No MMA analyst is more influential than Joe Rogan. Rogan has more Twitter followers than any other MMA analyst, with over four million, and his podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, has over 2.5 million subscribers. And with over 20 years of commentary under his belt, it is safe to say that Rogan is considered the voice of the UFC. With years of exceptional commentary breaking down technical aspects of a fight and shedding valuable insight onto various aspects of the sport and each fighter, he has earned his place as the consensus best commentator in MMA. And as Joe Rogan will tell you, when you have been so great at something for so long, it’s noticeable when you underperform. At UFC 223, two of the best at what they do were on full display for the MMA community. And only one of the two exhibited an “amateurish” performance, and his name is not Khabib Nurmagomedov. It was, in fact, Rogan himself. As it turned out, Al Iaquinta was not the final person to be slated to square off against Khabib to end the “big drama show” of UFC 223. To cap off the drama, Khabib would have to square off against the legendary Joe Rogan and, in a battle that will drag on for much longer than five rounds, his influence.
Before I go any further, I knew instantly that Rogan’s commentary would be what I would write about this week from the moment UFC 223 went off the air. I thought that this piece would provide a hotly disputed take in defense of Khabib (I still do), but Rogan’s following is so strong and his respect is so absolute, I did not expect him to receive the backlash he received that prompted him to offer an apology. But this had to be written despite the fact that this topic has been beaten to death over the past few days and despite Rogan’s apology for two reasons. First of all, the damage is already done. Fans have already taken Rogan’s commentary to heart and used his exact arguments to exaggerate Khabib’s flaws, and they will do so for the months and possibly years to come, i.e. fans believing Khabib was rocked against Michael Johnson because Rogan said so and still bringing that single punch up every chance they get. Rogan may have apologized, but fans had already solidified their minds and now, to Rogan’s apology, the response from these fans seem to simply be, “He had no reason to apologize.” This also had to be written because Rogan’s apology may have been sincere, but it was not adequate. It was not adequate because he did not apologize for what he actually did. Rogan did not just point out Khabib’s possible vulnerabilities as he claims. He denigrated the performance itself, specifically in rounds three and four.
Heading into UFC 223, I saw a funny meme about how Jimmy Smith would be the evil Joe Rogan, where the only visible difference between the two would be Smith’s goatee. As it turns out, it was Smith who started the Khabib criticism, not Rogan. And like the kid in the classroom who starts the ruckus, all the attention goes to the last kid talking, not the person who started it. At the 2 1/2 minute mark in the third round, Smith said, “Khabib takes a lot of risks with his chin high, willing to walk forward. Defense not really his thing.” Here, Smith plants the seed, but he’s not really being critical of Khabib. He’s commenting on Khabib’s confidence and pointing out the risk he’s taking by leaving himself open like that. But nonetheless, the seed had been planted and there was no going back.
When Smith mentioned that Khabib was outstriking Iaquinta, Rogan landed the first shots to the Dagestani that Iaquinta wasn’t:
“He has, but it’s not impressive. These shots, I mean, they’re OK, but it’s not like we’re watching a world-class striker.”
Pause right here. Who has ever called Khabib a world-class striker? And by “who,” I’m including his coaches, his teammates, and Khabib himself. This is not me twisting the man’s words. This is not me taking it out of context. This is an exact quote from Rogan. In other words, “Yes, he’s winning the striking exchanges, but it’s not wowing me because it’s not top-level striking.” Now here’s what he could have said,
“That’s true, he has, but it just takes one good shot for Iaquinta to change that, because Khabib is still keeping him around with these shots.”
Same message is being delivered in a much less abrasive way. But he continues,
“We’re watching a guy who’s beating a guy up with jabs who’s already been beaten up on the ground, and he’s avoiding his power punches. It’s no way dominance on the feet. He’s just winning.”
What he could have said:
“He’s outpointing him with these strikes, but Al is tough and insane. It’s going to take more than these shots to put him away.”
The problem with the original quote is the same can be said for Georges St-Pierre, who, when standing up and winning on points, is not showing dominance. Another example is some of Shane Burgos’ performances where he picks his opponents apart with light jabs with his hands down and head exposed. But with Burgos, we may hear things like, “Burgos is really picking him apart and piecing him up with these jabs,” but with Khabib, the same light jabs are unimpressive because it is not “world-class striking.”
Here, we see the first contradiction between what Rogan said and his apology. Rogan is right in saying that when calling a fight live, there will be things that are missed and things that could be articulated better. We’re all human. And he also deserves credit for taking the time to type out a long, seemingly sincere apology when he didn’t have to. That was a classy thing to do, and I don’t want that to be lost in my criticism of what the apology was lacking. But the fact is, while the commentary was live, his apology was not, and he had an opportunity to compensate for the on-air mistakes. He didn’t. Because in the above quote, Rogan is not commenting on Khabib’s possible vulnerabilities, which is the only thing Rogan apologized for. He is actually criticizing Khabib’s offensive output in rounds that he was clearly winning and where his opponent’s face was a complete mess. There is no logic to this. But some of Rogan’s hardest shots to the allegedly “exposed” Khabib came over the top:
“Jimmy, you are so right about Nurmagomedov’s chin. I mean, it is up in the air. And he’s pulling back straight, leaning back with his weight past his hips. The way he’s pulling back with his chin up is very amateurish. This is not what you want to see from a guy who’s the most threatening lightweight in the world. You want to see a full game.”
Let me just say that I’m not disputing the technical analysis presented by Joe Rogan here. He doesn’t just say Khabib is amateurish or that his chin is exposed, he was very specific in describing why it was such a problem. But he takes it too far with his final two sentences which shifts the focus and emphasis.
Here’s what he could have said:
“Yeah, Jimmy, you’re right. His chin is exposed and up in the air. Although he’s winning the exchanges, it just takes one good shot from Iaquinta or, especially, a world-class striker like Conor to take advantage of that.”
The problem with implying, if not explicitly stating, that Khabib does not have a full game is that he could have just focused on the issue: the chin. But to make the comment about the “full game” is not applicable because he was still winning the stand-up. The fact that he was winning the stand-up and is predominately a wrestler does, in fact, demonstrate that he has a full game. Am I saying he’s a world-class striker? Am I saying that he is likely to outstrike someone like Conor McGregor like he did Iaquinta? Absolutely not. But I’m saying to imply that he is one-dimensional just because of a technical flaw and ignore his strengths: good movement (how else would you explain barely getting hit while standing in all his fights, including against Iaquinta?), good vision, and a good offensive striking output is imbalanced and unfair.
I’d also like to highlight the movement for a bit longer. In the post-fight press conference, Khabib stated that he felt a decided speed advantage over Iaquinta. This is supported by most of Khabib’s defense being him out-moving Iaquinta and getting out of the way of his power shots. By this point, we’re already deep in the fight, and Khabib had Iaquinta’s speed gauged. This is something to keep in mind when we begin comparing how Khabib might fight against a swifter fighter like Conor McGregor, where Khabib would not have this same level of confidence.
Perhaps the worst moment in the commentary isn’t what Rogan said. It’s what he didn’t say. Once Rogan put out his narrative that Khabib is not well-rounded and his jabs were not effective, when Khabib landed a powerful uppercut in the fifth that backed Al up (Rogan Voice: He rocked him!) and allowed Khabib to go on a flurry, which is what led to the takedown in the 5th, Rogan was completely silent. His mind was already made up. And even Smith and Anik commented on Iaquinta’s vision during this onslaught but did not mention the uppercut that led to this poor vision. This uppercut was mentioned post-fight by Khabib and also by Iaquinta on the MMA Hour. But surprisingly, in the many threads I’ve read and participated in on social media, the fans seem to be as silent about this uppercut as the commentators were. If the argument against Khabib is that it takes one good shot to take advantage of his exposed chin, wouldn’t it also follow that Khabib’s “one good shot” in a sea of supposedly “do-nothing jabs” should warrant similar respect?
But the worst shot from Rogan came right before the final bell. When Anik said that Khabib was looking to be the undisputed champion, Rogan replied,
“The third and fourth say it’s disputed.”
Again, this has nothing to do with his vulnerabilities. This is a direct criticism of his performance. His performance in rounds that he won. Here is what he could have said,
“He’s on his way to being the champion, but if Tony Ferguson or Conor McGregor can keep the fight standing, we’ve seen a lot of glimpses of possible vulnerabilities they can exploit.”
This is what Rogan and fans seem to think he was saying, but it’s not. He was not limiting his criticism to possible vulnerabilities but was criticizing the performance in two rounds that Khabib won. There is a difference between pointing out possible vulnerabilities and criticizing the performance. One quick read of the transcript I have provided shows which side Rogan erred on…the side that his apology did not acknowledge.
And when Rogan says that Conor and Tony are “screaming at the TV,” one could easily interpret that (in the context of his previous comments) to be: “They see all the holes they could have exploited. They are screaming at the TV, wishing they were in there tonight.” This is just bad commentating. I just hope that fans can take a step back and see how many fans were so confused if not completely bewildered by such commentating.
In the aftermath of this commentary, here are the two sides of the “fense:”
- Khabib outstruck Al Iaquinta in distance strikes 115-23. The counter to this is that Iaquinta isn’t that good, which I and many who have followed his career believe to be nonsense. This counter also neglects Khabib’s performance against other strikers, notably Michael Johnson and Edson Barboza
- Khabib only went for one takedown in the third and fourth rounds when, in past fights such as the Gleison Tibau fight, he never stops. In interviews, Khabib has even said things such as, “If you stop me once, you’re going to have to stop me 1,000 times, because I will not stop.” So that begs the question, why did he stop against Iaquinta? None of us know the answer. But I would submit that the fact that he was clearly winning the rounds, as supported by the statistics, is the reason most supported by evidence. Another reason, if we are to take him at his word, is because he noticed the speed advantage and felt confident in his ability to out-speed Iaquinta and avoid his shots. Take nothing away from Al. He stopped the takedowns, but he stopped about one per round in the third and fourth. It wasn’t exactly a stuffing clinic out there.
- Khabib did not just land jabs in the standup. He landed a powerful uppercut in the 5th that led to his third very strong round in the fight. The third and fourth rounds were not dominant, but to criticize someone for not being dominant in all 25 minutes seems perplexing, considering the fighter still won every round decisively.
- Khabib’s jabs weren’t powerful and his stand-up wasn’t dominant. (Which ignores the powerful uppercut in the fifth and other successful non-dominant standup fighters like GSP, as well as jab-heavy fighters like Burgos who go uncriticized)
- “A great striker is sure to find that chin. He was exposed.” (And yet Michael Johnson and Edson Barboza couldn’t).
- (Moving the goal post) “Yeah, but a striker of Conor’s level would find it.” Fair prediction. But that was a fair prediction going into the fight. To base this prediction off of this fight, though, is to assume that Khabib would stop at one takedown attempt per round against Conor and that Conor could keep the fight standing.
- “His chin was exposed, and that’s a vulnerability.” Fair. But where was this vulnerability in deciding every single round of his other 26 fights? Or against strikers like Michael Johnson or Edson Barboza?
- “He didn’t finish Iaquinta.” This coming from the same wave of fans who have anointed GSP as the consensus GOAT (one of the few things Rogan is challenged on)…a man who, prior to the Bisping fight, had his last seven fights go to a decision. This point also ignores Iaquinta’s toughness and heart.
We all have our off-nights, but the two biggest off-nights for Joe Rogan that I have ever witnessed were when calling the two fighters who never had one, or at least according to their win-loss records they haven’t. The commentary for this fight was reminiscent of the Jon Jones/OSP fight, where Jon Jones’ lopsided shutout win was met with mostly criticism despite returning after a long layoff and cruising to a victory. Part of this is because, like Iaquinta, OSP was being disrespected for whatever reason. It’s as if Iaquinta and OSP are these Chuck Wepner or Joe Soto characters coming out of the woodwork for a title opportunity. OSP and Iaquinta are dangerous fighters who present a lot of difficulties for a fighter of any level.
Several months later on the Joe Rogan Experience, Joe Rogan used this performance by Jones as a reason to disqualify him from talks of being the greatest of all time. To say that a shutout win disqualifies one from being in the GOAT conversation because it did not look impressive or because he did not get the stoppage is where I have never looked at Rogan the same since. That is the first time I unequivocally questioned everything I ever heard from him because I failed to see any logic in that comment whatsoever. Mind you, he didn’t just say Jones was disqualified from being the GOAT because of that performance (which would be bad enough), but he said he was disqualified from being in the conversation because of that performance. While that comment was Rogan’s #1 bullsh*t comment, his commentary this past Saturday provides the long-awaited answer to the question of, “What exactly is #2 bullsh*t?” But unlike the Jones/OSP comment, his Khabib criticism was spoken during an actual UFC broadcast to many fans who take Rogan’s words as gospel.
Jimmy Smith: “There’s going to be a lot of opinions tomorrow about who the best fighter at 155 pounds is.”
Joe Rogan: “Oh, they’re gonna be flying like mockingbirds.”
Oh, and the mockingbirds did indeed fly. But it was he, with a seedy assist from his evil twin, who gave rise to their flight while bird calling the fight.
What do you think of the commentary on display by Joe Rogan at UFC 223?