Power Ranking Each UFC Champion's Ability to Sell the Sport to Casual Fans

Artem Moshkovich@ArtemoshkovichFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2013

Power Ranking Each UFC Champion's Ability to Sell the Sport to Casual Fans

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    It's often said that keeping the belt is far more challenging than getting it in the first place. To complicate things a bit further, a newly crowned champion has to juggle the wealth of responsibilities that coincide with the title—press tours, fan expos, and innumerable interviews are all part of the immense agenda. 

    The public eye never stops glaring, observing and critiquing a champion's performance both in and out of the cage. 

    In spite of the perks, reaching No. 1 status isn't necessarily a guaranteed pass to superstardom. A pile of bodies might litter the road to the belt but, to the casual fan, it's the title reign that truly counts.

    PPV numbers, fans in attendance, and the media discourse dictate a champion's ability to draw the attention of fans that won't necessarily watch each and every event as a de facto standard.

    Let's examine the current roster of champions for their ability to penetrate the casual masses.

10. Dominick Cruz

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    Division: Bantamweight 

    MMA Record: 19-1-0

    Ask the casual MMA fan for a brief recap of Cruz's nearly perfect record, and you might be met with silence. In fact, considering his 21-month layoff, Dominick Cruz has fallen entirely off the radar.

    It's certainly no criticism against the fighter himself—he boasts uncanny footwork and impressive fight reflexes. With a stint on The Ultimate Fighter against arch-rival Urijah Faber, Cruz is worthy of considerable recognition.

    But a bum knee—along with a corresponding series of requisite surgeries—tends to push a fighter uncomfortably close to obscurity. Furthermore, he'll need to work towards more declarative victories; it doesn't help that 12 of his 19 wins have come by way of decision. 

    If he returns in full form, Cruz has the capacity to rejuvenate his image and demonstrate the worth of the lighter weight classes. In the meantime, his absence has been filled by an interim champ who also happens to take the next spot in this power ranking.

9. Renan Barao

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    Division: Interim Bantamweight 

    MMA Record: 30-1-0

    With 20 of his 30 victories coming by way of knockout or submission, Interim Bantamweight Champion Renan Barao certainly knows what to do when he senses a finish.

     At a record 20 fights, Barao also has the distinguished honor of the longest unbeaten streak of any current UFC champion. 

    He manages to combine lightning reflexes with creative kicks to ensure that even the most reputable strikers in the Bantamweight division are left flustered.

    Though the exposure from a title defense during a recent UFC on Fuel TV certainly helped reach more casual fans, Barao's standing continues to be mired by the word "Interim" prefacing it.

    Once Dominick Cruz is cleared to fight, both he and Barao will need to unify the title—if for no other reason, simply so that casual fans can identify with a single, undisputed Bantamweight champion.

    A native of Brazil, Barao will also need to add English alongside his Portuguese so that a greater number of international fans can identify with his personality. 

8. Demetrious Johnson

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    Division: Flyweight

    MMA Record: 17-2-1

    Arguably the fastest fighter in the UFC, Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson sets an unrivaled pace the very moment combat ensues. He definitely can't be criticized for inactivity. 

    Dedicated MMA fans embrace his technical game—an awe-inspiring ability to mix up strikes with lightning-fast takedowns. Brilliant submission defense also lends to his quality as a top-tier champion.

    But these are characteristics that tend to escape casual fans. They, on the other hand, have started to discuss that Johnson hasn't finished a fight since November 2010. 

    Time and again, champions who finish are more revered than those who let the judges decide. 

    Mighty Mouse needs to use his dexterity and agility to deliver a highlight-reel finish—only then can he gain more casual relevance. 

7. Jose Aldo

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    Division: Featherweight

    MMA Record: 22-1-0

    Jose Aldo is a human highlight reel. He throws lethal knees, kicks and punches with seemingly reckless abandon. Fortunately for him, those strikes have the desired result of finishing fights. 

    Undefeated since 2005, Aldo's performances in the WEC solidified his position as a premiere featherweight fighter. He developed a reputation for some of the most devastating leg kicks seen this side of Melvin Manhoef—just ask Urijah Faber what Aldo can do when his shin strikes you full blast.

    Prior to his inauguration as the UFC Featherweight Champion, he had only seen three of his 18 wins ride to decision. But his lopsided victories have tapered off—and casual fans are a fickle bunch. Only one of his UFC title defenses has seen a knockout finish—albeit by means of a brilliantly timed knee to Chad Mendes' face.

    More astute fans are left explaining to casual viewers why the lethality of Aldo's offense is yet to be seen inside the Octagon. Pair that with the Portuguese-only speaking barrier and you're left with simpler fans that feel slightly unimpressed.

    Aldo can develop a broader fan base with another brutal victory and a concerted effort to extend his personality to general audiences. 

6. Benson Henderson

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    Division: Lightweight

    MMA Record: 19-2-0

    In the buildup to his last title defense at UFC on FOX 7, Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson spoke to Bleacher Report regarding his desire to finish fights:

    Finishes are cool and stuff, but, ultimately I'm just looking to get my hand raised. I could care less if I don't finish a single fight ever in the UFC, whatever. As long as I get my hand raised. You want to have a good performance.

    He's not kidding—all seven of his UFC fights have gone to decision. Worse yet, several are highly criticized decisions that some in casual circles still deem to be "robberies." 

    In theory, Henderson has all the criteria for a celebrated champion—sublime adaptation to opposing fight styles, superb cardio and an ever-evolving fight game. Yet in reality, he just can't seem to avoid a cloudy haze overshadowing his victories.

    Though his antics are sometimes memorable, Henderson needs to demonstrate that he can stop T.J. Grant when the two square off at UFC 164. 

    Casual fans are far more likely to know your name when you don't leave your opponents standing.

5. Cain Velasquez

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    Division: Heavyweight

    MMA Record: 12-1

    Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez is the essential blue-collar fighter. He dedicates mind and body to unimaginable hours in the gym only to take out the resulting ferocity on any heavyweight challenger that happens to cross his path.

    His work ethic is beyond question. His performance inside the cage is just as a explosive as a heavyweight champion's efforts should be. 

    Why, then, does he rest squarely in the middle of this power ranking?

    One word: marketability.

    The UFC marketing machine has tried to valiantly spin an ethnic tale to bolster Velasquez each time he steps foot in the cage. They've done this because he has a certain predisposition to coming across as rather bland and blasé the moment he's asked a question.

    I'm sure that Cain is a wonderful and endearing person in private conversation. But that will never be a concern to the casual masses. They purchased PPVs in record numbers when Brock Lesnar headlined a card. Lesnar was the complete antithesis of Velasquez—all bark and no bite.

    To reach casual fans that don't necessarily identify with Brown Pride, Velasquez will need to open up a bit more.

4. Anderson Silva

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    Division: Middleweight

    MMA Record: 33-4-0

    Anderson Silva has transcended the rank of mere fighter—he's well on his way to becoming an icon for this fledgling sport. 

    When it comes to quantifiable measures, Silva has no rival. He dominates the FightMetric system like a pound-for-pound king ought to—most knockdowns, most consecutive victories and most significant strikes landed are just a few of the honors he has to his name.

    Even as compared to other champions, Silva is unrelenting—at over 2,400 days, his title reign easily overshadows Georges St. Pierre's second-place record of roughly 1,900 days.

    The aura surrounding Silva pervades the water-cooler conversations of even the most casual fan. If this were a power ranking of most other measures, you'd be reading this excerpt as your last page.

    But it just so happens that this is an analysis of a champion's ability to promote the sport in the eyes of a purely casual fan.

    In that regard, Silva's on the tail end of his career's bell curve. Even if huge sponsorships are his in the present moment, how long will they remain? He's not getting any younger.

    Bizarre performances against Thales Leites and Demian Maia left a minor blemish on his reputation, with some fans still concerned that a disinterested Anderson Silva might make another appearance.

    I hate to repeat the theme but, much like the other Brazilian champions in this ranking, the language barrier has been particularly troublesome in Silva's case. 

    In spite of his borderline insurmountable accomplishments, Anderson Silva sits comfortably towards the top of list but makes way for younger champions more attuned to the limelight.

3. Georges St. Pierre

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    Division: Welterweight

    MMA Record: 24-2-0

    Georges "Rush" St. Pierre is MMA's athlete extraordinaire. Ever the consummate professional, GSP prefers to greet his opponents in a suit and tie. It's all a ruse, though. History shows that he plans on dominating them in little more than a pair of MMA gloves and (tight) athletic shorts. 

    UFC President Dana White has already anointed him as the organization's biggest PPV draw. It's no surprise, then, that GSP has forged vital sponsorships with the likes of Under Armour and Gatorade. 

    He's a squeaky-clean, genuine martial artist who experienced MMA fans have grown to love. His particular brand of unrelenting takedowns and stinging jabs has left countless welterweight contenders in a daze. Canada practically regards the man to be a national treasure.

    Perpetually polished and presentable, GSP rarely drops his guard long enough for fans to see a more personal side of him. 

    If there's any room for criticism, it's got to be with his unwillingness to actually communicate with the masses—he's somewhat of a disconnected paradox. With almost 725,000 Twitter followers, GSP has the ideal podium to reach a more casual fan base. His notoriety affords him a rare opportunity to promote the sport of MMA. 

    Yet he's openly admitted to paying someone to run his Twitter handle. 

    Passive income or otherwise, GSP's justifications and rationalizations for these types of decisions will likely ostracize certain fans that feel jaded by his unwillingness to reciprocate the attention.

    It's not a cardinal sin, but it keeps him from the top of the list. 

2. Jon Jones

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    Division: Light Heavyweight

    MMA Record: 18-1-0

    Jon "Bones" Jones is no stranger to public interest. As the youngest champion in UFC history, Jones has learned valuable lessons in the midst of intense media and fan scrutiny. 

    Easily the most polarizing champion on the list, Jones manages to stay in the conversation with little to no effort. Whether the topic is his rise to crossover superstardom or his media appearances outside the Octagon, he seems destined for the spotlight.

    Unlike others in this list, Jones takes full advantage of his nearly 650,000 Twitter followers—he opens channels of communications with a multitude of fans. 

    His unprecedented success caught the eye of Nike executives—the Light Heavyweight Champion now steps inside the cage branded with their famous swoosh.

    Less than a quarter of his fights have gone to decision, with most of the victories stirring conversations for weeks on end. When Jones ends a fight, the finish is always memorable.

    Spinning elbows, brutal knees and record-setting ground and pound are his instruments of death. Fortunately for him, the fans can't get enough.

1. Ronda Rousey

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    Division: Women's Bantamweight

    MMA Record: 7-0

    It seems like only yesterday that UFC President Dana White publicly vowed to oppose Women's MMA. Perhaps that was prior to his introduction to "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey.

    White discussed the matter on The Jim Rome Show:

    I'm telling you: this girl, she's nasty. She might be beautiful on the outside, she's a Diaz brother on the inside. She's a real fighter and she's very talented. She has the credentials, the pedigree, everything. And she has the 'it' factor. I think she's going to be a big superstar.

    An official UFC debut later, the ratings vindicated White's hunch—Rousey's seventh consecutive armbar at UFC 157 pulled in almost a half million PPV buys. 

    She's certainly paved her own path—it must have been a heavy burden to set a standard for all incoming female fighters. Worse yet, the media push—everything from a Primetime special to countless interviews—nearly demanded Rousey's triumphant victory.

    She didn't buckle under pressure.

    Rousey took the expectations in stride and demonstrated that—in spite of being the only female champion—she deserved recognition alongside the current crop of UFC champions. 

    100 percent of her seven career victories have come by way of a particular submission: armbar. Casual fans have embraced the unexpected exactly as White had hoped.

    They'll tune in to see if the armbar collector can prolong her streak.

    If she continues her upward trajectory, Rousey can transcend the sport and propel it into corners previously unimaginable.