TSC Interviews: HDNet's Mike Straka
Mike Straka doesn't have a nickname. At least not one I know of. If he did, it would be "Maverick."
No, it's not because his boss is Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
Straka is a guy that does things off the cuff. He's professional but knows when to turn up the heat and ask tough questions, as evident on his hit show "Fighting Words" on HDNet. You'll notice a few things when watching "Maverick." His hard-hitting interview style. His well-selected attire. But more importantly, the ability to get fighters such as Frank Shamrock to open up.
The show is only a half hour long, but it manages to give MMA fans a very personal look at their favorite fighters. And who would have guessed he used to be Vice President of Fox News Digital?
But why did this former Rutgers Scarlet Knight leave the green pastures of Fox for HDNet? How did he get into this media world in the first place and become one of MMA's most respected journalists?
I got to the bottom of that and more in a recent interview with Straka. Having the chance to actually sit with him was very cool, particularly at the Ruby Tuesdays bar. Despite the fact we differ in tans, muscles, number of tattoos (I have none), and beverage preferences (He had red wine. I had a Sprite on the Rocks.), I found some common ground.
We both are mistaken for Italians (He's Hungarian-Chilean. I'm Lebanese-Venezuelan). We both went to Rutgers. And we both live in NJ. Oh, we also both love MMA. But you probably could have guessed that.
Scroll down to read my interview with HDNet's Mike Straka.
- Former Vice President/Executive Producer of Fox News Digital
- Current host of "Fighting Words" on HDNet
- Wrestled for Rutgers University
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Barnegat, New Jersey.
Did you have a good childhood?
I had a great childhood. Dad was a UPS man. Mom was a nurse's aid. I went Monsignor Donovan High School in Toms River (home of UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar), where I wrestled. That's pretty much where I got a big viewpoint of the world. In Mon Don, you had people from all over. If I stayed at Barnegat, I would have gone to Southern Regional High School.
I know people who went there and they had a very small viewpoint of the world around them and I think Mon Don expanded my horizon. College wasn't a big deal for me. I had no desire to go to college. I wrestled and was good at it and that's what got me through Rutgers.
You said Mon Don expanded your viewpoint of the world. Would you say there was more diversity?
Yes and people with aspirations. Not to disparage Southern Regional High School, but back in my day, it was a very different place. Going to Mon Don and being around kids whose parents were doctors and lawyers...It just gave me more aspirations in my life.
You said you couldn't stand college, but understand you not only wrestled but were an actor?
I didn't major in acting, but I majored in Communications. I took a lot acting classes at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers.
Did you end up graduating from Rutgers?
I left. I left with maybe nine credits to go before graduating. I was offered a job with CBS as a Page. It fell in my lap. It really fell in my lap. I got a call from CBS' page program and my friend Fred Goldback said "Straka, you've got a call from CBS."
And originally, I though it was Columbia House, that company that made those music discs. We used to get those discs all the time and nobody would pay the bill, so that's what I thought the call was about. I literally got offered a job out of the blue. And I didn't think about leaving school. I figured I'd go back. One thing led to another and I never looked back. It's been great.
I understand you didn't make a lot of money at CBS, but the experience of being around professionals like Dan Rather was priceless, right?
I was around Dan Rather and other really great journalists. My first gig was an usherer for Geraldo Rivera's show, as well as Joan Rivers' show. That was cool. I remember when I met Jean-Claude Van Damme! Now it's like "Dude, take a number." But honestly, I was star-struck and naive, but I was enthusiastic. I was so naive that I thought I could make it and maybe that's what you gotta have to make it. You gotta have some naivety, just be starry eyed, dream, and go.
So it's kind of like having an NBA team with young guys like Kevin Durant that don't know how to lose or even know what losing is?
That's exactly right. Losing wasn't even in my vocabulary. It's like you said. Even if I was losing, I wouldn't know I was. I could have been losing for eight years!
Would you say your wrestling experience helped you get through any tough times?
No. I have a die-hard attitude and maybe wrestling contributed to that, but probably more my martial arts background. I was a second-degree Taekwondo black belt training under Herb Perez, who won the Gold Medal in 1992. And I trained with this guy from 1989-1992 and he beat the s*** out of me everyday. Him and his crew from the Olympic team taught me how to be a die-hard.
Wrestling is great, but cutting weight sucks. After awhile, it just became a job. And I think if anything becomes a job, it's time to move on. Even today, I love what I do at HDNet. I worked at Fox News for 14 years prior and by the 14th year, it became a job. And that's when I knew I had to move on.
How did you get involved with Fox News?
I was a Page as CBS for a year, and then I was an overnight desk assistant for CBS News Radio. I worked 1am-9am. I also acted in a play called "Tony and Tina's Wedding." So I did the overnight shift, slept until about noon or three hours a day. And then I'd go to acting classes, auditions, take a nap, go to the show, etc.
In 1995, I had a lot of national commercials—Powerpuff Girls, Olive Garden, you name it. I quit my job at CBS because I had money and wanted to focus on acting. So I acted from 1995-96, did commercials, soap operas, and a couple movies. I got a call out of the blue from people I used to work with at CBS that were now in Fox News. This was August of 1996, when it was basically a startup network.
They called me and asked "Do you want a job?" and I said "NO!" They told me to come in anyway. I figured it'd be a temporary thing. They interviewed me and asked me what I wanted to do. I said overnight shifts because I found that those times give you more freedom. And journalism is the only field where you can work overnight and not feel like a d***. You know what I mean?
Like it doesn't feel like you're working at McDonald's. Even though my job was utilitarian as a tape operator, I quickly realized nobody there knew what they were doing. I definitely learned a lot from my experience with CBS. Before you knew it, I was writing while working as a tape operator and then slowly got into producing. After awhile, Fox decided I was too good to stay on the overnights and it led to an extraordinary career there.
You became the youngest vice president there. How the heck did that happen so fast?
I was 37 when I became Vice President of Fox News Digital. Fox News grew very quickly. If you want to be successful in any field, especially on camera, you have to find your niche. I'm an MMA guy. That's my niche. Sure, I could be an entertainment reporter and I was, but everybody is and I'm not gonna compete with a hot blonde that's 23. She's gonna get that job. Not me.
It's the same thing when you're climbing the executive ladder. In 1999, not a lot of people knew about the Internet. Media outlets thought it would kill their business. It was very new to a lot of people. But everybody eventually realized they had to have a Web site and an Internet presence. I happened to be at the right place at the right time when a conversation was taking place and next thing you know, I'm building Web sites for the Fox News channel.
I built Web sites for the network affiliates as part of Fox News Edge. I became the Fox News Edge's Internet administrator, which meant I maintained 220 Fox affiliates' Web sites. Then, I eventually took over FoxNews.com and that led to becoming VP and Executive Producer.
You helped create Fox "Fight Game." What was that experience like?
It was great because I started covering UFC in 2001. I was also Fox's sports anchor over the weekend. I did a few other reports, but I was a filler guy. Never the main guy on TV. But on weekends, I became the sports guy, covering light s*** like the Kentucky Derby or the Super Bowl. Big events like which were really fun but nothing too in-depth. You don't watch news networks for sports unless it's a big event.
I discovered UFC during UFC 30-31, around the time Zuffa bought the company. I met Dana White around that time and he was and still is an anomaly amongst public figures. The guy tells you what's on his mind and is a straight shooter in a world where public figures always lie. Media guys like me get bullsh***** all the time, and here's this guy Dana White that's so refreshingly honest. I think the first thing he ever said to me was "I don't know if we're gonna f****** make it but I love this sport." That's Dana. No B.S. about him.
I was a believer and covered the MMA scene before it became mainstream and was really the first guy to cover UFC while being with a major network like Fox. Back to "Fight Game." When I became Executive Producer of FoxNews.com, I created "Fight Game" and we put it up just on mobile phones as a quick two minute MMA show.
We literally started in a closet with a Canon XL2 and barely any lighting. By the time I left, I was doing the show in one of the Fox Business channel's studios with a big staff, multiple cameras, great lighting, the works. It was a great endeavor with TapouT as a sponsor and it really became a full-fledged production.
You said you discovered UFC in 2001. Were you aware of the company at all before then?
Absolutely. And it scared the s*** out of me. Now of course, I know better, but at the time, you had guys like Tank Abbott and Butterbean. Those were some scary dudes. Today, those guys wouldn't last two minutes with Frankie Edgar. I don't care how big you are. The sport has evolved and changed so much. That evolution is what keeps me attracted to the sport. I've said this a million times. These athletes are truly the best in the world. The very best.
They always put in the time. They have to. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. There's always gonna be someone working harder than you and in that sport, the last thing you want is having someone beat the s*** out of you on national TV. It's one thing to get knocked out. It's another thing to get outworked. Look at B.J. Penn against Edgar. He got outworked—TWICE. I'd rather get knocked out then outworked.
I was gonna asked you what pisses you off, but I read your Facebook status and I think I know what does. Journalists that cover MMA and don't know what they're talking about. It's the pro wrestling dynamic.
People will bring up steroids or talk about Chris Benoit. I know.
And I feel like it's the same thing with MMA. You've got journalists (if you want to call them that) thinking they know their stuff and then on a recent article you linked, it had a UFC quote from 1998! I'm sure that pisses you off.
It definitely pisses me off! I was a mainstream journalist that crossed over to MMA. When MMA fighter Sammy Vasquez died in 2007, he was the first major MMA death. But he actually died due to a pre-existing heart condition. Fox News covered it pretty straight. I got MMAJunkie.com to cover it and they treated it very well from an insider's perspective. Unfortunately, you get a lot of journalists that don't know what they're talking about.
There's also politicians like New York's Bob Reilly...
You can quote me on this. BOB REILLY IS AN IDIOT. I had him on "Fight Game." He has the dumbest viewpoint on MMA and his state is going bankrupt and rejecting regulation for a sport that could bring New York millions. He keeps ridiculously voting it down along with other politicians.
Do you think it's because they're in bed with boxing?
(Pauses and smiles) Of course. There's always going to be backroom politics. Is Bob involved? I doubt it. But...he's an idiot.
I saw your interview with Stephan Bonnar, when you told the story about how some guy sent you hate mail about you and your family. He was dumb enough to use his work email address and I remember you looked up his CEO and emailed the hater saying you forwarded his message to his boss when you really didn't. And he apologized....
Do those keyboard warriors piss you off too?
You know what? Yes and no. There are times that I read comments on YouTube and get so enraged and then take a step back and relax. I almost thought about starting an online persona to respond to those comments, but then I realized a lot of those guys are idiots that don't know what they're talking about.
I remember even starting a Mike Straka account and when I did respond, nobody believed it was me! So it's best to let it be and not get caught up in that. (Laughs)
What are your thoughts on UFC 118, specifically James Toney's $500,000 payday?
Well you have to realize James Toney is going to make that kind of money since he comes from boxing. That's the world he lives in. If Manny Pacquiao fought in MMA, he'd get $30 million. These boxing promoters are idiots for not jumping in MMA. I think Manny is one of the only guys that could successfully crossover into MMA. Toney making that kind of money doesn't bother me.
I think Keanu Reeves is a terrible actor and makes millions per movie. And a guy that's really good like Matt Damon gets paid less. It was a one shot deal. Randy Couture won. It would suck if Randy lost! That would have been awful for the sport.
This was the Art Jimmerson-Royce Gracie fight of 2010.
Yes it was. Only Toney wore two gloves. These things have to happen. I don't know if Dana and Lorenzo had this in mind, but this does open the door for other boxers to come in. And if Toney got his ass handed in for less than $500,000, I don't think he'd step into the octagon in the first place.
Do you think Tim Sylvia still has nightmares about Ray Mercer?
Yes. Actually, no. I don't think it lasted long enough for Tim to have a nightmare. I was on "Inside MMA" on HDNet maybe six months before Toney's fight with Couture. Ray Mercer was also on the show. And there was James Toney talking about submitting King Mo and how he was gonna knockout UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture! I couldn't believe he thought he could pick up on MMA that fast.
I remember later on King Mo told me that he really wasn't submitted by Toney and that it just made things more interesting making that up. So you can quote me on that too. King Mo never got choked out by James Toney. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Ray Mercer knocked the s*** out of Tim Sylvia. You see, Tim Sylvia has an ego problem. Randy Couture doesn't. He knows what Toney brought to the table and that he wasn't gonna box with him.
Randy Couture knows what he's good at. He doesn't care if people say "You're a p**** for not boxing." Randy would say "I'm a p****? Well I won and got paid." Randy doesn't change who he is. That's why he's been so successful. Randy's a smart fighter and a smart businessman. He's probably the most eloquent fighter in MMA. And there's a lot of eloquent guys in MMA, but no one's as good as Randy Couture.
What made you want to jump from the big dog in Fox News to HDNet, which is a great network, but still developing compared to the juggernaut you previously worked for?
Well, I was with Fox News with 14 years and was Vice President and Executive Producer. I was on the air as much as I could be and I felt like I went as far as I can go there. I was never going to be like Bill O'Reilly and then Glen Beck came in, and you don't even want to ask me about what I think of that. So I saw that I had an opportunity at HDNet.
The CEO of HDNet Andrew Simon offered me to host my own show on his network and this was the second major offer I received. The other one I rejected and I regretted it...
Do you mind me asking you what that offer was?
It was to do play-by-play for WEC on Versus. So I was offered that job, hoping Fox would let me do it on the side. They didn't and I turned it down. And the reason I turned it down was because they only guaranteed me eight shows per year and for the money they were gonna pay me, I couldn't quit Fox News for that.
Now of course if I knew WEC would grow into more than eight shows a year, I would have taken the job. I didn't know. Once I left Fox News, a lot more doors opened up for me. When you're in Fox, it's very insulated. You're not allowed to do any freelancing. Now I write for Spike.com. I also write for FIGHT! Magazine. I'm probably gonna do some writing for UFC.com. Things like that.
I auditioned to host a new TV show that has nothing to do with MMA. A lot of doors really did open up. Those things wouldn't have never happened if I stayed at Fox. People were shocked when I left Fox. But I'm happy with my decision and don't look at it as a downgrade at all.
Like I said before, I don't look at it as a job. I love it. I get to talk to fighters and guys I respect. I was an entertainment reporter and you name them, I've interviewed them. And very few I actually respect. Very few. Every single fighter I've interviewed I respect. Whether I like them or not is another story, but I do respect all of them. Anybody can be an actor. It's a horrible thing to say.
I am an actor, but it's different these days. It's not about talent as much as it's about who you f****** know. Practically everybody in Hollywood is the son of an actor or son of a director. I'm not bitter about it. That's the way it is. And there are a lot of great actors that were related to directors or actors, but they wouldn't be in that position if they weren't related.
That's why I love MMA. It doesn't matter who your parents are in MMA. It doesn't mean anything that Ryan Couture's dad is Randy Couture if Ryan gets the s*** kicked out of him. Doesn't mean he's gonna get a contract in the UFC.
I understand you've done some commentary work?
I did some for M-1 Selection. It was OK. I was alright at it. If anything, it gave me a new found respect for guys like Joe Rogan and Michael Schiavello, especially when calling a boring fight and making it sound exciting. And I'm not a bulls******.
You probably wanted to say this fight f****** sucks...
I did. I did...and I haven't been asked to come back since. (Laughs)
Do you think M-1 Global has too much influence on Strikeforce?
I don't think they have any influence on Strikeforce. Zero. The only influence they have is over Fedor Emelianenko. Other than that, they have no influence over Strikeforce whatsoever.
Why does it seem like they do though, especially in the matchups? I mean Alistair Overeem shouldn't defend the Strikeforce Heavyweight Title unless it's against Fabricio Werdum.
That's matchmaking though. Look at Gray Maynard. He was passed over for a title shot twice. I think Bellator has a pretty good system in place. But Maynard should have gotten the title shot before Frankie Edgar did. Maynard had a poor showing against Nate Diaz and that set him back almost 18 months to get a title shot, but he had to beat Kenny Florian to get it. These fights are all very risky.
As far as Fedor goes, he's got nothing to prove. He lives in Stary Oskol, Russia, which is like population 12. He doesn't need any money. He doesn't care about being famous. I think people hype him too much.
So you think people blow Fedor up too much?
I do. I think Fedor would say "I've got everything I ever need and my family has everything they need and I fight for a living. I don't give a s*** about fighting Brock Lesnar." And I don't blame him for not fighting Lesnar. I wouldn't. A guy like Cain Velasquez who's up for the challenge, has a great chance of winning at UFC 121 in October. In fact, Shane Carwin was beating Brock Lesnar at UFC 116 until he gassed out.
Don Frye told me in a recent interview that he felt Shane Carwin was the worst prepared fighter he's ever seen because he gassed out after the first round. Do you agree?
I don't necessarily agree, but I'm not a fighter. Don Frye is, so I'll take his word for it.
What's your thoughts on the current state of MMA?
I think it's gonna get even bigger. UFC just opened up an office in China. The growth is gonna be incredible. MMA is gonna be big in China. MMA is still just scratching the surface. Anybody that wants to watch it will find it. I don't think MMA needs a network like ESPN to be successful. I really don't. I think the worldwide expansion will make MMA even bigger and if it can get into the Olympics, that would be incredible for the sport. Although it didn't help Taekwondo. (Laughs)
Curling gets more freakin' ratings than Taekwondo does.
Do you feel like UFC should absorb WEC and their smaller weight classes under one banner?
No, but I do feel that UFC should have a WEC Title fight on a UFC card. Like imagine Urijah Faber fighting Dominick Cruz on the same card Edgar fights Maynard or Lesnar fights Velasquez. People watching would be like "Holy s*** that's a great fight!" and that would give those guys and WEC great exposure. I think the WEC acquisition has more to do with greater TV exposure for UFC overall though. That was a smart move.
What do you about Paul Daley's suckerpunch at UFC 113 to Josh Koscheck and his poor attitude since then?
I don't think it's gonna hurt his career. Well, outside of the UFC anyway. I just hope he has good management. Look at Eddie Alvarez. He's never fought in the UFC and made half a million dollars last year. Daley's got more notoriety now, although if he punched Georges St-Pierre, it would be different. People already f****** hate Koscheck. I don't think Daley will do something like that again. What he did was absolutely wrong, considering he had 15 minutes to fight. That pisses me off. That didn't set the sport back like the Strikeforce brawl.
Do you believe the rumors that "Mayhem" Miller was planted there to make Jake Shields look bad before leaving Strikeforce to UFC?
No, that's not true at all. Mayhem just f***** up. And not only that, you just know better. i interviewed Nick Diaz before and I was intimidated. I can't imagine starting s*** with the Diaz Bros. and Gilbert Melendez, along with Jake Shields all in one place. Nick Diaz is a hothead. Let's just put it that way.
Why are the Diaz Bros. always angry? When I was watching Nate Diaz's fight at UFC 118, I just wanted Robin Williams to reenact his role from "Good Will Hunting" and tell them "It's not your fault..It's not your fault."
(Laughs) I asked them to be on my show so hopefully I can find out soon. Nick Diaz is interesting. I read a quote (and I hope I don't get beat up for this), where Nick says "You don't see me on the cover of magazines. You don't see me on TV shows." Well, I've contacted Nick numerous times to be on my show "Fighting Words" on HDNet and for whatever reason, he doesn't come through, whether I get no response or Cesar Gracie can't locate him, whatever.
I mean you only chase a guy so many times. You can't have your cake and eat it too, Nick. You can say no one wants you on TV, but we asked you to be on numerous times and got no response.
Do you feel like he's his own worst enemy?
No, I just think he wants to fight. That's it. Some guys just shouldn't talk. Ken Shamrock probably should have never done my show. Maybe Nick's smart and realizes that's not his forte', rather than say something stupid, so let him do his talking with his fists. I think he's a great fighter. I think one of the best fights I've ever seen was Pride 33, Takanori Gomi vs Nick Diaz. Nick won that fight, but then lost the bout after testing positive for marijuana. (Laughs)
But it was a great fight. I've never seen a guy get beat up so much and still win a fight. Except maybe Stefan Struve a few weeks back against Christian Morecraft. Struve's lip was so big after that win. It looked like Fat Albert. (Laughs)
Well I'd be pissed off and finish my opponent if he had an obnoxious stomach tattoo.
Why do you think HDNet has had trouble getting picked up by more cable/satellite providers?
I think that's a question only Mark Cuban could answer. The nice thing about Mark Cuban is that if he doesn't like a rate a company is willing to pay for HDNet, he can say "screw it" and not be affected because it's a private company and he's a billionaire. He doesn't have shareholders to answer to.
What's one piece of advice you can give to anyone that wants to be in a similar position you are in now?
Don't be afraid of success and don't be afraid to fail.
Photos courtesy of Mike Straka.