Thanks to a presence on television that has increased at a seemingly exponential rate, a worldwide reach that has brought shows to nearly every corner of the globe, and a Fight Pass subscription service that gives fans insight into what happens backstage, there are very few unique perspectives left when it comes to the experience of a live UFC event. But there is still one angle that is rarely seen, and it’s a point of view that shapes much of what the general public sees and perceives. Want a peak behind the curtain? Want to see the ugly, bloody process of how the sausage gets made? Then let me welcome you to…the press room.
Sitting cageside are, of course, a gaggle of eagle-eyed play-by-play specialists, furiously tapping away at their laptops with each offensive and defensive movement initiated by the competitors trapped within the Octagon. Yet a stroll into the bowels of whatever venue is hosting the show reveals something else entirely. There, within the labyrinthine depths, is a lair stocked with trays of questionable baked ziti and lukewarm chicken Milanese, a refrigerator with an ever-fluctuating number of bottles of water and cans of Pepsi, a curtain branded with both UFC and Bud Light logos to serve as a backdrop for interviews, almost a dozen televisions showing a live feed of the broadcast (sans commercials), and a handful of conversations that wax and wane with the action on the screens. This is the press room for UFC 169.
The cast of characters in the press room is itself a shifting organism.
An hour before the first prelim bout the room is where everyone fuels up, the tables crowded with plates and drinks and computer cases and stray press kits. There are the folks of MMAFighting.com, talking with a duo from Sherdog.com, an MMAMania.com writer chilling with reps from BloodyElbow.com, the MMAJunkies and the ESPNers, the editor from Newsday, the lone bloggers sitting shy and anonymous – if you tilted your head and squinted, it could almost be a high school cafeteria redux, not quite cliquish but with invisible lines of demarcation marked out based on experience and familiarity.
Matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby are there too, Silva alternating between talk of potential fight outcomes and TV shows like The Walking Dead, Marvel’s Agents of Shield and Hannibal. Occasionally, UFC PR people will dart in and out.
This is the calm before the storm, the moment prior to when everyone must take their respective spots on the assembly line of sanctioned violence. And soon that moment comes, and the press room is suddenly less crowded, a secondary scene hidden from the 14,000 spectators who’ve filled the arena.
What gets done back there? The answer to that is immediately apparent when a handler brings in the victorious Rashid Magomedov. In a flash, the fighter and his coaches are before UFC-branded backdrop, a half dozen cameras trained upon him. Ariel Helwani sticks a microphone in his face and begins asking him questions, and other journalists chime in with queries of their own. This is the meat and potatoes of what gets done.
The path the fighters take to get to the press room is circuitous. Upon exiting the cage after their bout, they’re immediately taken to the doctors in another area (where press isn’t allowed) and thoroughly examined. After that, maybe they’ll hit the FOX Sports spot for an interview, or maybe they’ll make a beeline for the locker room, where they’ll change and shower. Then the handler comes and escorts them to the press room. And not every fighter makes it to that final stage – for those too wounded from battle, it’s an ambulance ride to the emergency room.
A dinged up Clint Hester appears in the press room and is interviewed, his high spirits the common denominator all the fighters share because, really, only the winners come by. Aside from the main- and co-main event participants at the postfight presser, the losers of the night are nowhere to be seen.
The handler brings Al Iaquinta, and the Long Islander is swarmed. Twenty minutes later, when all have asked their questions and gotten their one-on-one footage, Iaquinta disappears back from whence he came.
Meanwhile, between those flurries of interviews, the conversations come back to life. At one table, Esther Lin is buttering a trio of dinner rolls snagged from the buffet. At another table, Kahleem Poole-Tejada and Phoenix Carnevale are busy editing video they’ve just shot. A nearby Mike Stets has his headphones on, transcribing an interview done only moments ago.
Matt Serra drops by and ends up staying there longer than any other fighter, gamely doing individual interviews with all who ask.
Then comes Chris Cariaso, and much later, trainers Kru Phil Nurse and Firas Zahabi. Since the main card fighters will be assembled for the postfight presser occurring after the main event, that’s the end of the interviews in the press room.
Some will stroll out to an assigned seat in the press rows that are cageside, soaking up the atmosphere and watching the final fights with their own eyes. Others will stay to continue their conversations, or put the finishing touches on those articles or videos whose deadlines are virtually immediate.
Before the main event is underway, a UFC PR person gives assurances that someone will be there to guide everyone to the postfight press conference, and sure enough, after Herb Dean breaks Renan Barao and Urijah Faber apart and calls the bout, someone does.
That’s it. That’s what happens backstage, in a world unseen by fans but invariably full of people who are true fans of the sport in their own right. Because of course everyone wants to sit cageside and watch the drama unfold in the form of crushing knockouts and killer submissions. That’s what’s assumed is the perch of the press. But to eschew that easy, visceral experience for one more personal, where interaction is the name of the game and the fighters are awash in their post-coital glow and full of relief and truth… that requires something special, a love not of the game as much as its players.
That’s the press room for you.