Jim Ross Talks Jake Hager, MMA Announcers and the Possibility of Broadcasting MMA (Pt. 3)

In this third and final part of our exclusive interview with legendary wrestling announcer Jim Ross, we talk about Jake Hager (Jack Swagger in WWE) and his decision to go into pro wrestling instead of MMA, his favorite MMA announcers, and the possibility of leaving the pro wrestling world to broadcast mixed martial arts. Be sure to check out parts one and two of this epic interview.

Heavy.com: Wrestling fans love to speculate about certain guys and how they would do in mixed martial arts or in a real fight. One guy that I’ve been curious in, because I followed his amateur wrestling career in college, is Jake Hager (known as Jack Swagger in WWE). Jake was an incredible collegiate wrestler and has the size and athleticism to go into the heavyweight division and succeed in MMA. Why did he choose pro wrestling instead?

Jim Ross: Well, Jake Hager is from Danny Hodge’s hometown of Perry. He’s been on the mat since he was a little kid. He came to OU with a dual scholarship in football as a defensive tackle and as a heavyweight wrestler. He was in the rotation to play a little football, but he was in that same era as Tommy Harris and Dusty Dvoracek. They were both really good, so he was going to have a tough time getting much playing time.

He devoted the last two years of college to wrestling and ended up being an All-American twice. He’s been in my house. Where I’m sitting here on my chair, he used to sit across from me on the couch and prop his feet up. And when he graduated, we talked about his options. I asked him what he was going to do. He had some business opportunities, I think one of them might have been working for one of the alumni in an insurance company. I asked him about MMA, and he said he liked it. He was interested. But not interested enough that he wanted to go right back into training. If you think about it, he started wrestling and training when he was seven years old. He wrestled every year until he was 21 years old. He’d spent 14 years in a wrestling room. I think he just needed a break from the regime and the grind. He’s certainly not lazy and he’s very athletic. But he just wanted a break from it.

I was living in Norman at the time, and my successor in my old role at WWE was a guy that I hired. So I called him up and I said that we had a kid in Oklahoma that is 6’5″, 270lbs. He’s a decent looking kid. I wanted to facilitate a tryout for him, so we got that done and we sent him to our training camp in Louisville. He had a two week trial. I told him to go down there and see if he liked the culture of the sports entertainment genre. It’s going to be a little bit athletic, it’s going to be physically taxing. It won’t be easy. You’ll have to show some personality and charisma. You’ll have to have a little sizzle to your steak. And if you like it, you can make a lot of money. Steve Austin made 13 million dollars one year. The Rock made 10 or 11 million dollars. And of course, the time they spent with us created a second career for them, and both of them are doing movies.

There’s a big potential to earn a real good living. He could earn seven figures there in a few years. And the thing about pro wrestling is that he could perfect his craft and stay in good shape physically, and you can earn a good living for a long time. Or you could try your hand at MMA. Randy Couture is an aberration. He’s out of another planet. Guys his age aren’t supposed to do what he does or have the same shelf life. What’s the shelf life for an NFL player, four or five years? You can point to Peyton Manning as a guy doing it a long time, but for every Peyton Manning there’s 15 other guys who only play for one or two years.

So Jake went to the WWE, and he had the aptitude for it. And he’s done well for himself. But I don’t have any doubts that if he’d taken some time to exhale and get away from the grind of training, if he’d decided to go into MMA, he would be an intriguing MMA athlete. I don’t know what his striking ability is. But he can learn those skills. We know he can wrestle.

Another guy that would have been pretty good in MMA was, ironically enough, the other kid we signed from Minnesota the year before Brock Lesnar. Shelton Benjamin. He was an All American sprinter the same year he was the national champion heavyweight wrestler. You don’t ever see that combination. He ran a 4.3 or 4.4 40 yard dash and was a great track star. He was incredibly gifted. As a matter of fact, he was Brock’s workout partner during his senior year. Shelton might have been really good if he’d chosen to do MMA.

Heavy.com: If you had to pick one announcer out of all the MMA companies to call your favorite, who would it be?

Jim Ross: That’s an interesting question. I’ve thought about that a lot, and I’ll give you an answer, but first I want to talk about broadcasting in general. When I watch an MMA show, whether I want to or not, I’ll do play by play. Now, I don’t sit and talk to myself like I have an onset of dementia or something. But in my mind’s eye, it’s just something that I do. I’ve wondered many times how I would do, personally, doing play by play for MMA. And I have basically come to the conclusion that, if given the opportunity, I would be pretty good at it.

The mistake made broadcasting MMA, more often than not, is that the broadcasters in general sometimes forget that they are broadcasting to an uneducated MMA audience. Maybe that’s not the right wording. I’m not talking about formal education. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that there are fans who are new to the genre and they are still learning the nuances. And I think a lot of the announcers take for granted that the average fan already knows what they are talking about. Sometimes a side mount or a full mount need to be more clearly described. When somebody says “he’s going for a kimura,” you and I may know what a kimura is. But if I’m watching a PPV here in my home, which I have with some Oklahoma coaches, and we’re watching the show and having a cold beer, do they understand it? I believe a lot of groups watch PPV’s together because of the cost aspect. And a lot of times it’s up to me, or to the educated guy in that crowd, to explain things that the announcers aren’t. Some of those things need more detailed explanations.

I think that’s the biggest fault with a lot of the announcers. They need to become a little bit more literal and a little bit more educational. It may go from being pure sports to being a little more info-tainment, but you have to inform me on what’s happening, what I’m seeing.

So with all that said… I love Mauro Ranallo’s passion. No one can ever deny that Mauro Ranallo has passion for this sport. And he seems to be genuinely excited to be at cageside, and I enjoy that. I like anybody that enjoys their work. Mike Goldberg was once recruited to take my place in WWE. Mike is a real smooth, really fundamentally sound broadcaster. I could easily see Mike doing NFL football or baseball. He has the kind of demeanor that would be perfect for baseball or football.

My favorite announcer? It’s got to be Joe Rogan, simply because I like to receive all the information I possibly can. Joe seems to be someone that does spend time in the dojo. He understands the holds and the strategies. He knows the pressure points. He knows counters and understands everything. He’s perfect for his role, and that makes him my favorite MMA broadcaster.

As time goes on, we’ll see that whole level of broadcasting in MMA continue to evolve just like the brands are. It will continue to get better. But they have to remember that it’s not America’s Game yet. It’s not baseball. It’s not football. You can’t take a lot of things for granted as far as how the game is played. You have to be able to, succinctly and in sound bite form, inform the viewer of what they are seeing and what it means. Rogan does a great job of that.

And that’s not an indictment on Mauro. Mauro does a little bit of color commentary because he’s a pretty good storyteller. But he’s really the play by play guy that has to depend on his partners. One of my biggest pet peeves is that I don’t think three guys need to be in an MMA broadcast booth. I think two guys can do a better job of explaining what I’m seeing and how it affects the outcome of the fight. Because of Joe Rogan’s expertise and his own training, he knows the nuances. He gives me what I need right now, which is continuing my education and knowledge of the MMA world.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t watch something MMA-related or read something MMA-related. It’s become part of my routine, with the same passion that I will follow the Sooners during football season. It’s really got me hooked. I’ve really and truly become a fan of the sport, and I don’t miss a pay per view or a Showtime card. It’s one of the only reasons I’ll watch Spike TV.

I feel like with my experiences in sport entertaining, making the transition over to MMA wouldn’t be as challenging as some might believe. I could do it because I respect the business and I respect what they do. I’ve always been able to communicate with athletes. I don’t look at MMA fighters any differently than I do at amateur wrestlers or anybody else that I’ve dealt with. They’re high energy and highly motivated. Some are paranoid and some are emotional. They’re focused. I’ve been around guys like that for years. It’s just a different field. I wouldn’t have any issues at all communicating with fighters.

And if the opportunity came up to broadcast MMA, I don’t think I’d have any issues doing it. I wouldn’t be wearing the black hat. I wouldn’t be doing all my pro wrestling cliches. You wouldn’t hear any slobberknockers or any of the phrases I’ve coined over the years, like “business is about to pick up” or “he’s beating him like a government mule.” You wouldn’t hear that. But I think people would be very surprised at what they would hear, simply because I’m passionate about their game. Once you’re a broadcaster and you’re a storyteller, and you understand competition and the rules of engagement, it all falls together.

I’m in a really unique place right now. I’m talking to WWE about continuing my tenure there. But there are other things that I’m interested in doing. Honestly, one of the things I have an interest in, that seems to invigorate me, is MMA. I don’t dislike pro wrestling. I’ve made a lot of money doing pro wrestling and it’s been great for me. It’s educated my kids and put a roof over my head, created financial stability.

But I’ve really gotten hooked on MMA. I enjoy watching it and studying it. I’m learning more about the heritage and history of it. It’s been a unique metamorphosis for me to become such a passionate fan of mixed martial arts. It hasn’t replaced my love for my established business. I just added it to my daily routine. It’s become so interesting to me that it has joined my work and my hobby of watching football. It joined that group because I made room for it. And I’ll keep watching everything I possibly can.

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