UFC title and three world champion pupils tend to demand that respect.
"I like connecting during those interviews, getting to know a kid. Know his personality," Miletich says. "If we as a broadcast crew can connect with a kid, what's going on in his life, things like that, it helps you relate to his plight and pass it on to the fans at home. Everybody like to watch fights, but fans like to know what's going on in a kid's life."
As Ovince St. Preux walks in the room decked out in Tennessee orange, his trainer Kevin Burns addresses Pat as "Mr. Miletich." What might have been awkward turns out benign. Miletich had considered recusing himself from this fighter interview. He had trained with St. Preux's opponent Antwain Britt in the past and was afraid it might be a conflict. Ranallo encouraged him to stay. "You're here as a professional, I don't see a problem," the Canadian veteran told him.
Producer Rich Gaughan agreed, so Miletich stayed, helping to draw the quiet former linebacker out of his shell a bit. Gaughan has been around the fight game for years, producing boxing for Showtime but also a veteran of UFC broadcasts going back to the mid-1990's right through the early years with Zuffa. You often hear that Showtime doesn't have any MMA people on staff, but Gaughan knows the game. He sits in these meetings with the fighters as well, and after the fighters and announcers have their say, Gaughan and his team come up with the storylines they think are most important.
"UFC builds a brand. I'm not sure how concerned they are with building fighters," he explains over lunch. "They need stars to keep the brand going, but they're building the UFC. Personally, I think it's always interesting to know something, even if it is just a little tiny thing, about these guys. To give the people at home, the people in the arena, some reason to root for a guy. That allows you to pick a guy, that you can identify with and givers you a rooting interest. We could easily come on the air at 11 and at 11:00 and 30 seconds we've run our open and be ready for our first fight. Red corner, blue corner and fight. But if we know a little about these guys it's more interesting."
You hear a lot of truths in these meetings, but it's the truth as the fighters know it. We hear about St. Preux, later nicknamed "OSP" by Ranallo, having strong and fast kicks and an amazing gas tank. The kicks we saw for ourselves the next night, busting Britt in the ribs and dropping him. But we saw a different gas tank than the one described by the fighter, one that was on empty after a hard round of fighting. The fighters can only be as honest with the announce crew as they are with themselves.
Most of the meeting is focused on the fighters and what they intend to do. But before they leave, Ranallo gives each a piece of advice. "This is national television," he reminds each fighter as they prepare to depart. "Think about what you are going to say when you win. And not any namby pamby 'I'll fight whoever they put in front of me' stuff. Call someone out. Make a statement...this is a chance to sell yourself."
Much more, including unprecedented access to Showtime's broadcast team after the jump.
Showtime Director Rick Phillips
While the announcers prepare their spiel, in the arena a crew of professionals is hard at work preparing for the next night's broadcast. Just getting the event set up is a minor miracle and quite an undertaking. The show needs to be competitive with other live sports broadcasts, but with a smaller budget than many. Small is a relative term - it's no Monday Night Football, but that hardly makes it cheap. Bringing in the giant lighting trellis and the broadcast equipment costs Showtime around $30,000. The cost of bringing in the cage and personnel runs about the same for Strikeforce.
The cage is put together first, a giant 26-foot hexagon, 36 feet around once the catwalk is constructed. The crew starts with the base of 2x2 and 3x3 steel sections, then the subfloor, foam on top of that, and finally canvas is tightened over the top. Then the cage walls go up, a four- man lift for each piece, and the ominous structure stands ready for the combatants to enter. The entire process, supervised by TrueSport's Ari Hagan who has built cages for every major promotion from the UFC to the King of the Cage, takes almost four hours.
When the lights are in place, the cage is dragged underneath as the show's look is carefully calibrated under their bright glare. Although they are sometimes portrayed by the unknowing as feuding companies, battling over matchmaking and other sundry topics, you don't see Strikeforce and Showtime as opposing camps at all during an event. Instead it's almost like a family unit. "We're definitely partners in this," Gaughan says. The relationship is confusing for many MMA fans brought up in a UFC world where there is a single brand acting as both promoter and broadcaster. The dual marketing of Showtime and Strikeforce is actually much more common to televised sports than the brand centric approach the UFC has brought to the table.
"It's just like the NFL on CBS or the NFL on Fox. The UFC is a different world," Challengers Director Rick Phillips said. "UFC is essentially a pay per view world except for SPIKE. And even on SPIKE it's still UFC heavy. They started that way and they value their identity. It's huge to them, like WWE. Showtime has always taken the partnership and network approach."
It's a tight knit group of professionals with a clear mission in mind. Like most aspects of the show, the setup is clearly a cooperative venture from the get go. Strikeforce picks the venue, often relying on viewership demographics supplied by the network, or in this case because a local promoter Prizefight Promotions has bought the event. This gives the local promoter the opportunity to book fighters from the region on the event's undercard, as well as the responsibility of making sure the tickets move in the community.
Before that can happen, Showtime first sends a team to make sure the building itself is up to snuff. So far, that's been the case for every venue Strikeforce has suggested, although its sister show SHOBox has had to relocate several times when smaller casinos and second rate facilities couldn't support a modern broadcast. The Jackson Convention Complex is riding the line between compatible and unacceptable. It's a perfectly fine place to hold a fight card, but it's like an older movie theater that hasn't installed stadium seating yet. The town knows it too - while we are there the local paper discusses the need for a state of the art facility. This isn't it, not anymore, but they are able to hang the lights. For Showtime, this is the real deal killer. Making that happen means the event in Jackson is a go.
In the state of the art production truck, complete with 52 monitors in the main area alone, Phillips goes about the task of making sure the look and feel of the building meets Showtime's exacting standards. The layout of the Convention Complex is giving him fits and much of the Thursday afternoon before the Friday fights is devoted to getting things just right. The older building has no tiered seating at all, everything is on the floor. This would be a disaster for the fans in attendance if they didn't hang monitors for the audience to view the action on the giant screen. But because the building isn't as tall as most, the screens are unfortunately positioned right in the shot Phillips needs in the background of the fighter intros. The TV viewers will mostly see CGI and graphics detailing the fighter's height and weight. They can also, if they look closely enough, see the big screen. These little details, so easy to just let go, have to be fixed. When the show hits the air, the team wants everything to be perfect.
"You sit at home and you flip on a TV show and there it is. It's not quite that easy. It takes us a long time, and a lot of preparation, and a lot of discussion, and a lot of man power, and a lot of hours to bring the product up to a certain level. It's all about the preparation. You can't expect to show up the day of and hope it works out. We've been working on these roll- ins and features for two weeks," Gaughan says. "We're fortunate enough to have a budget that allows us to bring, not as many as we'd like, but some talented people to these things on a regular basis. They can sort of steady the ship in their own particular area. The systems we have put in place will be adjusted for the life of this show. To makes things easier, make them better, make them more functional."
As the countdown begins to the moment Showtime will yield control of their airwaves to the crew on site, the atmosphere inside the truck is almost as thick with worry and adrenaline as the backstage area where the fighters are preparing to do battle. "Truth be told, we're all a little nervous when we do live television," Gaughan admits. "You really don't know what's going to happen."
Gaughan and his team are also going to war, a battle against mistakes. In a live broadcast, anything can happen and it's his job to be ready when it does. "MMA is harder to produce than boxing, because you never know exactly what might happen. In boxing you can usually settle in for a bit. These fights can run any where from 17 minutes bell to bell to just 10 seconds."
Of course, nothing ever goes completely to plan. In an early in- cage interview segment, Ranallo's mic goes out. "Get him the hardwire backup," Gaughan yells, trying to cut the problem off at the pass.
"When things go wrong and you're well prepared, you can absorb them better," he says. "You know how to get from place to place. You know what you can lose from the broadcast, what you have to keep. And what you have to do to make sure the quality of the product is still at a very high level no matter what comes."
The most anticipated fight of the night yields a new set of problems. Waachiim Spirit Wolf and Marius Zaromskis promised to be a war. Instead, it ended early as a finger went deep into Spirit Wolf's eye. I had spent the evening with Spirit Wolf and his wife and knew how badly he wanted this fight. So did the announcers. No one wanted to see it end like this. Ranallo, on the air, was incensed that the fight wasn't immediately called, believing the 5- minute recovery period for an injured fighter was reserved exclusively for fighters kicked in the groin. When the fight was called a no contest, the team brought in International Sport Karate Association President and Strikeforce Rules Director Cory Schafer to discuss the situation with Ranallo in an on screen interview.
MMA's labyrinth and complex rules had left the announcers and even the most hardcore fans confused. It's what makes someone like Schafer such a valuable part of the team. On a standard MMA event, a decision is made, announcers rant, and then they move on to the next fight. Here, Schafer not only worked with the athletic commission to get it right, he was also able to explain to the viewers what happened and why. It was cutting edge television by the Showtime team, shades of Fox, the network that added former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira to their football broadcasts to explain the rules when the announcers are stumped about a referee's decision. No one was happy about the fight ending in seconds, but at least the crowd understood the decisions that were made, on the spot, in real time.
After another eye poke nearly ended the night for Antwain Britt against St. Preux, and nearly brought Strikeforce matchmaker Rich Chou to tears cageside, the show ended with prospect Justin Wilcox decisioning veteran star Vitor Ribeiro. Wilcox had been exceedingly confident in the prefight interview, impressing everyone.
"Muscular little shit, isn't he?," Miletich asked with a laugh.
The former body builder sought the former champion out after the bout. With family and his girl in tow, Wilcox and Pat went over some of the finer points. Like many fighters, the American Kickboxing Academy wrestler Wilcox could only think about what went wrong in the cage and how he could improve.
At the end of the night, the Showtime team felt the same way. The Challengers series is designed to showcase new stars - and that's just what they did. Wilcox and St. Preux were ready to take the next step in their MMA journey. But there are different levels of success, and while satisfied, no one was feeling complacent. As the crew began tearing down the equipment they had so carefully put in place days before, the announcers and Gaughan met a final time to talk about how they can make the show better next time. And there will be plenty of next times - Strikeforce has 20 cards scheduled for 2011.
Next week, a look behind the scenes at Showtime's three man booth, the best announcing team in the industry.