Saturday’s UFC Vegas 68 will see some history made. There, Laura Sanko will become the second female analyst on a major UFC event in the promotion’s history, and the first since famed kickboxer Kathy Long was an analyst on UFC 1 in 1993.
Sanko (seen above in a 2021 UFC photoshoot) started her career as an atomweight mixed martial arts fighter, then transitioned to broadcasting with Invicta FC in 2014, then joined the UFC broadcast team in 2016. There, she’s worked as a backstage reporter and interviewer, then a host and desk analyst, and then a match commentator on Dana White’s Contender Series. Now, she’s set to become the first female analyst on a major UFC event in 30 years. She spoke to AA about that via email this week, saying this fulfills a long-term goal of hers.
“Being elevated to this new UFC Fight Night role is exciting for many reasons. Like most people in business, I set short-term and long-term goals. And being able to serve as the color commentator for a UFC card felt so distant when I started. But with each step in my career, I realized it was obtainable. So there is something very surreal about achieving a goal, and a reset that comes with adjusting your mindset from this being a goal to now being a reality. I can point to the hard work and know passion and skillset pays off. And that can help me as I create new goals for myself, both in short and long term. ”
Sanko said MMA has long been a passion of hers, and broadcasting has proven a great way to keep up involvement there.
“Mixed Martial Arts is a sport that, once you fall in love with it, it gets into your bones. It saved me at three different points of my life and got me to confront some very tough times in my life. So when my priorities changed and the UFC didn’t have a weight class for me to fight in, I had to find a way to still be involved in the sport.”
She said she got started in broadcasting thanks to a cold call from Invicta FC’s Shannon Knapp.
“I really need to credit Invicta FC’s president Shannon Knapp for starting my broadcast career. She called me out of the blue and asked me to a live sideline interview during an upcoming show. I told her I had never done anything like that before and she said, ‘I think you’re going to be good at this. Just give it a shot.’ …Invicta FC felt like home at the time. It was the first all-female professional MMA promotion and I fought on one of their first shows, so it was a natural place for me to begin my broadcast career.”
Sanko said moving to the UFC has been interesting, and it comes with particular expectations and roles for broadcasters.
“It was incredible to see that the UFC also served as a production company for its fights. Unlike most major sports, the UFC does all its own production, so the producers here are top notch and have matching expectations. It is a demanding schedule as well. Everything is much bigger in every sense and they have a clear vision of the specific roles for their talent.”
Interview-focused roles and analyst roles are often kept quite separate, but Sanko said going from the former to the latter was a natural transition for her.
“Oddly enough, it felt very organic. I got a lot of amazing reps doing commentary on Dana White’s Contender Series, which helped me balance finding my voice and gaining credibility with the audience. It also allowed me to do analysis and post-fight interviews all in one show, which is pretty cool. So when it came time for me to move to the broadcast booth it made sense, and I was mentally ready for that challenge. ”
She said the Contender Series remains a favorite for her thanks to what it means for the fighters.
“Dana White’s Contender Series will probably always be my favorite. I get incredibly invested in the fighters that come through there. So much is on the line on that show so to be able to be a part of one of the fighters biggest moments in their life, its a real honor. The emotions run high on that show because it is pivotal for these fighters’ careers. ”
Now, Sanko gets a chance to follow in Long’s footsteps on a major UFC event. She said Long is someone she’s admired for some time.
“I think any time a woman challenges the norm in a male-dominated space, it’s important work. Kathy had the tremendously difficult task of commentating a sport that didn’t exist until that very night. I love that she said yes to such a challenging situation. She’s a badass in every sense of the word and I’m honored to walk in her footsteps!”
Sanko said there are plenty of hurdles remaining for women in MMA broadcasting in 2023, but she also sees progress being made.
“I think being a woman in MMA broadcasting in 2023 is challenging in a number of ways. Social media has given a bullhorn to the general public, and it can be hard to block out the noise. Some fans still see this as a ‘men only’ sport. So there are certainly challenges. However, I think there is a shifting tide of people being more open to female voices in this space, and I am fortunate to be have the opportunity to be part of that.”
Broadcasting is only part of Sanko’s life: she’s also a wife and mother, and runs a ranch in Kansas City with her husband. She said being busy and striving for balance is a good problem to have, though.
“It is hard. Our mantra at home is “family first,” and that has to be a mental mindset, as sometimes physically you are commuting to and from events. The most important thing is I have an incredible marriage anchored by my husband, Nathan. We have each others’ back in support to my career and pick up one another when the other is jammed up. He is amazing about taking all the family stuff when I am out of town. And as committed to work as I am, I am more committed to him and my my son Burke. So when I am home, I am present and connecting with my family all of the time. I will sleep when I am dead.”
Sanko is also involved with Alta’s training programs, which she said are an incredible way for more people to experience what MMA can bring. She said MMA has been incredible for her, and she wants others to experience that.
“I would love for more people to know that mixed martial arts saved my life on multiple occasions. It helped me confront anxiety, build confidence, be a student in my adult life and gave me a sense of purpose. I partnered with an incredible company called Alta that created a program designed for people who want to challenge themselves and learn MMA. We are in over 40 cities throughout the United States and give our men and women an immersive 20-week fight camp that is a transformative experience. ”
“Guys like Daniel Cormier and John Kavanaugh are behind this company, with the goal of not only teaching MMA, but allowing you to change your life in ways you never knew how. Remember, the hardest belt to get is a white belt. And Alta is an amazing on-boarding program for men and women who have always asked themselves, ‘Can I do that, can I do what scares me even though it is not that scary?'”
UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs. Spivac will be broadcast on ESPN+ Saturday, with prelims beginning at 10 p.m. ET and the main event at 1 a.m. ET.
[Photo from Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC, via Getty Images]