A Lesson to All UFC Fighters and Contenders: Always Be Closing
MMA fighters can learn a lot from Alec Baldwin.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, Baldwin's character Blake is a hard-charging salesman with just one rule in life—always be closing. In Blake's world, every interaction with a client, no matter how mundane, has a point.
ABC. Always be closing. It's not about friendships. Life is about the sale.
And, like it or not, MMA fighters are salesmen too.
Well, there are no clearer cases of that than the recently announced title bouts featuring fighters who came from nowhere to score a crack at gold even though few people considered them most deserving of a title shot.
Johny Hendricks, winner of five fights in a row including two blistering knockouts over Top 10 welterweights, had to watch Nick Diaz receive the main-event slot against champion Georges St-Pierre at UFC 156.
Diaz was coming off a loss and a year layoff due to a positive drug test.
Dan Henderson and the rest of the light heavyweight division had to stomach that former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen was not only going to face Jon Jones for the 205-lb title at UFC 159, but he was also going to coach on the newest season of The Ultimate Fighter on FX.
Sonnen got the spot despite losing to Anderson Silva at UFC 148 as a middleweight. Consider that Sonnen hasn't fought at light heavyweight since 2005, and you start to wonder how he earned a shot at Jones, the reality show and a main-event slot on a pay-per-view.
Finally, featherweight contender Ricardo Lamas likely shook his head in disgust when he heard that lightweight challenger Anthony Pettis was dropping down to 145 lbs to face champion Jose Aldo in August.
Lamas is undefeated at featherweight and has picked up huge wins over Cub Swanson, Hatsu Hioki and Erik Koch.
With these three fights—and probably more bouts that will be announced later this year—the UFC is send a clear message: Fighters have to sell themselves to the audience and close the deal on why people want to see them fight.
Nothing is given anymore.
On paper, Hendricks, Henderson and Lamas all have legitimate beef with the competitors who leaped over them into title contention. When you toss around the word "deserved," the situation gets even messier.
Sure, all three fighters deserve a shot at the divisional belt based on their accomplishments, but the UFC has made it clear that fighters don't just have to earn a title shot—they have to sell everyone on why they deserve it.
"It comes down to how marketable you are," said former lightweight contender Kenny Florian on UFC Tonight. "This is a business and while a guy can be ranked one, two or three, it's rankings sch-mankings, it doesn't matter what you're ranked, it's how marketable you are.
"How many people want to sit down and watch you fight? If you market yourself properly, you're going to be a front-runner, simple as that."
This philosophy won't be well received by most hardcore MMA fans, and whether or not I agree with it is a moot point. The UFC has already shown everybody a fight that sells will always trump a fight that is supposed to happen.
Chael Sonnen, who may be the gold standard when it comes to self-promotion, agreed with Florian's comments and spoke about Ricardo Lamas' predicament in the featherweight title race.
"The best fighter in the world is also the one the fans want to see at least 99.9 percent of the time. Go to Lamas' Twitter page, he's got 3,200 followers, whether he's beating guys or not, if nobody knows he exists, nobody knows he exists," said Sonnen.
"I think he's an excellent fighter. I also heard his name for the first time a week ago when he fought on Fox."
Sonnen's point is blunt, but he's not wrong.
Now, not every fighter has the gift of gab like Sonnen when it comes to self-promotion, but there are dozens of ways to gain fan interest. It doesn't even necessarily have to be positive fan interest—Josh Koscheck and Michael Bisping are arguably the most hated fighters in the sport, and they are laughing about that dubious distinction all the way to the bank.
Fighters have to capitalize on opportunities by interacting with the audience and making strong statements whenever the time is afforded to them.
Timing is also crucial—Anthony Pettis proved this when he text messaged UFC president Dana White just seconds after the UFC 156 main event ended and asked for a shot at featherweight champion Jose Aldo.
White immediately recognized the potential in Aldo vs. Pettis. When he mentioned Pettis' text at the post-fight press conference, the news was the biggest buzz coming out of the event despite Pettis never actually saying a word that night.
Following his win over BJ Penn at UFC 137, Nick Diaz said, "I don’t think Georges (St-Pierre) is hurt, I think he's scared."
The crowd erupted, and a moment later a camera panned over to St-Pierre, who happened to be sitting cage side. His smile and reaction were priceless. Not only did Diaz sell the potential fight, his timing was flawless.
Now a year-and-a-half later, Diaz will finally get his shot at St-Pierre, while the fighter most consider to be the true No. 1 contender, Johny Hendricks, will feature in the third fight from the top of the PPV card.
Here's the bottom line: Winning fights is sometimes not enough. A fighter who is in the business of getting people to pay $55 and devote three hours on a Saturday night to watch a bout has to make sure viewers are compelled to tune in for more than just a fight that's supposed to happen.
UFC and Strikeforce veteran Frank Shamrock was not only one of the top fighters of his era but also a showman who understood the value of selling a fight. He even had the uncanny ability to continue selling the fight while it was happening, which he displayed with his "go to sleep" mannerisms against Phil Baroni in 2007.
Shamrock knows there's more to fighting than just entering the cage and taking out an opponent. A fighter has to give people a reason to watch the fight in the first place.
"We're in this sport as an entertainment business, and often times entertainment comes before the sport cause this sport is very young. You need a complete package. I was very successful because I was a complete fighter and I was a promoter and a co-promoter, and a guy who had a brand," Shamrock told Bleacher Report.
"You've got to have a personality and even if your personality is small and muted, you've got to turn it on when the time is right. You're a performer, you're an entertainer. First you've got win, then you've got to sell yourself, then you've got to keep showing up and doing it again, and if you can get a couple of shots in there and you've got some personality and talent. Look at Chael Sonnen, the guy loses most of his fights and he's the biggest star in the UFC besides Jon Jones and a couple of other guys only because he runs his mouth, he knows how to sell the package."
No fight lasts longer than 25 minutes in MMA, but the buildup and anticipation for any bout are sometimes months or even years in the making. The key is for fighters to realize that telling is not selling.
If they convince the world they belong in a title fight and sell the public on why they deserve it, the UFC will have no choice but to put them in there.
Otherwise, fighters have to be prepared for spots on the preliminary card and disappointed looks whenever anyone mentions how they deserved it more than the guy who got it.
Damon Martin is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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