Joe Rogan is already less a part of the UFC than he ever used to be, working seemingly fewer and fewer events each year. His podcasting work has taken center stage as the defining source of his notoriety, guaranteeing him $10s of millions of dollars in income for years to come.
Which is to say that Rogan doesn’t really have to do his broadcasting work with the UFC to pay any bills, and sometimes that shows. He has, at various times, sounded more checked out, less invested, or more unsure of the action he’s seeing in the cage than years past. He is, however, still very much a star of the UFC and someone that the promotion would be absolutely foolish to part with for as long as he’s still interested in showing up to work for them.
There was a time, in what now seems to be the distant past, where the UFC was marked by its lack of corporate attitude. Zuffa may have always been a cut throat business under the surface, but longtime fans will remember when it had more of a family feel. Every event featured a familiar cast of characters from referee Big John McCarthy to cut man Stitch Duran, and event organizer Burt Watson. Watching matchmaker Joe Silva struggle to keep from getting picked up by sweat-soaked, blood-encrusted fighters after bouts was always a thrill. Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan were perhaps the most familiar and dependable part of that formula, working nearly every event for years on end, providing an endearing consistency to make up for what they often lacked in professional polish.
Stories of the promotion handing out huge bonuses under the table or giving fighters lavish gifts presented a facade of a place that had an overarching sense of camaraderie. The buildup to their sale from the Fertitta brothers over to Endeavor in 2016 brought with it a steady stream of changes to something far more polished, and also seemingly more soulless.
First fighters were stripped of sponsors, then they all got uniforms, familiar celebrity officials were unceremoniously shown the door, while others quit, or retired. Rogan even made public announcements that he would retire if the UFC were ever actually sold, as rumors began to spread. Shortly after Endeavor purchased the promotion Goldberg was released from his role in the commentary booth.
But, Rogan didn’t retire. Opting instead to step away from working smaller Fight night shows, and from traveling for overseas events. His presence may have become rarer, but it’s also one of the only things left from those bygone years. For many fans that’s one last remaining point of comfort and contact to the sport as they remember it and that first made them fans. Rogan showing up once every month or so for a PPV makes the event feel not just more familiar, but bigger and more important. At once both a celebrity of the moment and a hit of nostalgia.
It seems obvious, as well, that his partners in the booth feel similarly about his presence; that it’s an exciting chance to work with someone that they’ve been listening to for years. Whether it’s Michael Bisping or Paul Felder or Daniel Cormier, former fighters always sound happy to be working with Joe Rogan (maybe not Dominick Cruz).
For the UFC then, the choice seems obvious. Rogan may not be the most on-point, or even on-topic, voice on the sidelines these days, but he adds to the atmosphere of fight cards—not just for longtime fans, but for the fighters and broadcasters he works with. He’s a constant, vocal supporter of the UFC and its talent, regularly bringing fighters in to talk on his podcast. And while the ways he uses that platform come with plenty of its own controversy, it’s unquestionable that he speaks directly to an audience that makes up the core of the UFC’s target viewership. Keeping that relationship close seems like something the UFC will always strive to maintain.
As we’ve seen with plenty of events where he’s been absent, Rogan is by no means an essential part of the UFC experience. The promotion certainly could move on without him if they wanted to. But at the moment, it’s pretty hard to see any reason they would, or might ever consider it.