Hype: The currency with which a fighter can purchase a higher profile. The palpable expression of a fan's affection for their favorite athletes. The closest thing the UFC has to a definable ranking system.
MMA is a magnificent sport. As fans, we bear witness to modern day gladiators plying their brutal trade and showcasing their skills with the drama and excitement that only physical combat can provide.
We gaze on in awe as physical specimens (and perhaps more impressively, poor physical specimens) utilize that magical combination of desire, intestinal fortitude and skill to triumph on the sport's largest stage.
And as fans, we invest.
Our time, our money, our passion and our enthusiasm. We retire to dark corners of the Internet to discuss the finer points of the sport with our peers, and in doing so, we create the snowflakes of hype. These snowflakes consolidate themselves into a larger mass by means of blogs and discussion boards, the plethora of fan generated content available online, and by fan-built consensus and dissent.
Eventually, they become a snowball, increasing in size and speed until this churning ball of fan interest and speculation, hope, and in many cases, disdain hits the UFC.
At this point, the market has spoken with its feet and showed that certain fighters elicit a certain degree of attention, and the UFC has a yardstick to measure and gauge the interest in certain potential matchups. Fans speak with their dollars, and the UFC has a tendency to listen.
Does the UFC push young fighters to great heights too soon?
While its not a great system, its is a system, nonetheless, and it seems to work. It is one that empowers fans and pundits alike to have a contributing role in the formulation of certain matchups, and allows an level of interaction and collaboration between fans and a sporting organization that was, until the UFC, unprecedented.
It has also allowed a formal and definable ranking system to be eschewed in favor of a rather ad hoc system of matchup formulation. Hype has proven to be a more effective means of rank ascension than performance.
There are rankings, this is true, but they generally have absolutely no relevance as to who will fight whom, and leave the decisions about what fights are planned open to extreme interpretation due to the lack of any firm rules regarding entitlement to a fight that will potentially enhance ones standing in the division.
Given that rankings are not issued by the UFC, and are generally consensus ranking formed by leading MMA journalists, it also begs the question: Are these rankings even a legitimate way to form potential matchups, or is this symptomatic of the fans desire to overstate their impact on what fights are put together?
Take, for example, the "Rally for Mark Hunt" that was instigated on Twitter earlier this year. The campaign arose in response to the MMA community's desire to see an underdog compete for the UFC heavyweight strap in the wake of Alistair Overeem's suspension, and I was over the moon.
I'm a Mark Hunt fan, he represents my country and it was an awesome moment in fan interaction. The people spoke, and the UFC was forced to listen. I tweeted and re-tweeted hoping the contribution of my opinion would make a difference.
While the UFC did not capitulate to public opinion, they were still hearing what the fans had to say.
The problem was, what the fans had to say, myself included, was in and of itself, pretty ludicrous. I think Mark Hunt would acquit himself well in a match with any current UFC heavyweight. That's my opinion.
Do I think he was anywhere near as title shot? No. In the landscape of the HW division of the time, it would have been an injustice to any number of fighters who were more deserving of a run at the gold.
This is the problem.
The UFC does a pretty good job of balancing their needs to evolve their fighters profiles with bigger and better matchups when deserved, against the need to create revenue with PPV sales by putting marquee names against each other in big marketable fights. Recently, however, a marquee name can be created on the back of what is essentially factually devoid fan-based-hype.
Take the case of Travis "Hapa" Browne for example. He is a relatively inexperienced fighter, blessed with natural athletic ability and a physically imposing presence that will serve him well in the HW division. He has all the tools to excel, given ample time to develop. He had enjoyed success in the division and was matched up against Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in his most recent tilt at UFC on FX 5.
He was summarily destroyed, and while his lack of competitiveness is due, to a large degree, to the injury he incurred early in the fight, we now look at a gifted young fighter who has probably fallen further down the ladder than he needs to be.
This is not because his performance was terrible, but because, in the weeks coming up to the fight, he was lauded by fans and media alike as the newest and most potent threat to the heavyweight division, based on little more than his assertion that he was a threat to the title. This kind of rhetoric is not uncommon among fighters, but is definitely not the kind of proof that fans should be relying on to justify their expectations.
Nor is it a standard of account we should be holding this man to. What were were led to believe we were seeing was an incumbent threat to the title, in Browne, taking on an elite heavyweight who had not been performing recently. What we saw was an elite heavy weight dismantle a potential filled middle-of-the-pack HW fighter who may have been pitted in a fight beyond his abilities too soon.
Experience, and a measured performance on Silva's part, overcame the flashier striking and substantial hype behind Browne.
There will always be a winner and a loser, but the gravitas of these victories and defeats is proportionate to how much we hype these fights, and the fighters.
Lets be fair to these guys. Let their performances do the talking, and let the strength of these performances do the heavy lifting when it comes to enhancing their profiles. At the end of the day, hyping every fighter who gets the opportunity of a main card fight is doing them an injustice, and merely adding the pressure of unnecessary and baseless fan expectation.
Now I don't want this to be interpreted as a knock on fans, because our passion and our dedication is what makes this sport amazing, even if sometimes we say silly things and make dubious assertions.
We all have high hopes for our favorite fighters and relish the opportunity to show them support. All I ask is that, in the tradition of Mr. David Chappelle, we keeps it real.
Let fighters develop in their own time. The sport will thank us in the long run by creating stars whose profiles were built on excellent in-cage performances, not by mass media construction.