“Man, that was right after I got hired,” said ESPN reporter and MMA journalist Brett Okamoto, recalling a business trip to Sydney, Australia that was like no other, before or since.
“They knew they wanted to cover the UFC, so I said, ‘I’ll go.’ I’ve never been to Australia, but I’ll go.’ Yet there was no real plan.”
In February 2010, the UFC was in Australia for UFC 110: Velasquez vs. Nogueira. At the time, the UFC wasn’t receiving the coverage it gets from ESPN today. The Walt Disney-owned sports network didn’t seem to have much interest or experience when it came to the coverage of mixed martial arts, but despite little planning, a fight needed to be covered.
“It was like, we’ll go cover the fights and that’s it. I flew out there and landed in the morning. I slept for a few hours then went to the arena and covered the fight. I stayed the night then flew home the next day. So I was on the ground for a little over 24 hours and it took 16 hours to get there. So, I was in the air to get there and back, longer than how long I was on the ground in Australia,” said Okamoto.
Brett could tell people he’s been to Australia, but he really hasn’t if you ask him. And whether or not there was appeal in the trip, what he saw was another moment to give proper coverage to a top-level heavyweight fight on a big stage. Simply put, Okamoto is living his dream job, and as someone who is also a diehard fan of the sport, he considers it a responsibility to do right by both the hardcore fans and newcomers to the fight game.
“MMA has consumed my life,” he said. “All my conversations, all my interviews, and everything I do. I watch it every weekend. It’s my life. I am a hardcore, I know all the hardcore stuff. Those are the people I want to talk about. I want to feel like I’m educating people who are in the same boat as me. But, at the same time, I know that at ESPN, I’m talking to a lot of people who don’t follow the sport on a day-to-day basis.”
Knowing that a portion of the audience may be casual followers of the sport, he knows he can’t go into great detail with nuances for a prelim fight. So how does he balance appealing to a mix of a hardcore and casual audience? By acting like he’s speaking to his mom.
“It’s a weird way to think about it, but sometimes I try to tell a story or talk on TV like my mom is listening. I try to do right by the hardcores, but then I have to speak in general so people watching SportsCenter can understand what I’m talking about,” said Okamoto.
Ten years after UFC 110, not only would the sport of MMA blow up, but the UFC would also be purchased by ESPN. It’s something few could have ever predicted five years ago, let alone 26 years ago when the UFC delivered its first event in 1993. But what no one could have truly foreseen happening a decade ago was a pandemic that would devastate millions and put the world on lockdown.
For public safety, all sporting events and large gatherings were put on hold due to COVID-19. The cancellation of sports was a unique situation as is, but what would this mean for MMA, a sport that requires extreme physical contact that includes grappling, punching, kicking, sweat, and blood?
UFC President Dana White was adamant about making the UFC the first major sports organization to come back. It would later leak that the promotion planned on fighting on Native American land at the Tachi Palace Casino in California on April 18. It was a location not under the jurisdiction of the California State Athletic Commission. Yet with growing concern of the virus, White was asked to stand down by top ESPN and Walt Disney executives, and he called off the event.
On April 6, the ESPN MMA YouTube page uploaded an interview between Okamoto and White. During the interview, Dana discussed the change in opponent for Tony Ferguson, with Justin Gaethje replacing Khabib Nurmagomedov in a bout for the interim UFC lightweight title that would serve as the main event for the company’s return card, UFC 249, on May 9. But what he also revealed to Okamoto during the interview was that the UFC would soon be using a private island to host events featuring international fighters. It was something Okamoto had no idea about prior to the interview.
“He (White) hadn’t given me any heads up that that was a possibility. We were doing the interview and I kinda raised my eyebrow like, really? I laughed,” said Okamoto.
“I think that’s what everyone’s reaction was. You’re going to go to a private island to do these fights? It’s almost comical, but it’s also great. It’s also in line with Dana White’s personality, his history, and his resume. He thinks outside of the box.”
Okamoto was right. This is the same man that is at the front of the fastest growing sport in the world. The same sport banned from holding fights in 36 states that turned an outlaw sport into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. If anyone was going to find a way, it would be Dana White.
“Dana is used to this stuff. He thinks outside the box, he’s creative, and he gets his way, no matter what it takes. He’s figuring out ways to get fights and get them to fight fans. That’s just always what he’s done and that’s why the UFC is where it’s at today,” said Okamoto.
When asked about the challenge and situations the pandemic has caused for him, it was something that luckily didn’t affect Okamoto’s job. The Colorado State graduate never took a course on how to work during a pandemic, but with more than ten years in the field and with the support of ESPN, he was able to operate normally, for the most part, despite the hurdles of COVID-19.
“It sounds crazy, but I’ve been lucky,” he said. “I don’t know if other sports reporters would tell you this or not, but obviously the UFC is a little different because they’ve been the first ones back. It’s actually been pretty busy with the changing news of it. But beyond that, it was thinking about other platforms and different ways to interact with the fans that weren’t necessary prior.”
Okamoto and the ESPN MMA team came up with ways to continue to report, entertain, and interact with fans. The ESPN MMA YouTube page was extremely active with its coverage of the sport and Okamoto continued to create content with his one-on-one interviews with fighters like Ferguson, Gaethje, and Donald Cerrone leading up to UFC 249. And on May 9, the UFC would achieve its goal of being the first sport back when it returned in Jacksonville, Florida at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
Despite the threat of their fights being cancelled or the coronavirus, Okamoto saw no change in the emotion or attitude in fighters like Gaethje or Cerrone. Both reactions didn’t come as a surprise, considering he has known those two for at least a decade now. They continued to stay optimistic and tough throughout the whole process. Even after defeat or victory.
“It seems like a crazy thing to take a fight in these circumstances. These guys are veterans, especially the two you just named. They’ve been very successful for a reason. They’ve been around for a long time, they’ve fought under a lot of different experiences, and as far as their mood and temperament, they were pretty consistent with how they’ve been throughout their whole career.”
UFC 249 ended in dramatic fashion with a dominant performance by Gaethje, who stopped Ferguson in the fourth round. The incredible striking and grit of the Arizona native was just too much for Ferguson to handle, and the victory now meant he was the next in line to challenge Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight crown.
As Bruce Buffer announced Gaethje as the winner, the interim belt was strapped around Gaethje’s waist, yet he took it off immediately. Usually, crowning moments like this are met with celebration and joy. While he was proud of his victory, Gaethje knew his job was far from over. Seeming not that overjoyed about the interim belt didn’t come as a surprise to Okamoto. It’s exactly what he expected from “The Highlight.”
“These guys are just so competitive. Every person in this sport is competitive; that’s what they all have in common. The idea of an interim championship just doesn’t interest them. They want to be the absolute best; they don’t want to be the second best. Justin’s reaction was pretty much what I expected, honestly,” said Okamoto.
“He’s proud of it and it’s an honor to him. He’s gonna take the belt around and show it to kids. It’s a cool achievement for people around him and it’s a cool memento of what he accomplished, but he’s already thinking, ‘I don’t want to be number two, I want to be number one,’ And right now, he’s number two. Until he is number one, he’s not going to be satisfied,”
For years, fans were always looking at Khabib vs Ferguson as the dream fight to make. But now that Gaethje inserted himself into the picture, is Khabib vs Gaethje the new dream fight? Finishing his last four opponents and beating all top contenders has skyrocketed the stock and threat of Gaethje. Okamoto believes that this fight has all the makings of one as big as the champ’s originally intended bout.
“Khabib and Tony was a big fight for a different reason. The entire MMA fan base knew how important that was. I think because of the fact that nothing was really going on for the UFC, people did tune into Justin and Tony and they were thinking, ‘Hey, this Justin Gaethje guy just won an interim title,’” said Okamoto.
“There’s just not much else to compete with. The UFC wasn’t competing with anybody else for attention. I think a lot of people are aware of who Khabib is, and now a lot of people are more aware of who Justin Is. I do think Justin and Khabib will be as big as Tony and Khabib would’ve been.”
As all eyes shift towards Khabib and Justin, what happens now with Tony Ferguson? Ferguson was on a twelve-fight win streak before being stopped by Gaethje. He hadn’t lost a fight since 2012. Would the further delay of the dream bout with Khabib somehow add more stock if it were to somehow line up again? Okamoto isn’t a matchmaker, nor can he predict the future, but the odds of these two fighters meeting in the future seems too soon and circumstantial to predict.
“It’s hard to predict. I really don’t think Khabib is going to stick around for too long. I thought he maybe had a fight with Tony, a rematch with Conor, and then maybe a match with Georges St-Pierre. If that could materialize then he’d be done. If Tony goes off in his next two fights, then I think Khabib will be interested in that fight if he was still undefeated. Khabib is gonna be really interested in the fight that solidifies him as the lightweight and all-time greatest.”
UFC 249 also marked the end of UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo’s career. At UFC 249, Cejudo finished former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz in the second round. During the post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, he would call it an early retirement at just 33 years of age. As it seemed like the champ was barely entering his prime, fans were shocked at the announcement.
Cejudo already had an extremely accomplished combat sports background before entering the Octagon, winning a gold medal in freestyle wrestling in the 2008 Olympics. An early retirement at the top isn’t something new for Cejudo, as he retired from wrestling in 2012. And when it’s all said and done, Okamoto believes that Henry will go down as one of the best.
“I think you could make the case that he is the greatest combat sports athlete of all-time. Not just looking at MMA accomplishments, but combat sports in general like wrestling, judo, kickboxing, and jiu-jitsu. You could definitely make a case that he’s the best of all-time, combat sports wise,” said Okamoto.
The only thing that Okamoto still sees left for the now former champ is what he could have accomplished. “In MMA, he may have to do a bit more. I mean he did win two titles in two weight classes and he defended one. I think his legacy is being the greatest combat sports athlete of all-time, which is obviously a huge deal, and yet in MMA he’ll be remembered as somebody who retired very young,” said Okamoto.
The future of other sports remains to be seen. Leagues continue to discuss when they’ll be allowed to resume as normal, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can change in a day. Knowing what tomorrow, next week, or even next month will look like isn’t possible. As for thinking about goals and what the future holds, Okamoto doesn’t find himself thinking about that as much as he currently looks at and appreciates what he has now.
“It sounds crazy because you always gotta have goals, right? As far as my career, I’m pretty much doing exactly what I wanted to do. I think beyond that, I did help with some documentaries last year and I loved it. I would love to do more of that and I’m looking for opportunities in that. As far as doing my day-to-day job, right now I’m content. It’s more about doing the same and continuing to find ways to get better and also potentially start new shows as ESPN starts to get more into this. I’m a very lucky man. I’m pretty much doing my dream job,” said Okamoto.
What’s happening in our world today is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. Our core values continue to be tested again and again as we try to navigate this odd time in life. During dark and bleak times in our country, the display and documentation of strength, determination, and courage from the fighters during these times is crucial. It’s a responsibility that never leaves the mind of Brett Okamoto, as he hopes to continue to provide insight, information, and entertainment to fight fans around the world.