How Fighting Works: John Gooden

In the first of a new series on SevereMMA we take a look at the figures in Mixed Martial Arts who do their work outside of the cage. Referees, matchmakers, promoters – basically anyone who doesn’t earn their paycheque competing inside the ring. First up, UFC commentator John Gooden.

With the UFC’s surge in popularity over the past few years it was always going to be necessary to expand the brand. There are more fighters and weight classes than ever before. By the time the year is out, the organisation will have run 41 events on five continents across the globe and as they continue to cross new borders, additional personnel were required across all sectors of the promotion.

Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan, the two mouthpieces who have become synonymous with the UFC, can no longer be expected to call each event so when the Zuffa brass opted to expand their reach across Europe and beyond, it was decided that some fresh voices were needed.

Enter John Gooden.

MMA fans in this part of the world will be familiar with the Londoner owing to his time behind the microphone for Cage Warriors where he called numerous fights, including both of Conor McGregor’s successful title fights (and indeed his loss to Joe Duffy – Gooden’s debut behind the Cage Warriors commentary desk).

Gooden, who has significant martial arts experience of his own, has sat at the UFC commentary desk since March of 2014 and, in tandem with broadcast partner Dan Hardy, he has become one of the most recognisable voices in Mixed Martial Arts – a status which Gooden doesn’t take lightly.

“I’ve been very lucky”, he says. “I just think I’ve been very lucky that lots of little things I’ve done throughout my career have actually added to my ability to be a sports commentator.”

He pauses when asked about the key skills required for success in this line of work, preferring to say that there is a vast patchwork of different skills and experiences that contribute to a commentator’s ability to perform. However, Gooden does admit that the ability to “talk the hind legs off a donkey” doesn’t go amiss.

“If you’re a wallflower I don’t think commentary is the one for you. You have to have a passion. You can’t be contrived and I think that specifically goes for our sport. The fans are so knowledgeable that if you’re faking it you’re not going to make it.

“You have to have a knowledge of the technical aspects of the game but also an appreciation for humankind. There are so many massively interesting human stories in our sport that not all other commentators look at. I think I come at it very much from the human element. I think you have to have an appreciation for that when you’re in a growing sport because that’s what it takes for people to connect. If you’re not interested in people and the finer details of martial arts then it’s certainly not for you.”

In addition to his role behind the microphone, Gooden also fulfils a few other different duties for the UFC. He produces the pre-fight interviews that you see at the top of the broadcast and also gets involved in various capacities in the open workouts, media day and face-offs.

“When I was doing Cage Warriors I worked out that my hourly rate was something like £1.60 an hour because of the amount of time I was putting in. I would probably start two to three weeks out but the massive difference with the UFC is that there’s fighter research and then there’s the production side of things. It’s literally two jobs.”

Once Saturday evening rolls around though and those house lights dim, it’s show time.

“The very first show was so difficult”, he says. “No matter how many events you’ve seen, when you’re actually in there essentially steering the ship. It was just the most frightening experience. But it absolutely does get easier over time.”

Of the numerous challenges a commentator faces when charged with chairing a multi-hour live broadcast is taking live direction through an in-ear mic while either calling the action, or trying to pay attention to a broadcast partner. How does he remain calm when every stutter, every mistake will likely be repeated on Twitter within seconds?

“I don’t know! I really don’t. It’s the biggest challenge that you will face. When a fight ends really quickly, the format that you had quite possibly gets thrown out because they’ve got to make up so much time. Dan might be in the Octagon doing his post-fight interview and normally I don’t hear much of that because I’m getting instructions on where we’re going next. If we’ve had a really quick finish when he comes back [to the commentary position] he might find that he has a camera pointed at him because they’ve to make some time back. There’s a lot of communication. Dan and I have a really friendly chemistry and I don’t want to lose that by just setting him up with soundbites; I want to have a conversation with him.”

Speaking to John, you really get the sense that he holds his co-commentator Dan Hardy in extremely high regard. The two have a genuine rapport, something that Gooden is highly appreciative of.

“I’m very, very lucky that it’s Dan Hardy that they chose. He’s someone who is a very good human being. He has strong morals. He’s very ethical. We share similar values. I’m fully vegan, he’s nearly there. These little things actually are quite significant when you’re working closely together. It’s a very cool thing to be able to say that you really enjoy the guy that you’re working with.”

MMA, though, is a tough sport to have friends in. In the same way that many fighters keep a certain professional distance from each other, people who work in the sport outside of the cage are often faced with similar dilemmas. In an environment where the difference between glory and defeat can be decided in an instant and a profession where impartiality is a prerequisite, how would he feel calling one of his friend Dan Hardy’s fights?

“It’ll be an honour. I’ve done it before. Denniston Sutherland is a good friend of mine, an old coach of mine and was at my wedding. I think I’ve called two, maybe three, of his fights at Cage Warriors so I’m very much used to doing that. I would be more excited about giving people that personal insight and, from a commentary point of view, I’d like to think I’m well researched at the best of times. I would never run out of things to say during a Dan Hardy fight. I’ve spoken to him so in-depth about everything so I would give an unrivalled insight into his mind-set and how he would approach a fight.”

Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about – insight. And that’s something that John Gooden is uniquely qualified to provide.


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