by Michael Schiavello
It’s Saturday afternoon in Sydney and my hotel room is being turned inside out. I remember a film director once telling me that the worst thing you can ever do is to let a camera crew into your house. As I look at the cables strewn across the floor, lighting poles dumped on my bed, and cases of tapes, microphones and other gadgets scattered across the room, I understand what he meant and can’t help but to think I should have booked a suite instead of a regular room.
The cameraman, Alberto, is an old schooler with a modern mind. He tells me he’s been shooting interviews for the best part of thirty years and has been behind the camera for some of Australia’s highest rating television interviews and features, having been a long time cameraman on the Mike Walsh Show, once Australia’s equivalent to Larry King. He’s parked his lens on the faces of models, actors, politicians and singers but today’s subject has him particularly excited. Alberto is a martial artist — he studies Wing Chun, Bruce Lee’s original style — and a huge fan of MMA and therefore of Joe Rogan, the two being synonymous.
My director, Brian, is one of Australia’s most prolific sports directors. I’ve worked with him for several years on Fox Sports and pay-per-view events and he was the only man I considered for the job of capturing this exclusive sit-down.
“So what’s he like?” asks Brian as he and Albert carefully position the camera. “I know he’s a comedian so I guess he’s really funny, right?”
“He’s hilarious,” I answer “but there’s so much more to him than just being a funny guy. The thing I like about Joe is that he’s not one of those loud mouth comedians who’s always looking to be funny and just wise-cracking and quipping the whole time. He’s super smart too, like real smart. The kind of guy you can sit there and dissect the universe with at one moment, then talk fighting the next, have a discussion about weed and mind-altering drugs, and then chat about family and friends.”
My girlfriend Irene is in the room too. Tomorrow will be her first time watching the UFC when we head to Acer Arena for UFC 110. She met Joe in the hotel lobby when we arrived, having never experienced him except through re-runs of Feat Factor and clips from The Chappelle Show.
“Is it weird that your man screams your name out at every show?” Joe asked her.
“Yeah,” Irene answered, rolling her eyes at me. “That’s Michael. You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth!”
Now as she sits at the head of the bed and watches our room transform into a mini-studio, she enters into the Rogan discussion.
“Michael loves Joe,” she says with a grin. “Can you tell? He’s always going on about how he’s his favorite commentator and he’s so excited to interview him today.”
“You’re not excited?” asks Brian.
“I’m excited to see the interview happen, but I have to sit here and be quiet for like an hour, right?”
“Right,” Brian affirms.
“What if I have to go to the toilet? Or what if I have to cough?”
“Complete silence,” Brian says sternly. “You must be used to this though. You’ve seen Michael work before?”
“Only at Dynamite,” says Irene. “He scared me! It’s like another person comes out when he starts commentating and the real Michael doesn’t return to his body until the show is over.”
“I know,” Brian smiles. “Seen it hundreds of times.”
I place a musical toy koala next to Joe’s interview chair and press it’s stomach. The toy breaks into a loud rendition of Men At Work’s famous Australian anthem Land Down Under.
“You know they’re being sued by the people who wrote Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree for plagiarising the riff, right?” says Brian.
I roll my eyes. “I know, I know, but isn’t it just the cutest toy? And I got this too.”
I hold up a tube of Vegemite, Australia’s iconic spread.
“You think he will like it?” asks Brian.
“No,” I answer matter-of-factly. “Does anyone really like Vegemite?”
At 2pm there’s a knock at the door. It’s Joe. He’s dressed in a tight white long-sleeved shirt, jeans and sneakers. He’s unshaved, which has become the standard Rogan look these days.
Alberto hooks up our lapel microphones and we take a seat. A few lighting adjustments are made and Joe looks down at my crocodile-skin shoes.
“I like those shoes buddy.”
“Rolling!” says Brian loudly.
I welcome Joe to Australia and hand him the toy koala.
“Also, you’re not truly in Australia until you’ve tried our specialty.” I pick up the tube of Vegemite and show it to the camera. “Have you seen this stuff? Vegemite?”
“I’ve heard of it,” Joe answers, screwing up his eyebrows.
“Finger,” I demand.
“Really?” he says, hesitantly sticking out his index finger.
“Yeah, yeah, you’ve got to try this man. Then I’ll tell you what it’s made from.”
I squeeze a little taste onto his finger. If you’ve never tried Vegemite before let me tell you now, it’s disgusting. It’s little wonder the stuff looks like liquified poo. Suddenly I feel like I’m hosting Fear Factor and Joe’s in a bid to win the money. The only thing missing, true to the Fear Factor legacy, is a pair of bull’s testicles for the eating or a grave full of tarantulas.
Joe sticks his finger in his mouth and cringes. Australia’s most popular spread, lovingly smeared on warm toast every morning, looks like it’s about to make him throw up.
“It’s made from yeast scraped off the bottom of beer barrels,” I tell him. “We’re Australian! Any excuse we can get to ingest beer.”
“Yeah,” he says with a look of repulsion. “It’s not very good.”
I kick off the interview but the Vegemite is still warring with Joe’s taste buds. He takes a few sips of water to wash the taste away, sits back and our interview gets underway.
“UFC is keeping you busy. Your stand up career is going awesome. I’ve got to ask, which do you prefer if you could just choose one: commentating UFC or to keep doing your stand up career?”
“It would definitely be stand up,” Joe answers without hesitation. “I will always be a fan of fighting. Quite honestly, I enjoy fights more when I don’t have to call them. I mean I love working for the UFC, I love the job, it’s the greatest job I’ve ever had by far. But when fights are happening you don’t really want to explain what’s happening while its happening you just want to start yelling and going crazy, I mean that’s what you do if you’re watching at home, you don’t commentate, you just enjoy it.”
“I guess that’s a criticism that both you and I get and also a compliment,” I say. “It’s sort of fifty-fifty. A lot of people say with Schiavello and Rogan, when they commentate, it comes across that first and foremost they’re fans above and beyond anything else. That’s apparent for me when I commentate and I keep that in the back of my mind — that above and beyond anything else I am a fan first and foremost.”
“Yeah, I think that is one of the reasons why I like your commentary too,” says Joe. “You are obviously having a good time and obviously enjoying the fights. If I’m watching television at home, I want that. I want the guy who is calling the action to be a guy like me. I mean when someone gets hit you’re like ‘Oh shit!’ You go crazy. I mean that’s what you would be doing if you were at home. If you’re at home and you have ten people over at your house and you’re watching fights, those are some of the best times — when people are over at the house and you have a big fight party. When something happens, everybody goes crazy. That’s really what it should be like when doing commentary, I think. MMA is an exciting sport and so is K-1 — any combat sport is exciting.”
“You don’t want stale commentary right? You want to feel like you’re at a party with a keg and some pizza and your mates,” I say.
“Exactly,” Joe smiles. “Exactly.”
This short exchange at the start of the interview reveals the reason why Joe has become the favorite color commentator of so many fight fans around the world, and indeed my favorite fight sports commentator. While he enjoys all the successes of a brilliant stand-up career and the fame and reputation acquired from his time as the host of Fear Factor, appearances on The Man Show and The Chappelle Show, and even his early work such as News Radio, he remains a normal guy. He’s one of us. Just a fan of the fight game blessed with an extraordinary ability to communicate the intricacies of MMA in a catchy and very personable way. Hearing him on the microphone during UFC broadcasts with his passion, humor and expert knowledge relayed in such a fashion that boffins and laymen alike can appreciate, you get the feeling that this is just how Joe would be were he watching the fights with you in your living room.
That Saturday afternoon in Sydney, I expected Joe to stay for a thirty-minute interview before racing off to prepare for his evening comedy show across town. Seventy minutes after Brian shouted “rolling,” I was still asking questions. We spoke about everything and anything from Brock versus Fedor to who he’d want by his side in a dark alley. We pitted the DREAM fighters I commentate, against his finest UFC combatants in a series of fantasy match-ups. We discussed Kimbo Slice, Herschel Walker, women’s MMA and the debunking of martial arts myths. We talked K-1 heavyweights and K-1 MAX of which Joe is a huge fan, constantly getting his fix on HDNet.
When the interview had finished, Joe said his farewells and left. I turned to Alberto and noticed the smile beaming from ear to ear.
“You enjoyed that?”
“Big time,” he says. “Listening to you guys talk about fighting and martial arts, it was like listening to two best mates just chewing the fat.”
“You dropped a few F-bombs in there Voice,” notes Brian, “that was unexpected.”
“Maybe,” I say, “but that’s how it is when you’re talking to a mate, right? We commentate a sport in which you can strangle someone unconscious, kick them in the head, and punch them while they’re down. What’s a few F-bombs amidst all that?”
“True, true,” says Brian. “It was a pleasure to watch and listen to. There should be more of it.”
“Yeah,” says Alberto, taking down the lights and packing away the camera. “Listening to you guys talk about this stuff makes me want to go home right now and watch some fights.”