Jimmy Smith: ‘I took a big gamble’ signing one-year UFC contract

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Jimmy Smith figured something was amiss when his announcing assignment suddenly got shifted from Madison Square Garden to Moncton.

The longtime Bellator MMA commentator had moved to the UFC on a risky one-year deal, and in the last two months of that deal, he went from a pay-per-view assignment at the building New Yorkers love to call “The World’s Most Famous Arena” to a Fight Night at a town that is no doubt a fine place, but not often name-checked as an A-list destination.

“My first inkling was Nov. 3,” Smith said on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour with Luke Thomas. “Was my first big light bulb, I was supposed to do [Daniel] Cormier-{Derrick] Lewis, it was supposed to be me, [Jon] Anik, and [Joe] Rogan. And then I got an email about 10 days before and they said, ‘yeah there have been some card changes, so we’re moving the talent around. We want you to do the Moncton, Canada show. And I go to my computer and I pull up the bout sheets and I’m like, there haven’t been any card changes something’s up, that was my first inkling something was up.”

Soon thereafter, Smith had confirmed what his gut told him: The UFC was not going to renew his contract, preferring to go almost entirely with UFC fighters past and present in the color commentary booth going forward.

“Very simply it was, you’re great, fantastic, we love everything you did,” Smith said. “We’re going with UFC fighters for 2019, so, that’s it. I don’t think I’m leaving out any syllables. It was literally that was the conversation, it was, we love everything you did, fewer shows, we’re going with UFC fighters for those shows. That was it.”

Smith, who has been involved in MMA commentary since 2006 and had spent eight years in Bellator’s lead color role, says he knew the risks going into accepting the one-year offer from the UFC when the offer was made after the expiration of his Bellator deal. No one on the commentary crew was signed beyond 2018 as the company’s television future hung in the balance.

“I took a big risk and I knew that,” Smith said. “And what happened was, my contract with Bellator was up and they wanted to kind of renew the one that I had, it’s a long story but the UFC came to us and said ‘look, we don’t know where we’re going in 2019.’ the ESPN deal hadn’t been signed. So, their thing was, we think he’s talented, we think he’s great, we’d love to have him on the team. We can’t do more than a year deal because we don’t know where we’re going no one has anything past 2018.’

“So I called around some people that I knew in the UFC, Anik and stuff like that, and I said ‘what’s going on?’” Smith continued.” And [they] said ‘yeah, we have no idea what’s going on past 2018, everybody is kind of in the same boat.’ And I said okay, this is kind of a risk signing a contract for just a year. But I gotta take the leap and try, I have to do what I can. I took a big gamble and I here I am.”

For his part, Smith says he understands the UFC’s decision to go with fighters as color commentators (aside from Joe Rogan, who at this stage of the game is as closely tied to the brand as anyone this side of Dana White), at least to a degree.

“What does it also do for them contractually?” Smith asked. “Hey, when you’re done you’ll get air time. What is the message that sends to people who are fighting? if you’re on the team, you will get air time. If you play ball, you will get air time. You might get a desk job. These guys don’t have a parachute. They don’t have anything at the end. So another incentive is you might be on commentary team. So even beyond what the fans think and all these things, it’s also from their point of view, everything is in-house. People might be at the career, might need a little incentive, what do you do? Well, hey, you might be able to go on the FOX desk, you might do this, might do that, might have something when it’s all over.”

A business like television is as much about timing as anything else. By the time news of Smith’s availability surfaced, Bellator’s announce plans were set for 2019. So he finds himself on the sidelines for the first time in a long time as the the industry embarks on a year of change.

“Everything is open, everything is an option. I’ve been in MMA 20 years, I’ve been in broadcasts since 2006, 12 years, 13. Yeah, you keep going because this is what I got good at this is what I’ve excelled. So yeah I’m going to keep plugging away and being open to everything and see what happens,” Smith said.

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