If you are popular, you are regarded with favor, approval, or affection by people in general. Popularity forms a vital component of success in life. The popular person gets the girl, gets the job, and gets your vote.
Even in sports, popularity matters. Winning and losing will always be the foundation for achievement but, who we like, and dislike, is what propels our athletes into the stratosphere of success.
The sport of mixed martial arts is no exception. A popular fighter like Randy Couture sells PPV cards, which translates into big fights. Many fans feel that Couture has had a “cherry picked’ career, being given favorable fights, even title fights, whenever he wants because of his stardom.
The antithesis of guys like Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell are guys like Lyoto Machida and Yushin Okami. Machida & Okami have combined 13-1 record inside the octagon, yet both fighters remain at least one fight removed from a title shot, with their popularity leaving a lot to be desired.
Machida recently turned the corner in his popularity contest by knocking out Thiago Silva in the first round at UFC 94. Finishing your fights is a great way to expedite your passport to popularity in MMA.
Prior to this fight, Machida had been accused of being “boring” while his small legion of fans used the word “elusive” to describe his style. Apparently Machida got the memo that as long as his fight style remained elusive, so too would a title shot.
Impressive wins are not the only thing that makes a fighter popular amongst fans. A very basic factor, which all people need in their popular figures, is relatability. We need to be able to relate to the fighters that we root for, plain and simple.
American fans are able to connect with fighters like Forrest Griffin and Quinton Jackson more so because; well they are American for starters. It will always be harder for American fans to relate to fighters from foreign countries for the obvious reasons.
Fighters like Anderson Silva and Wanderlei Silva are able to transcend this, to some extent, because of their exciting fight style and obvious dominance over his opponents. But when a fighter from a foreign country is labeled as boring, it is a one-two punch that will TKO any fighter’s marketability.
That brings us back to Yushin Okami.
Okami is a Japanese mixed-martial arts fighter. He is currently ranked by some pundits as the second best middleweight in the world. He has compiled a 23-4 overall MMA record and has gone 7-1 since entering the octagon.
Okami even holds a win over Anderson Silva. But looks can be deceiving, even in MMA.
Their bout, which took place at “Rumble on the Rock 8” back in 2006, resulted in a disqualification victory for Okami, as Silva executed an illegal up-kick to the head while both of Okami's knees were grounded. The referee intervened immediately, calling a stop to the fight.
This didn’t stop the UFC from using Okami’s “win” to market him and build him toward a title fight when they needed a worthy foe.
After Anderson Silva submitted Dan Henderson at UFC 82, the questions started immediately about whom the No. 1 middleweight fighter in the world would face next after he had cleaned out an entire division during his time with the promotion.
One name that was being brought up time and again was Yushin Okami. Okami also fought at UFC 82, notching one of his most impressive wins over Evan Tanner.
But the combination of Okami being both “boring and foreign” was a death knell to his marketability. The only angle the UFC had to market Okami as a “worthy foe” was the DQ win over Silva.
UFC president Dana White was questioned after Okami’s fight about his impressive performance knocking out former UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner.
“Yushin’s one of those guys, he’s got a style that he sits back and he waits a lot. He doesn’t have the most favorable style, but he wins fights,” White assessed. “I think as he gets more comfortable in the Octagon, he’ll start to get more aggressive.
“We used to see that with Lyoto Machida too. Machida was a lot more laid back; he’s getting more aggressive now as he gets more comfortable. I think he’s a talented guy, I think he just needs to let it go more.”
As we can see now, Lyoto was able to “let it go more.” Okami has remained a work in progress.
Despite White’s reservations, Okami appeared to be in line for a title shot against Silva.
That is until fate intervened. Okami broke his hand in training, giving the shot to Patrick Cote at UFC 90. Okami went on to face Dean Lister at UFC 92 in a fight that many considered another “boring” win.
After the bout, Okami was guaranteed a middleweight title shot by UFC president Dana White. But will he actually fight the winner of Anderson Silva vs. Thales Leites?
Since then, the landscape of the middleweight division has changed dramatically.
After UFC 95, MMA fans have two new No. 1 contenders they can root for in Nate Marquardt and Demian Maia. There is something intrinsically more relatable about the two fighters. They are more exciting, more engaging and ultimately more popular.
Marquardt is regarded as a complete MMA fighter and his new found aggressive style allows him the ability to finish fights in dramatic fashion. Maia, far some a complete fighter, is a one man submitting machine. If Royce Gracie was the Jack Nicklaus of BJJ, then Demian Maia looks to be our Tiger Woods.
Now the UFC no longer appears to need Yushin Okami as its No. 1 contender. In addition to Marquardt and Maia, they will also have the winner of the Dan Henderson-Michael Bisping fight, set for UFC 100.
So what will Dana White and Joe Silva do with Okami, now the biggest elephant in the octagon?
Perhaps Okami can learn a lesson from his moniker “Thunder” and its relationship to lightening.
The flash of a lightning strike and resulting thunder occur at roughly the same time. But light travels at 186,000 miles in a second, almost a million times the speed of sound. Sound travels at the slower speed of one-fifth of a mile in the same time. So the flash of lightning is seen before thunder is heard.
We have heard your thunder Yushin Okami. Now, we need to see your lightening.
Maybe then your travel toward a title shot will finally be realized.