Few sports have grown more in popularity in recent years than mixed martial arts. The sport, driven by large personalities behind the scenes (Dana White) and in the Octagon, has captured the male demo with their athleticism, grit and very unique styles, with the UFC becoming the dominant brand.
One of the biggest devotees of the sport is longtime reporter and news producer Mike Straka. He is the host of Fighting Words with Mike Straka on HDNet, which features interviews with MMA athletes. His new book, Fighting Words: In-Depth Interviews with the Biggest Names in Mixed Martial Arts (Triumph), pulls together much of his work and brings fans even closer to some of the biggest names in the sport.
Big Lead Sports spoke with Straka about the growth of mixed martial arts and the unique people involved with the sport.
Big Lead Sports: Who is your favorite personality in the book and why?
Mike Straka: Renzo Gracie. He commands such respect in the MMA world, from champions like Frankie Edgar and Georges St. Pierre and other great fighters like Kenny Florian, Dave Branch, Joe Sampieri and more who train at his academy every day. When I interviewed Matt Hughes after he fought Renzo even Hughes, who does not mince words, had nothing but praise for him.
BLS: Why does he get this respect?
MS: Renzo lights up every room he enters. People gravitate toward him. He is such a positive influence in so many people’s lives. One of the questions I asked him was, ‘How many Renzos would you like to clone so you could be in so many different places at once?’ He said he’d need many because he’s constantly being pulled in several directions and has many obligations. Over the years, and because I live near him, I’ve gotten to know him and his family very well, and it’s been such a pleasure. I can’t say enough about Renzo Gracie, but I’ll leave it there.
BLS: Even casual fans know many of the names of today’s UFC stars. But who are the people in the book who you think people will love to read about that they have hardly heard of?
MS: I think they’ll enjoy reading about everyone in the book, because no matter how famous they are I’d like to think I get these guys to go further and divulge some personal experiences and thoughts that they don’t normally do in the course of media interviews. More specifically, I think the Scott Coker interview has been getting a lot of attention because it reveals just how long he’s been promoting martial arts, going all the way back to the Professional Karate Association days on ESPN. [That was] long before ESPN had football or baseball or any other “mainstream” sport they own today. Coker was there, providing and producing content for that fledgling all sports network way back when. These are things I try to bring to viewers every time someone sits across from me for an interview.
BLS: As someone who loves the sport and is not tied to the UFC directly, do you think there can be a second promotion to challenge the UFC, or is professional MMA a one-horse town?
MS: I think there is room for Bellato. But notice that Bjorn Rebney never set out to challenge the UFC. His product, being a tournament style promotion, is vastly different and there’s certainly room for that kind of differentiation. I think today the International Fight League – which was a team format – could work too. I think it may have been ahead of its time and perhaps failed due to the constraints of television. I think the MYNetwork TV deal was wrong for that promotion. And when you think about how the UFC has held out for so long from doing a network TV deal, you have to give Dana White major props for sticking to his guns and holding out for a deal that makes sense for the UFC. Nobody helped these guys in blazing the trail they have blazed. And now that they’re killing it, their position is even stronger.
BLS: You talk about Mark Cuban in the book and the influence he has had in the sport. Do you see his group taking a more aggressive stance in the sport going forward?
MS: I don’t think so. I was there for his first HDNet Fights promotion. I think he had the intent to build a promotion. But he’s a smart guy, and he realized quickly that HDNet was better served by airing fights instead of promoting them. That’s a great executive who can cut his losses that quickly and switch gears the way he did.
BLS: Why is there is an entire chapter on Big John McCarthy?
MS: Big John is extremely important in the annals of MMA. I’m looking forward to his autobiography with Loretta Hunt. However, John is a cautionary tale. Here was a guy who became too big in the sport, and the Zuffa era UFC is all about those three letters. There can be nobody bigger or on par with those three letters because at the end of the day, the UFC will outlive any champion, and commentator and any referee.
MS: Big John was caught between a rock and a hard place. The SEG UFC was paying him above and beyond what the athletic commissions were paying him. And the new world UFC stopped that because it could be deemed as presenting a conflict of interest. After all, referees are essentially state employees, and a promotion paying a ref could pose many issues. But when you’re John and you’re making a living, it’s hard to swallow taking a hit to one’s wallet. I think he saw other opportunities and jumped. In the end, I felt John is a worthy interview because he is privy to the history of the UFC. He was at Rorion Gracie’s gym and saw the birth of what is now the biggest and most successful combat sport in the world. Nobody can take that away from him.
BLS: Why are there are no women interviewed in the book? For example, many say that Gina Carano has had a big influence on the sport.
MS: In order to get Gina in the book, she first has to agree to an interview. I did interview Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos, but the translation didn’t really work out too well so we never aired it. I think there’s enough room for women’s MMA, and the women in the sport know I respect them as much as I respect the men.
BLS: How come Rashad Evans, Pat Miletich and George St. Pierre are not in this edition?
MS: I had to have the book in to Triumph, the publisher, by January 1, and long before that they had signed off on the content. I lobbied to get Roger Huerta, Lorenzo Fertitta and Brian Stann, but the word count was already met. However, the second book will be out this time next year, providing people buy this one.
BLS: For people who don’t know you, why should they consider you someone who really knows about MMA from the inside?
MS: I’m fortunate that I’ve been doing this for over a decade and many of those famous fighters we are talking about were just starting out when I interviewed them. So my profile as an MMA journalist has grown along with their careers. The fact that Randy Couture wrote the foreword is testament to that longevity and dare I say respect. I’m very fortunate in that regard.
In addition to the book and the show, I’m senior vice president of media and entertainment for Authentic Brands Group. Among my goals for this position is to build out a TapouT TV and News destination on various platforms. So far so good. My experience at Fox creating programming from concept to air across several genres will serve me well in this endeavor. And of course working with Punkass and Skrape has been everything you’d expect it to be.