Two men are very close to tying UFC records—men who have combined to go 17-2-1 inside cages constructed by Zuffa's roadies.
Overwrought statements of promotion notwithstanding, there are kernels of truth in the hard sell Dana White has been doing for months now: Bantamweight champion Renan Barao and flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson are bad dudes, and they've been laying considerable beatings on opposition for quite a while.
And yet, if you brought that up to the average fan, he'd be much more focused on those heroes of the past than on the champions who are chasing those records.
Why is that?
The argument that no one wants to watch the little guys has been around for a while, and it's a fair one. They're not for everyone, no matter how much they're lauded for their quickness and technique. There's always going to be a population that is far keener to see behemoths one-punch each other cold, and that's fine.
Some people, a growing percentage of fans actually, seem to be pushing back against that promotional bluster noted above—the more they're told how great these champions are, the less they're willing to listen. Maybe more importantly, the less they're willing to pay money to watch.
Others have been around long enough to remember the guts and heart of these great former champions who emerged from the no-holds-barred era as pioneers. They were exceptional athletes in a sport that didn't have many at the time. It's hard to forget their place in the game and even harder to imagine that these new champions have earned what they had earned.
But at the end of the day, Barao and Johnson are both a win away from placing their names beside them in the record books. By 2015, it's possible, if not likely, that both will surpass them. The fact that they aren't drawing interest for that has to be concerning to the UFC, and it's not good for the sport, either.
MMA's history is short, but the inability to escape its own shadow has potentially dire consequences. While other sports can afford to have debates over the past versus the present thanks to decades of action, MMA can't.
The sport needs the new faces to matter as much as the old ones because the old ones aren't all that old. People remember their great performances; they saw them live. If they aren't sold on the new guys in the same way, it's far easier to dismiss them because they have first-person historical context to give their opinions weight.
When it comes time to sell those new faces, such adverse opinions are damaging, especially to a sport that's expanding rapidly with events on a weekly basis across the globe. Those events need headliners that involve either the stars of today or the men who'll fight the stars of today—not guys that people think of as a step down from the champions of the sport's dark ages.
If Barao and Johnson can't entice people to shell out $60 when their names are on the marquee or get fans to flip over to Fox to catch them chucking leather to sell ad space on a Saturday night, the UFC has serious problems. They're doing spectacular things as spectacular athletes, but they aren't resonating with the people who matter.
Still, they'll be record holders before you know it. They'll pass great men of an era gone by—men who fought for nothing so that Barao and Johnson could follow and fight for something.
Without their deserved recognition though, it's hard to know what that something really is.
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