UFC Still Suffering from Self-Imposed Lack of Characters

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2014

USA Today

The lights dim. A faint tune can be heard over the stadium speakers. The bass drops and house music starts loudly thumping. The lights brighten, and in step 10 young Japanese women, wearing stereotypical school uniforms. They get into two lines and start dancing.

Behind them stands a single man, sporting a glistening track suit, a red stripe in his hair and a big, dumb smile. He starts dancing along, and the announcer chimes in.

"In the blue corner...from the United States...Jason. Mayhem. Miller." 

The schoolgirls disperse. He walks to the ring, strips and puts in his mouthpiece. The lights dim again.

Some hip-hop tune comes on. Another man sets foot on the ramp and starts walking toward the squared circle, flanked by several middle-aged men, probably his coaches, and sporting a Dethrone or Affliction or TapouT T-shirt and hat. His name is announced.

"In the red corner...pretty much any other mixed martial artist."

One small thing can send a very big message, and Miller was loud and clear with his creative walkout at Dream 9. He is the life of the party, and you're going to have fun whenever he's around. That "fun" persona made him one of MMA's biggest stars before he ever fought in the UFC.

Was he the best middleweight in the world? Certainly not. Was he even particularly good? It's tough to tell but ultimately irrelevant. Good, bad or mediocre, he was a fighter to watch. His opponent for that fight, by the way, was Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, and if you happen to remember that, you have a better memory than most.

A Little Bit of History

Who are the most memorable fighters in MMA history? The most enduring names?

Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, of course. Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Fedor Emelianenko are all musts. Matt Hughes likely meets the mark. Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva are both men we will tell our grandchildren about.

All of those fighters are all-time greats, of course, but the question wasn't about the greatest fighters of all time. It was about the most memorable.

While the UFC's retconned version of MMA history may not acknowledge it, Tank Abbott was one of the biggest stars of the SEG era. An aggressively mediocre fighter, he became one of the biggest stars in American MMA not just because of his propensity for scary knockouts, but because of his cocky, surly, bar-brawler persona. That mystique was actually enough to get him a brief stint in WCW, and has allowed him to endure the weather of time in ways Scott Ferrozzo, Jerry Bohlander and others couldn't.

Jun 14, 2013; Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; Pat Barry during the weigh in at UFC 161 at the MTS Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

While Abbott is an extreme example, he isn't alone. There are many, many fighters who achieved notoriety not by having elite skills but by having bombastic personalities and/or a commitment to entertainment. 

Genki Sudo was the toast of the Japanese MMA scene for a time, not necessarily because of his crafty ground work but because of his over-the-top walkouts. Chael Sonnen went from above-average middleweight to MMA's top draw with his relentless smack talk. Pat Barry wouldn't even be a recognizable name for MMA fans if it weren't for his "big kid" persona. 

Athletes are supposed to be larger than life, and make no mistake, this isn't exclusive to MMA. It isn't even exclusive to combat sports.

Sean Avery. Rob Gronkowski. Zinedine Zidane. John McEnroe. Johnny Manziel.

They are all characters, and characters sell. 

Don't assume that being a character and being good are mutually exclusive, either. Royce Gracie was the Little Mac of the UFC's real-life Punch-Out!! Fedor Emelianenko tapped into the cold, emotionless, robotic aura of the Soviet Union's Olympic hockey teams of yesteryear. Tito Ortiz's nickname, "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy," was spot-on.

Fighters having a brand allows fans to instantly gravitate to to them. 

Why the UFC Doesn't Want Characters

Engaging fans? Increased interest in fighters? Sounds great, doesn't it?

Well, not so fast. The UFC, in reality, wants to generally keep the interaction between fighters and the general public under its control.

The primary reason for this, of course, is that mixed martial artists tend to be remarkably bad when it comes to public relations. Sure, there are Chael Sonnens and Ronda Rouseys who are incredibly media savvy. For every Sonnen, however, there are 30 Matt Browns calling for topless women's MMA, Josh Thomsons ruffling feathers with a discussion of gay marriage and Jon Joneses throwing homophobic slurs at teenagers for being mean on Instagram.

That's valid, of course, but the second reason is to dial down on the drawing power of lower-level fighters.

Ken Shamrock was one of the fighters who lent credibility to the IFL.
Ken Shamrock was one of the fighters who lent credibility to the IFL.Ross Dettman/Getty Images

Consider a fighter like Pat Barry. Despite the fact that he was a definitively below-average heavyweight and owned a humble 5-7 record, his heavy hands and must-follow status on Twitter made him surprisingly popular. He would retire from MMA following his loss to Soa Palelei last year in order to return to kickboxing...but what if he didn't?

A 2-5 stretch typically ends with a pink slip, so his UFC days were likely over either way. If he had chosen to stay in MMA, however, Barry would have been a worthwhile addition to either Bellator or World Series of Fighting. Both would have happily taken him had he wound up in the MMA free-agent pool.

In that way, Barry did what few others have: He took away the UFC's bargaining power by becoming a commodity unto himself. Zuffa relishes the historically lopsided negotiations it has with its fighters, but when those commodities are individually branded instead of remaining "Anonymous UFC Fighter," the power is no longer completely in the UFC's hands.

Just consider how the UFC responded to Rich Attonito resisting the promotion's bully tactics in comparison to Nate Diaz. Then ask yourself why the UFC would want to have to deal with dozens of fighters with similar leverage.

Worse yet, consider fighters who actually became brands unto themselves, independent of the UFC—men like Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Jon Jones. Why would the UFC want guys like Jose Aldo, Demetrious Johnson or Johny Hendricks to end up becoming another one of them?

How That's Coming Back to Bite Them

There was a time, just a few short years ago, that the UFC was stacked with fighters that fans cared about. Not just two or three of the champions, either. 

Quinton Jackson remains one of the biggest names in MMA, in spite of his recent struggles.
Quinton Jackson remains one of the biggest names in MMA, in spite of his recent struggles.Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Back in 2011, a top contender bout between Junior dos Santos and Shane Carwin did solid numbers. A throwaway light heavyweight fight between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Matt freakin' Hamill drew 325,000 buys. Events headlined by fights such as BJ Penn vs. Jon Fitch, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans vs. Tito Ortiz all drew numbers that the UFC would kill for these days.

Today, the UFC can't attract crickets to chirp at its cards. Part of it is undeniably this "oversaturation" thing you've heard so much about, with fans finding less and less reason to throw away $65 on a medium-quality pay-per-view when they could see a free UFC event (or maybe even two) a week later. 

A comparably big part of it, however, is the lack of interesting fighters in the UFC today. 

The UFC tries to sell events on its name alone and, as such, tries to keep individual fighters from sticking out too much. That has kept fighters from becoming popular enough to warrant a bigger paycheck, sure...but it has also kept fighters from becoming popular enough to get fans to turn on their TVs.

For the hardcore fan, guys like Cub Swanson, Frankie Edgar and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza are worth tuning in for based on their technical brilliance alone. For less discriminating (or, perhaps, more discriminating) fans, that isn't enough.

Between its willingness to cut top-10 fighters and willy-nilly gifting of title shots, the UFC has forsaken its status as a sports organization in favor of the (theoretically) more lucrative sports entertainment branding. However, limiting or outright denying fighters the opportunity to mesh with fans makes for an inherently inferior product.

After all, would professional wrestling be at all interesting if it wasn't character-driven? Would the Harlem Globetrotters have lasted past their inception if not for identifiable ballers like Wilt Chamberlain and Meadowlark Lemon? Would Katniss and Peeta have both survived the Hunger Games if the Capitol didn't buy into their star-crossed-lovers storyline?

The answer to all three of those questions, of course, is no.

So while Dana White has taken every opportunity to insult fighters like Roy Nelson, Jason Miller and Ben Askren for daring to stick out, the biggest loser in all that has been his company.

A New Hope...?

While the UFC may have shot its foot with its commitment to reducing every card to 11 Fighter A vs. Fighter B affairs, it seems to be realizing the error of its ways of late. While it hasn't quite flung open the doors to letting fighters freely self-promote, the UFC is acknowledging and appreciating the power that a bit of flair can bring. 

In the coming days, Donald Cerrone and Conor McGregor will both headline cards.

Donald Cerrone is one of the few fighters who fans can be interested in year-round.
Donald Cerrone is one of the few fighters who fans can be interested in year-round.USA TODAY Sports

Cerrone, long regarded as one of the better fighters in the lightweight division, has only recently become a steadily pushed presence on cards. Part of it is because fans were forced to take notice of his amazing finishing power, but an equally important part of that has been his full-on "Cowboy" persona.

McGregor stood out among the European circuit because of both his skills and nutty persona. It was his bombast, however, that made him an overnight sensation and earned him a spot on the stacked UFC Fight Night 26 card and, in turn, headliner status in just his third UFC fight.

The UFC is still being very selective in terms of who it allows to stand out—Cerrone is a big-time company man and McGregor is the backbone to the promotion's presence in a potentially lucrative market—but the UFC seems to be appreciating the fact that, no matter how badly it wants to sell tickets with its brand name alone, it just isn't happening.

Still, Zuffa seems to be softening its no-nonsense-from-its-fighters stance.

Will the company accept that fans caring about individual fighters is an important part about getting fans to care about the UFC in any real way? Only time will tell.


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