The 'Blue Collar' Path to the Top Is Difficult to Travel

Duane FinleyContributor IDecember 29, 2012

August 11, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Frankie Edgar fights Benson Henderson (not pictured) during UFC 150 at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If you ask a fighter what matters most, undoubtedly the answer will be winning. It's a simple answer in every regard, but in the current era of mixed martial arts, the issue itself has become complex. There are plenty of fighters who emerge from the Octagon victorious at a high percentage rate but variables at play ultimately decide whether additional dividends are paid on the back side of the performance.

When you speak to fighters for a living the way I do, you hear certain things on a consistent basis. Outside of getting the job done and bringing home the victory, the next thing you will hear a fighter talk about is his intention to put on an exciting performance for the fans and going after the finish. Both play well with the fan base and media alike. Whether the action turns into a 15-minute war or a first-round knockout, the buzz created on fight night becomes amplified in the aftermath. If that buzz continues to build, the foundation is laid for stardom in the world of mixed martial arts.

The quickest method is to become a champion. Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre were not considered superstars until they began collecting title defenses. Both have traveled that road in different fashions, but ultimately their profiles became exalted by their ability to defend their titles against the best their respective divisions had to offer.

Current light heavyweight king Jon Jones can be included in that category as well, but the 25-year-old generated plenty of buzz on his way to becoming champion. With every successful defense, his star power increases, but unlike Silva and GSP, "Bones" had MMA's full attention before becoming a UFC champion.

Then again, claiming UFC gold doesn't come with a guarantee for stardom. Brazilian champions Junior dos Santos and Jose Aldo are certainly making ground where marketability is concerned, but bantamweight title holder Dominick Cruz and newly minted flyweight champion Demetrius Johnson appear to have a tough climb ahead of them. 

But outside of obtaining championship gold or having the unearthly trash-talking abilities of Chael Sonnen, how does a surging contender achieve the status where the doors to the sport's highest tiers open? Does every fighter have to fall into the current trend of public call-outs or pre-fight posturing in order to become the type of marketable fighter a promotion can get behind? While that remains to be seen, what has been made clear over the past few years is that winning in itself simply isn't enough.

If it were then several fighters on tonight's UFC 155 card would have achieved at least some level of stardom. But for some reason, the names Miller, Boetsch, and Belcher, don't seem to generate much noise at all, and are quickly dismissed where talk of high profile fights are concerned.


The Blue Collar Method 

The term "Blue Collar" is often used to describe the working class in America. The term evokes thoughts of an "honest day's pay" and hardcover lunch pales, as those involved set about their business in order to get the job done in a fashion where substance, not style, is what matters most.

When it is applied in the world of fighting, it pertains to a fighter or performance that is tough, gritty and efficient. Of the three fighters mentioned above who are fighting in Las Vegas, the term is a way to describe the type of work ethic they bring to the cage and the demeanor they hold outside of it.

Belcher and Boetsch are both riding four-fight win streaks, and while Miller may be in the midst of a rough patch, just over a year ago the New Jersey native had a seven-fight streak intact. With that level of consistency inside the competitive ranks of the UFC, it would seem likely all three fighters would be marquee names on the roster. But that isn't the case.

This, of course, is not taking anything away in the talent department. All three fighters have solidified top 10 status in their respective divisions. When you consider the depth of the lightweight and middleweight divisions, simply reaching that position is a respectable accomplishment. It also serves to bolster their stock that each man has the proven ability to finish fights. Five of Miller's last eight wins have come by way of either TKO or submission, where Belcher has earned stoppages in every bout of his current four-fight win streak. Of this group, only Boetsch has a decision-heavy resume, but quality wins over Yushin Okami and Hector Lombard help in the variable department.

It could also be argued that not achieving superstar status isn't a big deal to all fighters. While this may ultimately be the case, being on the short end of the profile stick does come with disadvantages, and they are circumstances the fighters themselves are very aware of.

When I spoke to Boetsch three weeks ago, he went into detail about his current status and feeling overlooked in the middleweight division. When compared to the profiles of Vitor Belfort or Michael Bisping, "The Barbarian" stated his current position comes without the leeway his peers may enjoy. The loser of the upcoming Belfort versus Bisping bout next month most likely will not have a difficult time regaining top status. But if Boetsch were to be defeated by Costa Philippou, his drop on the divisional ladder would be considerable. 

The same could be said for Belcher and Miller as well. If "The Talent" comes out on the business end of his rematch with Okami, a planned title run in 2013 would become nonexistent. In Miller's case, a loss to Lauzon would force him out of the top 10 entirely, therefore making any type of title run a distant memory. While every fight is important, competing in these circumstances makes each outing a crucial, "must-win" scenario.

There is no doubt veterans such as Belfort and Bisping have earned their current statuses in the sport. Belfort has built the foundation upon which he currently sits on past accomplishments, but Bisping has benefited from various factors (British expansion, TUF craze) in addition to his success inside the Octagon. "The Count" has also capitalized on his gift of trash-talking and building pre-fight hype, both categories he's risen to the top of in recent years. Odd as it may seem, it makes me wonder if Boetsch, Belcher or Miller's profiles wouldn't elevate if they were to up their verbal games outside the Octagon.

Then again, it just isn't the way they go about business. All three fighters prefer to let their performances in the cage do the talking for them. 


Mixed Results

While continued success will ultimately lead to a title opportunity, past cases have shown varying results of how difficult the "blue collar" path can be. In a case like former lightweight champion turned featherweight contender Frankie Edgar, staying on the grind yielded dividends without having to turn to additional methods to boost his stock. Despite "The Answer's" lack of buzz leading up to his title shot against B.J. Penn, his performances after earning the lightweight crown made Edgar one of the UFC's biggest stars. 

Veteran welterweight Jon Fitch has also experienced varying degrees of success using a workman method. The perennial contender has carried one of the UFC's highest winning percentages (14-2-1) since entering the Octagon back in 2005. After finding victory in his first eight showings, the former Purdue wrestling standout earned a title shot against St. Pierre at UFC 87. Unfortunately, Fitch would come out on the business end of a lopsided decision to the champion and was reshuffled to the back of the deck.

Following the setback against GSP, the AKA-trained fighter would rattle off five consecutive victories. But his grinding style inside the cage and mellow persona outside the action kept Fitch from getting another crack at the belt. 

Perhaps the best example of the blue collar method is rising welterweight Johny Hendricks. After scoring impressive knockouts over top contenders such as Fitch and Martin Kampmann, "Bigg Rigg" appeared to be next in line for a title shot. That opportunity was halted when he was recently pushed aside to make way for a St.Pierre versus Diaz title fight. While Hendricks originally stated he would take to the sidelines until his title fight was granted, he agreed to face Jake Ellenberger at UFC 158, and his path to the top gained another obstacle.

The turn of events led the normally quiet Hendricks to start making waves with St. Pierre on social media. Before the GSP versus Diaz announcement, the former NCAA Division 1 National Champion was content with the humble path to the top. But after being passed over to create a fight that will put two higher profiles together, Hendricks appears to be adapting to the current trend and letting more than his big left hand do the talking.

Will the increased trend of trash-talking and public call-outs drive every fighter to use these tools to elevate their profiles in the sport? Or will fighters see it as a "take it or leave it" option, to be used when they feel the time is right or leave it for other personalities better suited? Call-outs, when used at the right time, can create the perfect pitch for a fight and make fans want to see it. Other times, it can be painful and awkward.

Not everyone can be Chael Sonnen, but everyone, unfortunately, can be Dong Hyun Kim.