And Here We Go – Goldberg Gears Up for His 100th UFCBy Thomas Gerbasi
Fresh out of a job doing play-by-play for the Detroit Red Wings, Mike Goldberg needed some good news late in 1997. Little did he know that playing Santa Claus that year would be one of his producers at ESPN and with the Wings, Bruce Connal.
you got a raw deal with the Wings, but I got a gig for you,” said Connal. “You need to take a jiu-jitsu class, it’s in Japan, but they’ll pay you.”
Goldberg, who was broadcasting anything and everything, even women’s soccer, to get back on his feet, immediately accepted the job to do play-by-play for something called the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“I had no idea what the UFC was,” he recalled. “But it was a gig, it was in Japan, and it seemed pretty cool. I thought that maybe I’ll get a second one out of the whole deal.”
It’s gone on a bit longer than that, as this Saturday night, when the lights go down and people settle down in front of their television sets for UFC 91, Goldberg will be calling his 100th UFC event. It’s a significant milestone for a man who has become synonymous with the sport of mixed martial arts in general and the UFC in particular. Goldberg with the UFC is like Vin Scully with baseball, Keith Jackson with college football, or Marv Albert with NBA basketball – you can’t have one without the other.
“Pat Summerall in the NFL, Al Michaels in Monday Night Football, Brent Musburger, Vin Scully in baseball, Marty Brennaman, Jack Buck, Chris Schenkel in bowling, Mike Emrick in the NHL - those guys are my heroes and the men I always looked up to,” said Goldberg. “I remember when I first started in MMA, it was starting to grow and I made the comment to somebody that it would really be kinda cool if someday I could be the Jim Lampley of mixed martial arts. Obviously Lamps is synonymous with boxing with the longevity he’s had. So to me, this is a dream come true. When you’re a young broadcaster, you want to do the biggest thing that you can. I’ve covered Super Bowls, but the Buck family will probably call them all while I’m alive. I’ve covered the World Series, the Buck family will probably call them all while I’m alive. (Laughs) But in the mixed martial arts world, the UFC has become the Super Bowl, so in my little niche – which has actually become a big niche – I’ve had the honor of becoming that guy. And I take it as an honor and a compliment, and I’m humbled by it.”
But what about that first gig, Ultimate Japan in December of 1997?
“It was the mad dash for the test you didn’t know you were gonna take,” said Goldberg. “I’ve always been a studyholic. I think the key to any good broadcast is preparation. And whether it’s high school swimming championships or Super Bowl 29, you better do your homework.”
That meant a crash course in the Gracie family and the UFC from Elaine McCarthy, wife of famed referee John McCarthy, and then a more painful introduction to mixed martial arts from Big John and then-UFC color commentator Jeff Blatnick in a hotel ballroom in Yokohama.
“They were choking me, taking me down, showing me armbars, and these are two big dudes and I’m a hockey player,” laughed Goldberg, who may have guaranteed himself future employment when the UFC boss at the time, SEG’s Bob Meyrowitz walked by the ballroom and saw the young announcer going above and beyond the call of duty to prepare for fight night.
“This kid’s taking this seriously,” said a surprised Meyrowitz, and Goldberg hasn’t stopped yet in the ensuing decade plus that he’s logged behind the microphone, with constant research being the key to what he delivers on fight night. It’s not an easy task by a long shot, but it’s a process the Arizona resident has got down to a science.
“To some degree, you could say it (the preparation) never stops,” he explains. “I’ve got an Excel file on every single fighter. I make a folder with one guy on one side, one on the other. It starts with the in-house bios that I take and put into my own format, and I build on those for each fight. Then I do all my reading, I talk to the fighters and their trainers, I watch UFC Countdown to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and one of the key components to my fight preparation is that I have a meeting with Joe Silva and Sean Shelby. We usually do it on the Friday before the fight, and we will break down every fight and cover every single base.”
That’s not all though, as Goldberg has taken his immersion in MMA even further through his work in the gym, which started in the days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when UFC President Dana White brought his play-by-play man down to the Zuffa Gym to get a taste of how fighters prepared for their fights. And after four days of hitting the pads and working out with Bobby Stella at the gym, Goldberg was hooked. Since then, Muay Thai has been an integral part of his daily regimen and he’s worked with a host of standouts – from Stella to Apollo Sebastian, Jason Bress, Duke Roufus, and one of his best friends, Mark DellaGrotte.
“It has helped me to see the sport the way I was able to see hockey when I was a hockey broadcaster because I had played hockey since I was seven years old,” said Goldberg, who admits that he’s still learning all the intricate details of the sport.
“If you look at the jiu-jitsu game, I think the day you think you’ve got it down is the day you start stepping backwards,” he said. “Especially the ground game, that’s chess at the highest level. And you can play chess at the highest level your entire life and still not master it.”
It doesn’t hurt having Joe Rogan by his side either, considering the color commentator’s history in jiu-jitsu and Tae Kwon Do.
“I look at it like I’m Al Michaels and Joe’s John Madden,” said Goldberg of his broadcast partner. “I didn’t coach the game, I didn’t play the game, so I still look at Joe as John Madden. But that being said, it’s still important for me to bring more than a fork and a knife to the table, and I’ve been able to achieve that because of my training and because of the time I’ve spent with the guys who have helped train me and helped me really understand the sport. But I still have a long way until I’m done because I’ll always try to get better.”
When it comes to the 43-year old Goldberg’s success and longevity in the UFC, he chalks it up simply to being enthusiastic and having the ability to tell a story. But when your teenage daughter can rip off some of his catch phrases like “And here we go…” or “And it is all over…” that goes beyond just a guy being able to spin a yarn or two. We’re talking someone who has become as popular as some of the fighters whose bouts he broadcasts.
“It’s humbling,” said Goldberg, one of the sport’s good guys. “And it’s kinda cool to have those things. I will tell you though that when I was younger, you look at a Dick Enberg or Brent Musburger and all those guys had their little phrases, and for a while as a hockey broadcaster, I kinda tried to make one up. (Laughs) But the irony of it was that I never tried to make any of them up in the UFC, and those are the ones that everybody knows right now.”
And given his expertise and popularity, it wasn’t surprising when the WWE pro wrestling juggernaut made a run at Goldberg just as the UFC was starting to see some mainstream light in 2005. Yet despite a reportedly lucrative offer, Goldberg stayed home with the UFC.
“One of the biggest things to me was remembering those days in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi at Casino Magic, and eating at the Cracker Barrel in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and thinking we had made it when we hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” he recalls. “So part of it was, we’re really close to breaking through here. I can equate it to maybe playing for the Cincinnati Bengals and being 3-13 and 4-12, and finally you think you’ve got a team that might make it to the postseason. Do you bail and go to the Patriots or 49ers at that point, or do you say ‘the ship is sailing and is about to find a really cool island - do I want to jump off that ship now or see where it’s gonna land?’ I felt very confident that we were very close to becoming truly mainstream. Plus, there was also a sense of family, and it began first and foremost with (current UFC producer) Bruce Connal and the guys I worked with on the crew and all the other people at the UFC. It didn’t feel right to go. I felt like I was leaving my family.”
Speaking of family, the main event of Ultimate Japan in 1997 featured a former wrestler named Randy Couture, a man who Goldberg befriended that week, shortly before ‘The Natural’ won his first heavyweight title by beating Maurice Smith. Almost 11 years later, for his 100th broadcast, guess who’s the main event again?
“The irony of it all,” said Goldberg. “My hundredth UFC is Randy Couture once again fighting in a heavyweight title match.”
And whether it’s show 1, 100, or 1000 for Mike Goldberg, the feeling is always the same when the lights in the arena go down.
“That’s when the work ends and the fun begins,” he said. “At that point I can’t prep anymore, and the minute we call the first prelim, I get this sense of calm. Then we play that Who song, and I start jumping around like a little kid. That is truly when it’s the highest of highs.”
“The thing that makes the Ultimate Fighting Championship unique and, to me, the best gig in broadcasting today is that every show is Game Seven,” he continues. “I was the sideline guy with Michael Jordan and the Bulls during their first three titles, and every game watching Michael play was a privilege, but there were still game 44 against a bad Charlotte team and game 62 against a bad Sacramento team. We don’t have those games. Every UFC event is the Super Bowl, Game Seven of the World Series, or the NCAA Championship. That to me, as a broadcaster, is what everybody dreams of. You want to play in a Game Seven or broadcast a Game Seven, and I get to do about 25 Game Sevens a year, and that’s why I’ve got the greatest job in the world.”
Good interview, the guy catches a lot of heat round here but I like the guy.