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Back In A New York Groove: Before UFC 268 In MSG, Producer Jake Lebowitz Talks ESPN MMA Programming

"I think the UFC at MSG is always such a massive event," says Lebowitz, who's in the middle of various ESPN-platform shows focused on UFC's Big Apple return

ESPN UFC producer Jake Lebowitz: “There is a lack of sleep on fight week, but at the end, it’s always a good feeling for the amount of content that we’ve created for various audiences, whether it’s YouTube, podcasts, ESPN, or ESPN+.” (Kelly Backus/ESPN Images)

On Saturday, the UFC returns to New York City and Madison Square Garden for the first time in two years. UFC 268 is a stacked card of great matchups topped by a welterweight championship contest between bitter rivals, titleholder Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington. It’s a rematch of their fight two years ago. Front Row spoke with MMA producer and fan Jake Lebowitz about content plans.

The UFC is returning to the Garden after a two-year hiatus. What’s the difference being at a venue called “the world’s most famous arena”?

I think the UFC at MSG is always such a massive event. The first UFC event I went to was the first event that the UFC had at MSG, UFC 205 (November 2016). Conor McGregor became the first double champ that night.

To this day, I still think it was the most electric environment for a sporting event that I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to MSG numerous times. I don’t think I’ve ever heard MSG – or any other venue – that loud.

As you lead some of our new MMA content, what’s in store for this massive event?
UFC 268 is going to be special for a number of reasons. First, it’s a card with a lot of big names and should provide some great fights. That should bring a lot of attention and fans to our offerings, and that gets our people excited.

Next, our new show DC & RC – on ESPN+, our YouTube Channel and a podcast – has been in Bristol all week. Its hosts Daniel Cormier and Ryan Clark first time working together there. We have been capitalizing on that and having fun with their interaction, so it’s not simply two guys on different sides of the country talking to each other. It’s been a great opportunity for lots of exposure not only to MMA fans, but others too, as they’ve appeared on NFL Live and the 6 p.m. ET SportsCenter.

Then another new show, Best Bets UFC, will be 0n site at the Garden with hosts Ian Parker and Brett Okamoto live on ESPN’s MMA YouTube Channel. Glenn Jacobs [Vice President, Production] and I have long-wanted an MMA betting show, and in it, we focus on how we can make people smarter by helping to provide the information they need that they won’t get elsewhere. And like with DC & RC, we want to take advantage of them being together and maximize their chemistry which is much more organic when in-person. As the producer, I have to recognize when they are on a roll with good energy and to let the segment “breathe” rather than telling them to move on.

For that matter, with Chael Sonnen in town for the event, Monday’s Chael Sonnen Show w/Jorge Sedano on ESPN+ – another new offering this summer – will be done out of the New York Seaport studio. [Sedano will be in Los Angeles as usual.]

Overall, with the guys in the arena with fans starting to pile in and the fighters starting to make walks, it’s a completely different feel and vibe. I’m looking forward to it.

And what is a fight week like for you as a producer?
Hectic. It always starts on Sunday with prep. On Monday, I get the final preparations done for DC & RC, which tapes on Tuesday. Once that is finished, we turn our focus to the weekend. On the weekend we will have four, sometimes five shows. For UFC 268, we’ll have UFC Live and UFC Pre-Show on Friday, and then on Saturday we will have Best Bets UFC and our UFC Post Show after the event.

There is a lack of sleep on fight week, but at the end, it’s always a good feeling for the amount of content that we’ve created for various audiences, whether it’s YouTube, podcasts, ESPN, or ESPN+. It’s always a good feeling come Saturday night, or Sunday morning at 2:00 a.m., when we walk out of the campus doors, and we know we did the best that we could, and everyone walks home happy.

NOTE: UFC returns to New York’s famed Madison Square Garden with UFC 268: Usman vs. Covington 2 live on ESPN+ PPV at 10 p.m. ET. Prelims will air on ESPN+, ESPNEWS and ESPN Deportes at 8 p.m. with early prelims at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN+. For more information, visit ESPN Press Room.

On ESPN’s Bristol campus in Studio D, DC & RC co-stars Daniel Cormier (L) and Ryan Clark tape their show.
(Kelly Backus/ESPN Images)
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