On a hot desert night, with the dry heat approaching triple digits and the air conditioning blasting at the Holiday Inn Express in Las Vegas, Laura Sanko sat alone in her room, overwhelmed with gratitude.
Last week, the former MMA fighter made history, permanently engraving her name into the UFC fabric by becoming the first woman in the Zuffa era of the company to serve as a color commentator. Sanko is providing commentary on Dana White’s Contender Series, which airs Tuesdays on ESPN+, adding to each week’s broadcast with a distinct blend of passion and knowledge. Throughout her entire pursuit, Sanko knew that, if given the opportunity, she would thrive in this role.
“I always believed I could be the one to do it,” says Sanko. “Three years ago, I told [UFC president] Dana White that I was going to be the first female color commentator in the history of the UFC. I knew I was going to do this. Even when we first met when I was working for Invicta, I said to him, ‘I’d like to work for you one day.’ I still remember Dana saying, ‘Keep working hard and we’ll keep an eye on you.’ I’m grateful Dana has this belief in me.
“I had zero doubt about what would happen if I was given the chance, I just didn’t know if this door would ever open for me.”
For all the right reasons, MMA fans can be a notoriously tough lot, which is no surprise to Sanko. Naturally, she was nervous about how she would be received, yet the uncertainty ran deeper.
As she sat alone in her hotel room, Sanko reflected on the countless moments she asked herself whether this MMA pursuit in her career was too selfish of an endeavor. The more time she spent away from her family, particularly her son, the more she began to question whether it was all worth it for her.
“My husband works, and he is our breadwinner, so it’s not like I needed to do this to support our family," says Sanko. "Even though he is extremely supportive, I felt like I was being so selfish. I didn’t need to be away from my family. So I’d be running through these questions in my mind, sitting in those empty hotel rooms, asking myself, ‘Is this just all for my ego? What am I doing away from my family?’ There were so many teary nights alone in hotel rooms.”
Fighting through adversity, Sanko is now setting an example for the entire combat sports industry, traveling an improbable journey to reach her current destination. She possesses a dynamic skill set for the broadcast booth, which was two decades in the making. At the turn of the century she was watching Pride Fighting Championships, as well as staying up late in her college dorm watching old UFC fights in her determined pursuit to learn as much about the sport as possible. She never missed an episode of The Ultimate Fighter, and then began training and took her first amateur fight in 2009.
“I used to schedule my entire social life over the next UFC pay per view when they only happened every couple months,” says Sanko. “I love this sport, and I want to be the voice of a really passionate, really educated, excited fan, who also happened to have fought. I take a lot of inspiration from Joe Rogan, who is genuinely excited every time he calls a fight. He never fought, and it’s really hard to compare myself to someone so talented, but that’s what I hope to do.”
Last week, Sanko’s work on the UFC broadcast was met with universal praise. She delivers a captivating perspective, one gained from her time in the cage. Her career was not always filled with glory, but rather provided her with a valuable lesson in sacrifice and determination.
“I don’t have a long Tapology page or a storied career to look back on, and I never fought in the actual UFC Octagon,” says Sanko. “I had a fantastic amateur career, I had a great pro fight, and then life took a turn. That’s when I made a decision to stay at home and raise my son. But I never left the sport. I hit pads all the way into my eighth month of pregnancy. Three months postpartum, I was rolling and hitting pads. And I still train. It was never easy, and I used to have a lot of bad weight cuts. That all gives me a unique perspective and helps me understand this sport in a whole different way.”
As the first female commentator under the UFC's Zuffa banner, Sanko now knows her sacrifices were worth the long, grueling journey.
“I wanted this so bad for so long,” says Sanko. “It took a lot to get here. I was driven by the idea that someone had to change the landscape of how these amazing stories in MMA are told. It’s so important that the women’s story is told as fully as it can be."
Much of her life has been finding seemingly insurmountable obstacles, overcoming them, and paving the way for others. In addition to calling some captivating bouts, an integral part of her objective every time she calls a fight is to open the door for even more representation in MMA.
“I want to be an example to young girls that they can grow up to be anything they dream to be,” says Sanko. “I’ve had so many dads reach out and say that they used my presence in the commentary booth to start a conversation with their daughters about breaking barriers and chasing their dreams, even in male-dominated industries. So I know what’s at stake here. It’s so important for me to get this right. If I don’t, it could affect the chances for other females in the future. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously. I’m going to work hard, come prepared, and show that I know my s---.”
Dana White’s Contender Series showcases a group of mixed martial artists fighting their chance at a highly coveted UFC contract. Sanko is proud to help share their story, adding even further meaning to their accomplishments in the cage. And she is particularly honored to be a voice representing those who love MMA, which can be heard in her voice every time she makes a call.
“My passion for the sport, the fighters, and the fans are going to get the very best of me every week,” says Sanko. “I’m thrilled to be where I am, and I’m very excited for this season of the Contender Series.”
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