Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author.
In recent years, MMA fans have started seeing ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith on their TV screens more frequently, particularly for big UFC events. While it helps promote the event even further thanks to Smith’s massive audience, he has also received plenty of flak for various controversial comments he has made involving the sport of MMA and certain fights in particular.
Many have since called for him to never appear again due to his lack of expertise. With that said, Smith has stated that the sport needs him and his support, and some observers feel the same way. What exactly were the controversies and why does MMA need Stephen A. Smith’s support? Keep on reading to learn more.
Who is Stephen A. Smith?
Stephen A. Smith is a commentator, personality, talk show host and analyst who currently works at ESPN. Regarded as the face of ESPN, where he is one of the highest-paid employees.
Smith is known for his occasional bold predictions, over-the-top statements, argumentative debates, analogies and expressions that have seen him garner a huge following not only in sports media, but in mainstream media as well.
He mainly covers the NBA and NFL, along with a number of other sports, including baseball, boxing, etc.
Some controversial statements made by Stephen A. Smith
Smith made his first major appearance at a UFC event during UFC 246 for the headliner between Conor McGregor and Donald Cerrone back in January 2020. McGregor would end up winning in less than a minute after TKO’ing Cerrone. Smith would go on to say the following about Cerrone’s performance during the post-fight show:
“Here’s the deal: 15 seconds in, ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone was done. He got hit with those shoulders in the clinch and he was done. It looked like he gave up. It was just an atrocious performance on his part.”
Those comments were not received well by many, and became the start of when the mixed martial arts community began their anti-Smith agenda. Smith would also make controversial comments while discussing women facing men in intergender matchups.
“Where I jump off the bandwagon is when they try to engage physically. For example, I don’t ever want to see a woman boxing a man. I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see a woman in the UFC fighting a man even though there are some women out there that’ll kick a dude’s butt. We get all that. When I think about pugilistic sports, I don’t like seeing women involved in that at all. I just don’t like it. I wouldn’t promote legislating laws to prohibit them from doing so, but I don’t want to see women punching each other in the face. I don’t want to see women fighting in the octagon and stuff like that, but that’s just me.”transcribed by MMAjunkie
How the MMA community reacted to Stephen A. Smith
The MMA community was upset with Smith’s comments about Cerrone because they felt it was over the line. While Smith is used to criticizing NFL or NBA teams after losses, it’s different in combat sports where a loss can’t be responded to within a week.
Fighters usually have to wait a month at the minimum to return from a defeat and in Cerrone’s case, his next fight wouldn’t come until nearly four months on from the McGregor setback.
Longtime UFC commentator and analyst Joe Rogan, who was alongside Smith when he made those comments about Cerrone, had this to say about Smith:
“For Conor to smash ‘Cowboy’ like that in front of his wife, his kid, his grandma and the whole world. You’ve got to have some respect for that man, and this sport demands a different perspective. It’s not the same thing as a ball going into a hoop. It’s not the same thing as crossing a line with a football. It’s different. It’s very intense and very personal, and it’s also very (expletive) dangerous and to play it off like it’s just a game, I don’t agree with it.”transcribed by MMAjunkie
There’s also the fact that Smith didn’t really understand the nuances of mixed martial arts. While Cerrone has been known to fold in the bigger occasions, it’s completely normal for many fighters to have a completely off night or a performance where they get completely blitzed.
Former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez had arguably the worst performance of his career when he lost his title to McGregor at UFC 205, one of the biggest events of all time. It’s even more so the case when you consider Cerrone, 36 at the time of the fight, was most likely past his prime.
Rogan would go on to say that Smith shouldn’t be giving out his analysis on MMA:
“That’s a bad look for everybody,” Rogan said. “It’s a bad look for ESPN, it’s a bad look for him, it’s a bad look for the sport. There’s other people that can do this. … We have plenty of people out there who understand the sport. There’s plenty of them. … Stephen A. Smith is really good at that stuff. But it’s not the place for MMA. It’s just not the place. It’s not the same thing.”transcribed by MMAjunkie
Smith also received harsh criticism for his comments about women fighting as mentioned above. Many felt those comments promoted inequality by stating that a woman should stick to societal expectations by not taking part in a combat sport. It also promoted the idea that women’s fights were not entertaining, especially when in 2020, Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk had arguably the fight of the year regardless of gender.
Jedrzejczyk, along with many other female combat sports stars, would respond to Smith soon after:
How Stephen A. Smith was vindicated in Cerrone’s case
As fate would have it, Smith would be vindicated when Cerrone would reveal in an interview a couple of months later that he didn’t show up against McGregor on the night along with the fact that he didn’t want to be there.
“Donald showed up; Cowboy wasn’t there… Biggest fight, all the attention, my time to shine, I didn’t want to be there. It was crazy, man.”
Smith caught wind of the interview and made sure to respond on Twitter.
“I’m, so all you MMA folks — who I profoundly respect — am I off my rocker now??? When you’ve covered sports intimately as a reporter for a quarter-century, you see things sometimes. I respect the hell out of @Cowboycerrone, but he just wasn’t there that night.”
In the end, in this case, Smith saw it correctly. With that said, some MMA fans may think that Smith could have still expressed himself a bit more delicately on the night, but that is who Stephen A Smith is if you have been following him on ESPN.
Stephen A. Smith is a straight shooter who says what he thinks. Telling it like it is his main appeal on TV, whether people like it or not.
How Stephen A. Smith is helping UFC/MMA fighters
Smith has a massive audience. He has his own show on ESPN along with a podcast while “First Take”, where he is a regular feature, averages over 400,000 viewers.
He has nearly 6 million followers on Twitter with another 4 million on Instagram. When he’s talking about the UFC or MMA in general, a good percentage of all those followers and viewers are tuning in or taking an interest if they weren’t already. By even having MMA fans go against him due to his comments, Smith is growing the sport by having casual fans tune in and see what the fuss is about.
There’s also the fact that Smith interviews MMA fighters on his show, which not only further promotes an upcoming UFC event, but gives fighters a larger platform and more exposure to a brand new audience.
Chael Sonnon explains why he supports Stephen A Smith
If MMA fans want the sport to become on the same level playing field as the NFL or the NBA in terms of mainstream attention, they need figures like Smith commentating and giving their opinions on the sport. UFC legend Chael Sonnen certainly feels the same way. Here are some of Chael’s quotes and the full video of him supporting Stephen A Smith.
“For Stephen A. to come out and commentate on this — which by the way, I’ll just share with you. The numbers go through the roof when Stephen A. comes to the microphone,” Sonnen said. “So many times in MMA I keep hearing that ‘we want to be mainstream. Why aren’t we mainstream? Why aren’t we being shown the respect of mainstream?’
“When you have the most mainstream guy in the sport come and talk on the desk live at the venue about your sport — that by the way, he sat in the front row and observed as a fan — when he comes and does that, and then you reject it, do you really want to be mainstream?”Chael Sonnen
Why UFC/MMA needs Stephen A. Smith’s support
Despite what you may think of Smith, the fact is it’s a good thing he supports and is a fan of the UFC. It’s really easy to forget given the UFC’s popularity today, but MMA was virtually an outlawed sport with no arena ready to license a show just around 20 years ago.
Today, it’s far more recognized as a legitimate sport and fans may start to take things for granted such as Smith appearing on broadcasts to talk about UFC events. But, the very fact that he’s appearing on its own legitimizes the UFC even further as a sporting event the everyday casual viewer should be tuning in for.
Let’s also not forget that Smith has a lot of influence in sports media and with ESPN in particular. It’s better to have him on your side rather than against, especially when he is talking highly about the UFC and MMA fighters in general.
After receiving plenty of criticism, Smith would hit back at the MMA community by stating that he never claimed to be an expert on the sport. He also added that the UFC needs him.
“Well, guess what? I’ve never said that I am a UFC expert. Not one time. Feel free. Check the tape. I’m a UFC fan, though, and I’ll say this, the UFC needs me. The UFC needs me and all others out there just like me.”
He might make controversial comments here and there, but that’s part and parcel of the Stephen A. Smith experience as it gets people talking and most importantly, it gets people focused on the particular sport he is talking about. That, more than anything, is why MMA needs Smith — the eyeballs he brings on the sport in the end.
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Stephen A. Smith is not everybody’s cup of tea and that’s completely fine. There are NBA fans who don’t like him, baseball fans who don’t like him, and NFL fans who don’t like him. The same will apply to MMA and every other sport he decides to cover.
With that said, he brings eyeballs and legitimacy, and even if a few casual fans from his audience end up being long-term fans, that’s a win for the sport on its own.