It’s not very often you hear about the production team that works behind the scenes during any of the myriad UFC events. From top to bottom, working with a diverse group of talent from all fields; graphic designers, lighting technicians, commentators, camera operators, sound technicians, the list goes on, every event is put on with hard work, effort, passion and most importantly of all; desire.
However talented and professional some staff are, times change. When ZUFFA had taken over control of the UFC in 2001, changes were going to be taking place. The company was poised to take the main stage as a legitimate sport, or at the very least, a stage where legitimate somethings were going to take place. The problem with this was that it meant two people were going to fighting in a cage, and behind the scenes, new talent was being brought in, and old talent being put to pasture in this aggressive, new environment.
I caught up with one such talent. Stephen Stills McMichael. For the better part of two decades, every fan in the UFC had known him, had seen him on every single broadcast, gracing television screens in intimate living room settings, or boozy gatherings at the local sports bar. Despite all of this, very few people ever knew his name.
SM: “I was a runner for the most part, y’know coffees, bottles of water, cans of Xyience energy drink.. that sort of thing. (note: McMichael subconsciously smiled towards a non-existent camera for a split second at the mention of Xyience) And I’d been there for a few events, I think it was UFC 28: The Bloodening. They just came up to me and said, ‘We can’t get a single fighter to put this on, and you’re in shape get in there and film a vignette.’ And they hand me this Meijer’s grocery bag with clothes. It was this Halloween costume, like a Greek sold-“
WW: “-Roman Centurion.”
SM: “Yeah-yeah, Centurion. So I put it on, and I kneel down to grab some sand they pulled out of an ashtray in the lobby.”
WW: “And the rest is history?”
SM: “Well, sorta.” Times were plump. McMichael kept his job as a runner for the next decade, but that didn’t mean he was complacent. The drive for upward movement in the company had him talk to his superiors constantly, always in their ear pitching new ideas as they came to him. If Steve McMichael had his way, his ideas birthed in ‘stream of consciousness’ would become ‘stream of reality’.
SM: “I mean that gladiator gig was just the start. It was an extra 500 bucks in the pocket every event, that paid my bills for almost a decade on it’s own. I didn’t even expect what would happen next.” What happened next would change the visual landscape for years to come. McMichael had a thought that nobody would ever have seen coming. Being in the back, and seeing the fighters come back through the curtain, swollen, beaten, bruised and sweaty. Inspiration hit.
SM: “I mean, they always looked so good when they were sweaty. It was like they just worked out, they were shredded, rippled, tanned, and just glistening with sweat.” WW: “Like Christmas Hams?”
SM: “Like Christmas Hams.” Comparable to the one-two punch, McMichael’s handiwork would be seen almost back-to-back for a run of nearly nine years. The brawny runner, flush after running coffees for the first few hours of the production windup, would take his perch. It wasn’t anything romantic to wax about, just a simple stepladder that let him stand just two feet higher than the fighter on camera. With a patented Sam Villa spray bottle in hand, he proceeded to rain mist down onto every single fighter that stepped into a cage for the next eight years, punching into the mist as if McMichael had empowered a legion of spectral warriors.
SM: “They looked so good. But, Dana told me that my days of spritzing were done. I guess sometimes you gotta change it up. I just couldn’t keep up with the innovation. That deal with ESPN pretty much sealed my fate, they went with the guy that did the graphics for ‘Robot Wars’, everything is high tech now on their shows. But I ain’t bitter, I get a six-hundred dollar cheque every month for the gladiator, and the mist.” Dana White’s ever-growing influence, and desire to broker deals with broadcasting companies, inking deals with multi-billion dollar corporations, all of it means that just sometimes, when you round up, a remainder gets left behind. But if you ask me, Stephen Stills McMichael isn’t a remainder, he’s a reminder. A reminder of all that was once good in the field of Mixed Martial Arts. It’s not always about who’s in the cage, but who’s outside of it, making those on the inside look good to the outside looking in.