The Renan Barao issue is a contentious one for fans, media and, maybe most of all, Dana White.
That issue? The UFC has a wildly talented athlete championing a division—and nobody really cares.
The guy does everything there is to do in the cage, be it knock people out with spinning kicks or choke them senseless the minute he sees the opportunity, but it simply doesn't resonate.
There are plenty of theories on why that is, and they're mostly plausible. White himself did his best to debunk some of them during a press scrum this week, when he told a group of assembled reporters:
"I've heard every stupid thing you can possibly hear. I hear he's not handsome enough; I hear he doesn't speak English. Listen, if you're showing up to see handsome guys speak on Saturday, you're coming to the wrong f------- show, OK?"
Fair point, even if it's buoyed by the hard sell of Barao that's become commonplace in recent months.
The idea that it won't happen overnight for the Brazilian buzzsaw is also something to consider. "It" of course being MMA superstardom. White was also able to speak to that:
"We forget, nobody was talking about Anderson Silva when Anderson Silva wasn't being called all the great things he's being called today. It took a long time. It took a long time for Chuck Liddell. These things don't happen over night. There's some guys who burst onto the scene overnight like Conor McGregor, but other guys take longer."
The prez is on point there, too. Not everyone straps on the gloves and sells a million pay-per-views their first time out. But you know what helps? Winning impressively when people are watching.
Barao has done his best to win impressively, but to this point in his career, not many people have been watching. He's been headlining shows from overseas or beating guys up on disappointing pay-per-views.
UFC 173 is different, though. UFC 173 has some prepackaged star power, and if Barao can use his main event platform to get people talking, he could take a big step toward resonating with fans.
Beneath Barao will be longtime fan favorite and full-on American hero Dan Henderson, about as close to a transcendent veteran star as there is in the present-day UFC landscape. He's fighting Daniel Cormier, a man lacking that transcendence but who's well known by those in the MMA sphere.
Similarly, longtime MMA star Robbie Lawler is on the card in the same type of fight. He'll take nearly 15 years of the fight game into the cage against Jake Ellenberger, a guy not known outside of the sport but very much appreciated within it.
Those sorts of fights supporting Barao are the ones that can help prop him up until he can do it on his own. Names like Henderson and Lawler might attract enough attention from causual MMA fans while names like Cormier and Ellenberger will excite the hardcore group.
Once all of those people are in the building or watching at home for the names they know and love, Barao comes out and retains his title by wheelkicking a guy into the third row. Suddenly, you're non-English-speaking, not-particularly-handsome champion has a pile of new fans.
Stardom is a slow process with many potential pitfalls and absolutely no guarantees. Think of the number of guys in sports—not just MMA—who are good enough to be on a billboard on merit but aren't because a teammate who's better with hashtags swiped the spot.
However, if one can make the most of the platforms they're given, sometimes the performances speak for themselves. Barao is being given such a platform in headlining over some of the sport's bigger names at UFC 173.
Win the way he's been winning, and, eventually, it just can't be ignored.
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