Who really deserves an apology: Stephen A. Smith or Donald Cerrone?

by Jordy McElroy

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone’s physical undoing in the UFC 246 main event against Conor McGregor spilled outside of the cage, shockingly, and rapidly descended into an awkward feud between UFC voice Joe Rogan and ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith. 

After watching Cerrone get smashed up in 40 seconds by the former two-division UFC champion, Smith didn’t mince any words when delivering his scathing criticism of the legendary fighter’s performance—or lack thereof.

“I’m quite disgusted,” Smith said, via the New York Post. “Let me be very, very clear: I’m honored to be up here with you guys. I’m a spectator watching the sport. I expected to see more than 40 seconds. I predicted McGregor was going to win this fight inside of two rounds. I thought he would take him out.

“Here’s the deal: 15 seconds in, ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone was done. He got hit with those shoulders in the clinch, and he was done. It look like he gave up. It was just an atrocious performance on his part.”

Smith said what many casual fans were thinking and no hardcore MMA fan wanted to hear, especially from the guy with little experience covering the sport. Flip the channel on ESPN and controversial takes like that are the norm from the face of the global media juggernaut. 

But hardcore MMA enthusiasts were having none of it. 

Rogan and retired fighter Josh Thomson pushed back with the notion that Smith had no right to insinuate Cerrone quit during an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast show. Of course, they prefaced their comments with a two-minute chuckling session at Smith’s expense over the cringe-worthy video released of him hitting mitts. 

Let’s just hope Smith never gets into a fist fight. 

There is a significant portion of the MMA community that felt he went too hard in the paint in calling out one of their own. Cerrone has long been lauded as one of the toughest individuals to ever put on a pair of four ounce gloves. Who is Smith to be able to come into a sport that is typically not in his professional wheelhouse and call out that guy?

The criticism was excoriating enough for Smith to post a response on Twitter claiming that Rogan was wrong. And he isn’t alone in that belief. 

So far, both Chael Sonnen and Nate Diaz have come forward in agreement that Smith is owed an apology for the backlash he has received from his comments. 

Could it actually be that both sides are right to some degree?

There are extreme levels of hypersensitivity within the MMA cul-de-sac that seek out to attack anyone with a scathing review. Smith called the fight how he saw it whether people agreed with him or not. Cerrone didn’t look good in what was easily the biggest fight of his life. But he also hasn’t looked good in marquee bouts over the course of his illustrious career, period. 

It’s fair to question the lights being too bright for the future Hall of Famer. It’s even fair to walk away feeling somewhat unsatisfied and disappointed he only lasted 40 seconds in such a high-profile bout. However, it’s completely unfair to insinuate he’s a quitter for his body giving out on him against one of the most dangerous knockout artists in the history of the sport. 

After the fight, it was reported he had a nasal and orbital fracture in less than a minute of action. Boxing legend Mike Tyson once proclaimed “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Well, Cerrone took multiple shoulders, punches, a knee and a kick to the head before succumbing to his injuries. 

Plan B wasn’t even an option. 

We’ve heard Smith clarify comments in the past when referring to NBA star Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors as the “weakest move” he’s ever seen from a superstar. His co-host on ESPN’s First Take, Max Kellerman, also walked back comments after calling legendary New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady a “bum.” There are moments when the searing takes get so hot they cross a line. 

But it would also be foolish for the MMA world to snub their noses at Smith. Like it or not, he bridges the gap towards mainstream notoriety for a segmented, niche sport. The urge to want to shutout casual fans is detrimental and counterproductive in facilitating growth. There is something special about seeing ESPN cover a sport that was once perceived as being too brutal for television. It wasn’t too long ago when the biggest fights in the business received no mainstream coverage at all. 

The sport would do well not to fly so close to the sun that it becomes blinded.