More than a week after Conor McGregor returned with a flourish, his fight with Donald Cerrone remains a source of interest far beyond the MMA bubble. The attention though, has shifted from the match itself to criticism of ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith.
The most consequential of it came from UFC analyst Joe Rogan, who during a recent taping of his eponymous podcast proclaimed Smith’s participation in the post-fight show “a bad look for everybody.” This mild rebuke unsurprisingly proved to be catnip for Smith, who responded back on Sunday via social media in a video that has been viewed millions of times.
The crux of the criticism is based upon Smith’s UFC 246 post-fight declarations that he was “quite disgusted” by Cerrone’s effort, and that “it looked like he gave up.”
Essentially, he characterized Cerrone as a quitter.
To be sure, it was the worst night of Cerrone’s professional life. Fighting before the biggest crowd — 19,040 — of his career, and competing in his first pay-per-view main event, Cerrone was stopped in just 40 seconds.
Yet the suggestion that he quit was disproven with a single viewing of the replay, which showed a likely broken nose, later confirmed by the Nevada Athletic Commission along with an orbital fracture.
Even if it didn’t, as accusations go, it’s incendiary. Smith knows this. He’s a merchant of controversy that traffics in extreme opinions. It’s not enough to say a loss was bad or lopsided or embarrassing; it must be something sharpened to a fine point and stuck in the audience’s eye.
This kind of musing works fine in stick-and-ball sports, where effort level can often be visually measured. You can see defenders get lazy on the fast break, a batter jogging down the first base line, a cornerback who avoids tackling a hulking tight end. In MMA, it’s not so easy to tell. Yes, we have heard tales of fighters quitting mid-fight, finding a way out. But this fight was five seconds old when Cerrone had his face busted up. He didn’t give up; he was crushed.
If you are making that accusation, you damn well better be sure it’s correct, and Smith has not watched enough MMA to know for sure. While he may tout his quarter-century in sports, scant few days have been spent covering MMA, a fact made obvious by his theory that Cerrone folded under the bright lights of “his first pay-per-view.” That is not a mistake that a seasoned MMA viewer would make, and the omission of “main event” at the end of that quote wasn’t an accidental one, as he repeated the claim several times.
Anyway, expertise isn’t a necessary requirement for the things he’s missed in the debate: context, nuance, humanity.
The stakes of MMA are so much higher than any other sport. One-on-one combat is designed that way. And while danger is an implicit agreement within the rules of engagement, that doesn’t mean observers should take its risks or its athletes for granted. Nothing about what fighters do is routine; nothing about it is easy. Pain is a promise; humiliation always lurks. It is unique in that regard, far past any of the traditional sports on which Smith opines on a daily basis. As such, these athletes deserve a higher level of reverence for what they do.
In basketball, if you get dunked on, it may be embarrassing for a night, but there’s another game two days later and everyone moves on. By the end of your career, only a few moments are remembered.
In MMA, you only get a few moments, period. There is no warm-up portion of a fight to get yourself into the flow of action. You can’t lose a baseball game in 40 seconds. You can’t lose a football game in 40 seconds. You have time to ramp up and if necessary, to come back.
Fighters don’t get that luxury. Be ready or be smashed.
Cerrone doesn’t get to apportion his failure to a team; he doesn’t get to share his broken face. There is nowhere to hide from what happened when he’s alone—especially when he’s alone. He has to live with the scars for the rest of his life; he has to live with that reality for the rest of his life. The damage is both physical and psychological; immediate and long-lasting.
This is why the MMA world gets protective of fighters in these kinds of incidents, something that fellow ESPN personality Dan Le Batard lamented during his Monday radio show.
“I’ve found that the MMA fans can be really unreasonable,” he said. “Like an unusual brand of elitist given what it is that we’re watching, which is human cockfighting. When I say that, they object to that every time. They object to that, telling me about the art. And it is artful the same way it’s artful to watch, you know, the spearing of bulls. Bullfighting is artful and also it’s hugely barbaric. It’s just interesting to see them zealously protect this thing from outsiders as if they don’t want the mainstream or haven’t been craving the mainstream their entire existence.”
That Le Batard can’t see a difference in the involuntary participation of an animal in a fight to the death is its own issue, but his second point is an object lesson in disingenuousness.
Yes, generally speaking, the MMA world has wanted the mainstream sports world to pay attention for years but we want you to assimilate into it, to understand the stakes, the risks, the pressure. To offer context and nuance. To show humanity and reverence. To acknowledge that there is a difference between a game and a fight. That is what they keep missing when they only drop in for big fight weeks. To them, it’s just another platform; for the fighter, it’s his career, his identity, even his life.
Listening back to Smith’s words, one diatribe is striking: “We have seen that from time to time, those bright lights shine down upon you and you just ain’t ready. No matter how much experience you have, you don’t have that experience.”
It’s true. It happened that night. In the moment he was assessing Cerrone, he was really describing himself.