Mauro Ranallo and Pat Miletich are arguing again. The rest of the table is studiously ignoring them. There's a comfortable routine about it all, but that doesn't mean it isn't boisterous. We're at a local restaurant in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, a place clearly used to quiet, sweet tea and maybe a small slice of pie. That tranquility is a thing of the distant past as Miletich and Ranallo are talking politics, a dicey game at the best of times, made worse when two people are as diametrically opposed in their vision of the world as these two.
"It's purely in fun," Ranallo said. "And I think it just shows that there is a real unique camaraderie amongst us. I respect and actually genuinely like Pat Miletich. I'm that guy who should have had his ass kicked a million times because of my big mouth. I'm an antagonist. But in a sense, I'm also wanting to learn. I like debate. If people just sat there and agreed with each other all the time, what the hell would the world be like?"
Ranallo, the Canadia hipster who is always putting on a show, is as liberal as they come. Miletich, the picture of midwest values, is an unabashed conservative. Guns, Bibles, Family Values, and Fist Fighting are his priorities, in an as yet indiscernible order.
"It started out as a joke," Ranallo says. "But I'm starting to learn more about his beliefs as a friend."
The two are in an evolving and continuous conversation about the world around them. "That's the great thing about this country," Miletich adds. "I've got a lot of friends who are conservative, a lot of friends who are middle of the road, and a lot of friends who are liberal. The beautiful thing about this country is that you can have a fun debate and make fun of each other about anything. I enjoy it. It's fun working with these guys."
Broadcast partner Stephen Quadros just watches it all and shakes his head.
"I feel like (MMA referees) Herb Dean or "Big" John McCarthy," Quadros says. "But it's a good natured argument. These guys enjoy the drama of it."
Good natured arguments seem to follow Ranallo wherever he goes. People often accuse him of putting on an act for the cameras, complete with a fake radio announcer voice (actually his real voice) and feigned enthusiasm for the topic at hand. If it's an act, it's a persistent one. Spend some time around Ranallo and you'll realize he's actually toning it down for the broadcast. His real life has the volume turned up to ten. On television, you're just getting seven. Whatever you think of the humor and the puns, Ranallo is also an experienced professional with an obvious love of mixed martial arts.
"Whether people like me or not, I am the glue that holds the broadcast together. The best way to describe me is air traffic controller," he says. "Do I go a little crazy sometimes? Yeah! So what? That's who I am. I don't want to be compared to anybody else."
Ranallo has years in the booth. Quadros has been around the block a time or two as well. Despite a decade and a half in the sport, it's Miletich who is the rookie here, but a rookie with the potential to become a heck of a good broadcaster.
"I sit there, this close to high level action like we have in our organization and say 'God, I used to do that. A lot.' Just the intensity of the moment. I'm still in awe when I watch a good fight. I have chills going up my spine," Miletich says. "Doing commentary is obviously a challenge. Every time, I'm nervous. It's fun to be nervous again. It gets me out of my comfort zone, which I enjoy."
Thousands of fighters have competed inside the cage. Only a few dozen have won UFC gold. Fewer still have the ability to talk about the varied action in a coherent way. Producer Rich Gaughan thinks this makes Miletich a rare find.
"It's very hard to find somebody with Pat's kind of experience who can be articulate enough to see what they see, understand what they see, process what they're seeing, and then explain what they're seeing - it's not an easy thing to do," he says. Challengers Director Rick Phillips, his interest piqued, chimed in. "And be gregarious enough to do it. Beyond being articulate. To want to do it. And to sound natural and comfortable. That's the real challenge. Pat may look nervous in rehearsal, but on the air he looks surprisingly comfortable. He uses that - his kind of 'non-announcer' persona to his advantage. He takes the best of what he's got, he can use that "Awe Shucks" on the air and can smile. He's allowed to stumble then, because he's Pat Miletich and he's a great athlete and now he's joining you in your living room."
More with the announce team at the broadcast and the bar after the jump.
The Announcers prepare in the calm before the storm. Photo by: Rich Hundley III/SHOWTIME
His partners speak of him in equally glowing terms. It would be easy for Ranallo and Quadros to do the show without taking a newcomer under their wing. But both recognize how important Miletich can be to the broadcast.
"Credibility is everything and he's right at the top of the ladder. He's taking the coaching mindset and sharing it with the audience. He's not an announcer - he's not trying to be something he's not. I think that's why he's so good. He's a natural, but he's also a natural 25 years in the making," Ranallo says. "He's Pat Miletich. He's so good he can break it down so even my dad, who's a casual fan, can understand what's happening when the action moves to the ground and why the fighters are doing what they are doing."
Quadros believes the athlete in the broadcast booth is often a token, there because producers think he has to be there, rather than because he adds anything for the viewer. "They're a figurehead. They are there because the show thinks you need an athlete. They can't articulate what they know. Pat Miletich is not that athlete," the Fight Professor says. "I learn from him every show. I've worked with other athletes who weren't as articulate but were effective in different ways because of their dynamic personality. Pat is a double, triple whammy. He's got all this experience as a fighter, has all this experience as a coach, and is articulate and even funny on occasion."
Together, the three men are the best broadcast team in mixed martial arts. It's a tricky mix, one that could go explosively wrong. Three man booths are notorious powder kegs, often turning into competitive nightmares where each guy fights to get his material in, without regard for how it might benefit or burden the broadcast.
"Three man booths are difficult to work with. They're cumbersome and there's just not that much airtime, especially on a condensed show like this one," Gaughan said. But the team they've put in place works, each adding an important piece to the puzzle. And Gaughan thinks he understands why. "They have a real love for the sport in addition to a love for broadcasting. Plus there's an affinity they have for each other as friends that transcends the work relationship and I think it adds to it. They're never in a spot where they are trying to upstage each other or say 'I've got to get in my spots.' If someone says something stupid they don't leave them out there hanging so that they can look better. They work for each other. They work together as a team. They know they are going to succeed as a team and they're going to fail as a team."
Ranallo, a veteran of the business since he was just 16 agrees. "Fragile egos, psyche, this and that. I've seen it all. This is different - we're a team. We respect each other. We all know our roles. And we know that the end game, the bottom line, is putting over the product and not ourselves. On a football team there's a quarterback, a wide receiver, there's a running back. My job is to set everything up and help Pat Miletich, who's really been a revelation as a color commentator, knock it out of the park. He's the guy people want to hear. I'm sharing some anecdotes and stating the obvious - but my job is to get it to Pat to explain the X's and O's. Why is this happening?"
For Miletich, being sandwiched between two veterans in the booth and teamed with experienced hands like Gaughan and Phillips in the production truck makes life easier. He is admittedly on edge in the live television pressure cooker. Steady partners make it easier to see his way through inevitable mistakes.
"They are always willing to help and to teach," Miletich says. "From the guys at the top of the production to my partners there at the table. It's really cool to learn what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong. They understand that we can only be good if we're a good team. They do their best to help me get better and the production gets better as I get better."
While Miletich and Ranallo get the bulk of the air time and the bulk of the press, it's Quadros who helps make it all gel, carefully finding a place for his own brand of analysis while Ranallo does the traditional play by play and Miletich fills in the color.
"When broadcasters compete they hurt the broadcast," Quadros says. "Everybody wants to be the genius. Everybody wants to be the smartest guy in the room. But when you give it up and humble yourself, you find teamwork is the most important aspect. Pat and Mauro and I are all secure enough in our positions, not only in the broadcast team but in the sport, so we don't have to try to upstage each other. We feed each other."
The others have more defined roles. For Quadros, it's a matter of finding his moment, the small insights, the little tidbits of history, that help him separate this from other broadcast teams.
"Stephen is the Fight Professor," Ranallo says. "He knows the history. He can compliment Pat, even disagree at times. The historical anecdotes - as TV announcers, we're still talking to the casuals. Lots of guys like you may say 'Come on, we know this.' But there's a fine line between dumbing it down and being over the top of the audience's head and I think Stephen walks that line very well."
Every show is an adventure, a learning experience for a team that is still relatively new, still finding their way. Whether they join the elite broadcast teams of all time or not, it will be a road they travel together - likely laughing the whole way. At the last Challengers show, Ranallo challenged Strikeforce rules director Cory Schafer on air about a referee's decision after an eye poke ended Waachim Spirt Wolf's night early. That night at the bar it was still a bit of a tender spot when Miletich stood up and asked for our attention. At his side was the mild mannered Schafer.
"I'd like to propose a toast to the man who made Mauro look like the liberal jack ass he is," Miletich yelled. The room broke up. Nobody was laughing harder than Mauro Ranallo.
"At the end of the day, if you didn't have fun, what's the point?" Quadros asks. "When you're close as friends it makes things so much better. So much richer. You can try things. Because you know if you try and you fail, it's your friend and you know everyone is just going to laugh. You're secure. When you work with people that you trust, you can do your best work."
Quadros, Ranallo, and Miletich will be back in action January 7, 2011 as Strikeforce opens the new year with a Challengers show in Nashville, Tennessee. SHOWTIME® will be available in a record 61 million households for a Free Preview Weekend from Friday, January 7 through Monday, January 10. Viewers across the country will have the opportunity to sample the premium network's award-winning programming on SHOWTIME, SHOWTIME HD and SHOWTIME On Demand. The Free Preview weekend will include the anticipated series premieres of two new SHOWTIME original series SHAMELESS and EPISODES, the fourth season premiere of CALIFORNICATION, the SHOWTIME Sports mixed martial arts series STRIKEFORCE Challengers live from Nashville, and the premium television premiere of THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON.