The UFC on Monday hired a former fighter to do cageside analysis. The fighter is knowledgeable, articulate, engaging and smooth on the air.
It was a no-brainer and, in most cases, no big deal.
This, though, was a huge deal and will have far-reaching consequences for others similarly positioned (of which there are many).
That’s because, for the first time in the 20-year Zuffa ownership of the UFC, it was a woman and not a man doing the commentary.
The UFC hired Laura Sanko to do commentary alongside Paul Felder with play-by-play man Dan Hellie on "Dana White’s Contender Series" on Tuesday.
It’s long been Sanko’s dream to work as a cageside analyst for a UFC fight. She has been doing it for Invicta and LFA hired her in January to do it on her shows, but by getting hired by White to do the show Tuesday, it was the first time a woman sat in the analyst’s chair in a UFC-affiliated event since White and his partners bought the company in January 2001.
Kathy Long did commentary at UFC 1, but then no other women were in that seat until Sanko.
Sanko was on the plane on Monday en route to Las Vegas when she received a text from White.
“I was about 20 minutes from landing and Dana’s text said, ‘Come see me in my office when you get to Las Vegas,’” Sanko told Yahoo Sports. “There’s never any context when you get a text. There are no emotions behind it. So I was wondering what was up. I said to myself, ‘Well, you’re either fired or something good might be happening.’ I had no way of knowing.”
Sanko dutifully made the short trip from McCarran International Airport to UFC headquarters to see White. He asked her if she wanted to do the commentary.
She had flown to Las Vegas to serve as the reporter, as she has since the show’s inception, as well as to do the ring announcing. White offered to let her do it in Week 2 if she didn’t feel ready, but she wasn’t about to pass up the chance to not only make history, but live her dream.
The fights at the "Contender Series" are called on the second floor of Apex in a studio. Since Sanko was going to do the in-cage interviews as well, when a fight ended, she had to run downstairs, get into the cage, announce the result and then do the interviews.
It might have been easier to wait a week and take more time to learn where to go. But if you thought she’d do that, you don’t know Sanko.
“There was no way I was saying no,” Sanko said.
White told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday that he’d been watching Sanko’s development and had long planned to give her a commentator’s seat. He said she will finish out the 10-week "Contender Series" and then move into doing commentary on the UFC’s Fight Night shows and its pay-per-views.
He listened to part of the show on the headset last night while he was cageside watching the fights and was impressed. White said she could set a standard that helps other women follow in her footsteps. Former fighter Julie Kedzie is among many women who have done cageside commentary, but Sanko is the first on a Zuffa card.
“There was never even a question in my mind [that she’d do well], which is why I put her in there,” White said. “One hundred percent, she is the Ronda Rousey of commentators. She knows her s*** and she’s smart and has everything you want to see. I didn’t want to take her off the interviews because she’s fantastic at that, and that’s not easy to do, but I felt she was ready for this. We all met Friday and all of us felt the same way, that it was time.”
Ed Soares hired Sanko in January to start doing commentating on LFA shows. The first one was in Wichita, Kansas, not far from Sanko’s home. Her experience with the LFA, which happened on short notice, made it easier for her to take the UFC gig when White offered.
The same thing happened with an Invicta show before that. She was asked to do the show on the day of and worried if she failed, UFC might not want her. She hadn’t prepared to do the cageside commentary, but opted to go ahead.
“It was a 10-fight card and I was worried if I didn’t do well, I could shoot myself in the foot for future opportunities,” she said. “I had one of those moments where I put my big-girl pants on and went and did it and did well. The same thing happened in January with LFA and the call came on less than a day’s notice. So having those two experiences in my pocket made it easier for me to do this [Tuesday].”
Soares said he never had any doubts about Sanko’s ability or whether the audience would accept her. His concern was whether she’d fit with the team.
He said he has loved her work.
“She’s a great person, very cool, and is great at what she does,” Soares said. “She’s great on camera, she’s extremely knowledgable and is very professional. My concern is if she would jive with the team and whether they’d get along and enjoy it. But more than being an incredible commentator, she’s a great team player and has been fantastic. So nothing she accomplishes will surprise me. I understand why Dana would want her.”
Invicta president Shannon Knapp had similar things to say about her.
“Laura has made a lot of sacrifices and put in a lot of hard work to get this opportunity,” Knapp said. “I am both proud and excited for her. I am glad the UFC is finally seeing and acknowledging what I have known all along about her talents. Like with all females in the sport, the ceiling is high for her. It’s all about the work and dedication. Laura has always been driven and will accomplish whatever she has her eye on. That's what convinced me to take a chance on her in the first place. I know she'll continue to do great things.”