How MMA shaped the remarkable rise of Joe Rogan
Joe Rogan is a lot of things to a lot of different people. To the more grey-haired among us, he is the fast-talking handyman from the 90's sitcom 'NewsRadio'. To others he is a foul-mouthed comic famous for calling out plagiarism among his peers, or the host of a reality show which compelled contestants to devour bull testicles, or any other assortment of vomit-inducing food, for money.
Lately Rogan has been accused, fairly or not, as a purveyor of Covid misinformation on his impossibly successful, $100 million podcast which Spotify beams into the homes of around 11 million listeners per episode – a position which has ushered him to the forefront of a political divide centered around freedom of speech, and where the line in the sand – in any – should be drawn.
But before most of that, Joe Rogan was to many of us simply a UFC commentator. Back in those halcyon days of the sport, long before multibillion-dollar buyouts or stratospheric stars like McGregor or Khabib, Rogan toiled away as the UFC clawed for legitimacy, holding events on tribal land, a sort of regulatory wild west, amid accusations of “human cockfighting” from the American political infrastructure.
The UFC – and Rogan – were undeterred and both would grow their respective brands to heights never thought possible.
It wasn't always easy, though.
Joe Rogan wasn't just a fan of martial arts, he was a practitioner. By the age of 19, Rogan had won the US Open Championship taekwondo tournament, as well as becoming the Massachusetts full-contact state champion four years running.
Had mixed martial arts been a thing when he was 20, the odds suggest that he would have transitioned in that direction. But when Rogan emerged from his teenage years, there was little to no publicity for this type of fighting beyond grainy VHS tapes labeled 'Vale Tudo' (which translates to 'anything goes') imported from Brazil.
So he went in another direction: comedy.
In 1997, Rogan was in full-swing as a television star but he later admitted that he had grown weary of playing the same character every day. In search of new experiences, and having become enamored with the upstart sport of mixed martial arts, he found himself working as a backstage announcer and interviewer at UFC 12, an event held in Alabama after most other athletic commissions in the United States washed their hands of the sport. Rogan, though, was eager to dirty his.
“People were acting as if I was doing porn," he would later say of his commentary apprenticeship in what was still a very niche sport.
“They asked why you're doing that and I was like I love it... There was a thing where I was wondering if this is damaging my career. But I was like I don't care, I love doing it.
“It got to the point where it was costing me too much money. I would make more money doing a standup during the weekend than doing the UFC.”
His backstage duties were performed for next to no pay. He quit after two years when he realized he was making a financial loss traveling to UFC events, most of which were held at the time in rural areas. But in 2001 when Dana White and his business partners oversaw a takeover the of the company, White offered Rogan the opportunity to be a color commentator: a proposal which was initially refused, as he later said, because he preferred to go to the fights and drink with his friends.
White eventually convinced him to take the gig in return for free tickets for his friends, before eventually offering him a contract (and a paycheck) after Rogan had worked 15 UFC fight cards. He remains tethered to the UFC broadcast desk to this day.
Eighteen years ago today, @joerogan made his commentary debut at UFC 37.5. Safe to say he was a natural 😂 pic.twitter.com/UAon6jKuEU— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) June 22, 2020
In the twenty-something years which have followed, both Rogan and the UFC have grown to heights previously thought impossible – and it seems that neither could have done this without the other.
Rogan was crucial to those early days of the UFC, back when they were a loss-making enterprise struggling to educate its audience as to what exactly their product was and why it shouldn't be considered simply as legalized street-fighting.
His love for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which had enticed him to the sport enabled him to suitably describe submissions to viewers who would have previously thought that a rear-naked choke was something you'd see in the type of seedy Vegas strip club Rogan used to hone his comedy bits back in the day.
He educated the audience. Some even say that they learned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from Joe Rogan; not how to practice it, but how to understand what they were watching. He was an invaluable tool for the UFC.
“Another guy who deserves a ton of credit for helping build this sport during our era is Joe Rogan,” White said to boxing guru Teddy Atlas last year.
“The reality is that when we got into this, everybody understood stand-up fighting no matter what happened. Punching, kicking, elbows – we all get that.
“The big thing for us was when it goes to the ground, how many people are really going to understand what’s going on and what they’re seeing? If you’ve never done jiu-jitsu, you don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
“Joe Rogan was, first of all, passionate about the sport… Number two, so good at walking you through what was going on before it even started to happen.
“To have a guy like him behind the mic, he was very instrumental in helping build the sport.”
All the while, the UFC went from strength to strength. At first its success was measured by it no longer making a loss. Then by the various states who had previously shunned it opening their doors and rolling out the red carpet.
Then the TV deals came. First with Fox and then the ESPN, the latter of which represented the UFC's acceptance into the mainstream after 25 years of trying.
It is at the point now where sitting a sitting US president has called a fighter live on air to congratulate him on a victory.
Today, Rogan's role with the company is diminished but still crucial. No longer does he travel to every event, preferring instead to commentate on the larger UFC shows a little closer to home. The other events are left to a team of commentators, all of whom – subconsciously or not – borrow from Rogan's unique broadcasting style while on the air.
It could even be said that Rogan's role with the UFC has gone as far as it can. His podcast now takes up the majority of his time and is his primary source of income (one assumes, anyway) and his commentary duties have ironically enough descended back to where it all started – a hobby that he gets paid for.
Both Rogan and the UFC are now cultural behemoths whose rise from insignificance to the tips of our tongues are intertwined. If it was a symbiotic relationship before, not so now as both could suitably exist without the other – but that certainly wasn't always the case.
The UFC has had some important figures throughout its history. Dana White, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov have all made an indelible mark but where would any of them be without the influence of a fresh-faced Boston comic who flew to a show in Alabama in 1997 because he had nothing better to do?
By John Balfe