The sports debate show hierarchy has been restored as Stephen A. Smith returned to ESPN’s First Take this week, following a more than two-month-long absence. And it seems no one is more grateful for Smith’s comeback than Paul Finebaum.
“I don’t want to insult people that have been here in his absence, like CHRIS “MAD DOG” RUSSO,” Finebaum ranted to Smith. “But if I saw Chris “Mad Dog” Russo one more time on my screen, I was going to go crazy! I don’t like that guy on my screen! I want Stephen A. Smith on this show every day.”
Finebaum might be most appreciative of Smith’s return to First Take, but Russo is the biggest beneficiary. Throughout Smith’s lengthy vacation and recovery from shoulder surgery over the last two months, Russo’s First Take workload increased, and it led to the iconic sports radio host getting exposed a bit on national TV.
“I love Mad Dog Russo so I’m not gonna be as harsh about him as you,” Smith replied. “But I will say this about Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, I love ya bro, but he’s not Stephen A.”
Since joining First Take as a part-time contributor earlier this year, Russo’s presence has been embraced by Smith but scorned by other ESPN analysts, especially the network’s cast of former athletes. While Smith has seemingly earned enough respect inside ESPN to debate pro athletes, Russo struggled to garner the same reverence in short order, despite his Hall-of-Fame legacy in sports radio.
Russo appeared to take his lumps in stride on First Take, but his debate style was frequently snubbed by Ryan Clark, Dan Orlovsky, Domonique Foxworth, and apparently Paul Finebaum in Smith’s absence. Smith’s return should provide Russo the sort of buffer he needs to provide the entertainment value he offers.