Full Contact Fighter’s “The Daily Takedown:” After Brock, MMA Needs New Mainstream Stars – Right Now
By Joshua Molina
Mixed martial arts needs a new star, and Nike deal or not, Jon Jones is not it, thanks to Dana White.
It doesn’t matter if the sport has great fighters, smart promoters or, hundreds of MMA gyms across the country opening its doors to young athletes.
It needs a charismatic star who can communicate on a large platform.
It’s hard to believe that just four years ago the sport’s brightest star was a guy named Kimbo Slice. Somehow, after several backyard brawls, Slice talked his way into a major contract with Elite XC and found himself fighting on national television.
Slice, in the professional sense, couldn’t fight. It didn’t matter. His mystique, aura, and Mike Tyson-like ferocity forced traditional sports media to pay attention to MMA.
The media stories about Slice around this time four years ago are laughable. From the Orlando Sun Sentinel in October 2008 was this gem: “To family, MMA star Kimbo Slice is a hulk with heart.” That same year he also appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” And dozens of other mainstream articles.
It didn’t matter that Slice was one of the worst MMA fighters in the world. The mainstream world didn’t know that. He was a star and people wanted to watch him. He made more money for the fighters around him.
There are, arguably, no mainstream stars in MMA, anymore. In a hilarious twist of irony, the biggest MMA star in the world right now is probably Ronda Rousey. That’s funny because UFC president Dana White has made a career downplaying and dumping on women’s MMA.
It’s no coincidence that Chael Sonnen, the most charismatic, flamboyant and best trash talker in the sport headlined UFC 148, which received one million buys on pay per view. UFC 147, the card prior, raked in a disastrous 200,000 buys.
How many MMA fighters can the average person on the street name? I bet they name Kimbo Slice before they name Anderson Silva, who is regarded as the best pound for pound fighter in the world.
MMA took off, with the UFC in the driver’s seat, after an epic fight between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin on the Ultimate Fighter. At the time, the UFC was on the USA network, with the best time slot in the world – after WWE’s wildly successful Monday Night Raw. A lot of eyes were on that fight.
Griffin and Bonnar, not the best MMA fighters, were the finalists on the first season of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter. There were overnight stars. The show was an excellent build for the pay per view show a week later between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, when quickly become major mainstream stars.
Tito Ortiz was also a huge name at the time. His bleach blond hair and no fear fighting style made him someone people wanted to watch. There have been other great fighters and personalities in MMA over the years, including Quentin “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Henderson and Ken Shamrock. Even Tank Abbot was a star who helped popularize MMA.
But for every one of those kinds of personalities, there’s a dozen really good fighters that no one in the mainstream really cares about. Benson Henderson? Anderson Silva? Junior Dos Santos? Nobody in American knows who these people are, outside of the hardcore MMA world.
Dana White pulled off a masterstroke when he signed former WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar to a contract. Even though White rushed him into the main event slot, burning him out before he was ever great, Lesnar was a perfect addition to the UFC. He was a monster with a personality that everyone was already familiar with from his years as a pay per view headliner for the WWE.
The signing of Lesnar fueled the popularity of the promotion and MMA. Lesnar is the biggest pay per view draw in the history of the UFC, even though he was never a Top 10, much less Top 50 fighter in the world. It didn’t matter. He was a star and people wanted to watch him.
In team sports, the company can live off the brand. For example, even though Tim Tebow is the biggest star in the NFL, it doesn’t matter if he crashes and burns. The NFL is the strongest brand and is bigger than its stars.
But that doesn’t work in individual sports. Everybody knows the name Don King in boxing, but that doesn’t make people want to watch. Instead, they want to watch stars like Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar de la Hoya, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, etc. were all stars who helped bridge the sport over the years.
Pro wrestlers have always had big stars emerge to bridge the mainstream gap. Hulk Hogan, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and now John Cena and CM Punk are huge stars who keep the product hot.
Boxing is not as popular as MMA right now in the television ratings sense, but boxing’s stars, Pacquiao and Mayweather are far bigger mainstream stars than anyone in MMA has ever been. And the mainstream pays money to watch stars.
Mixed martial arts needs a star.
Dana White should be trying to lure someone like WWE wrestler and athletic phenom John Cena or Jake Hager, Jr, otherwise known as Jack Swagger, a 31-year-old All-American wrestler from the University of Oklahoma.
The reality is that, in America, mainstream fans aren’t going to get behind a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who submits his opponent with an armbar, who doesn’t speak English, or isn’t interesting on the microphone, if they can.
American fans in droves are never going to appreciate seeing a fighter get out of trouble by executing a brilliant Muay Thai clinch, then kneeing an opponent in the face.
They are definitely never going to care about skilled lay-and-pray fighter who controls his opponent on the ground for five rounds.
While hardcore, intelligent MMA fans appreciate these styles, the mainstream fans are what MMA needs to survive in the long run.
MMA needs a talker, with a charisma. It needs someone who can tell a story on the microphone. It needs someone who Dana White won’t verbally destroy because he won’t save a weak card. It needs someone who can capture the attention of the middle-America, and not be held back or restrained by White or any promoter.
Who will be MMA’s next big thing?
The sport has potential stars within it. Luke Rockhold, King Mo, Sonnen and Nick Diaz all have the kinds of personalities necessary to crossover and pique the interest of the mainstream – if they are given the platform to do so.
From a business and marketing perspective, it doesn’t matter if you are a great athlete, or the best in the world at what you do, if no one knows you who are. Kimbo Slice proved that.
Contact reporter Joshua Molina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JoshuaMolinaMMA