Let's start by putting all the cards on the table.
Everyone knows what MMA decision-makers are selling to a certain demographic of men when it comes to the women's division. Every fighter who can step in the UFC cage has put thousands of hours toward that moment and should be respected the same, but the most "classically attractive" among this group, according to the UFC's standards, have a leg up over others, even when those others are far more accomplished.
But the conversation doesn't have to end there, and it shouldn't when it comes to Amanda Nunes. For several reasons, Nunes has the makings of a star. UFC President Dana White himself acknowledged it after Nunes' defeat of Cris Cyborg at UFC 232, which made Nunes the third UFC fighter ever to hold two division titles simultaneously.
At the same time, White and the UFC have a dubious and well-documented history of promoting Nunes in a way that runs counter to their breathless post-fight proclamations.
Forcing the Nunes star to coalesce, then, might require two ingredients that sometimes run low when the MMA world is faced with such challenges: thought and work. It will be interesting to see how the UFC will work to make a star when the star won't make itself, at least not with the traditional playbook.
When it comes to marketing in the UFC, the efforts tend to focus on events, as opposed to individual fighters. When the machine lifts single athletes into the spotlight, it's because the athlete has built-in marketability. The UFC watches the momentum build and, once it's got its own head of steam, hitches its wagon behind. Think the charisma of Conor McGregor, the early dominance of Ronda Rousey, the greatness of Georges St-Pierre or Jon Jones, the iconic talent and likability of Daniel Cormier.
To put it more simply, if a fighter isn't an easy sell, the UFC probably isn't going to bother. To be fair, the UFC is not the only player in the marketing or promotional game. Fighters and managers frequently can and do raise a profile by doing media, seeking out promotional or sponsorship opportunities and, of course, winning fights. But by virtue of its colossal status in the sport, the UFC's attitude in these and all other matters sets the tone for the wider discourse. What it signals, in word and deed, is worthy of promotion is a powerful message.
Let's bring Nunes back into the conversation now, because no matter what anyone else says, she is unequivocally worthy.
When you hold two belts (bantamweight and featherweight) at the same time, when you can smear Cris Cyborg in 51 seconds, when you beat the eventual flyweight champion (Valentina Shevchenko) twice, when your 17-4 record contains 15 stoppages of which 12 occurred in the first round, when you've won 10 of 11 dating back to 2013, well, you have a pretty good case for being the GOAT of women's MMA and one of the best fighters, of any gender, in the UFC today.
And yet, the smell test forces one to conclude that the steak is not sizzling so vociferously. Why is that, and how can the sizzle be deployed?
Let's go back and get ourselves a guidepost. No one should kid themselves about the role that physical appearance plays in the decision, by the UFC and wider society, to fast-track certain female fighters up the ladder.
There are plenty of fighters who fit this mold, but for the simplicity's sake let's look at the fighter who best embodies this phenomenon right now: Paige VanZant. The 24-year-old blonde fits pretty neatly into one marketed standard of female beauty. She has a solid 5-3 record in the UFC women's flyweight division, but she's no world-beater, either. And yet, despite not even appearing on the UFC's official top 15 as of January 21, her last two fights found their way to a UFC main card.
By comparison, the last two bouts of Katlyn Chookagian, who ranks No. 3 on that same divisional ranking, were buried deep down on the prelims.
This discrepancy doesn't seem to be slowing VanZant down. She famously competed and finished second on Dancing With the Stars in 2016, with her general narrative being along the lines of "can you believe she's a cage fighter? But she's so pretty!" She's appeared on a raft of other shows as well.
A quick scan of her Instagram suggests she's cashing in. In just the past three months, she has posed with and shouted out the products and services of a nutritional supplement company, a scale manufacturer, a car dealership and a wireless carrier. She also spoke at a branded event she used multiple posts to promote. She recently lost an individual deal with Reebok, but it still seems like she's doing pretty well.
None of this is to pick on VanZant. She is free to establish her brand and use her various talents and social media accounts in any way she sees fit. The goal is to illustrate the chasm that exists between the bubbly blondes of the MMA world and the others.
It's not like there's a database of fighter sponsorship deals, and no data exist outside the UFC's blanket deal with Reebok, which is a whole other kettle of fish that we shan't be lifting the lid on right this moment. Outside of the information a fighter or a sponsor chooses to share, we have no way to know for sure what's going on. So, one shouldn't assume, as some people do, that Nunes has zero endorsements or marketing savvy just because she doesn't fill her social media with product plugs.
Requests for comment sent to Nunes' manager and partner, Nina Ansaroff, were not returned.
Still, it is reasonable to believe there is a discrepancy here. If Nunes weren't the spectacular champion she is, she'd probably be well down the prelim slate with all the female fighters who the UFC appears to believe aren't attractive to its audience or a champion. Only after working for years in the world's best promotions to amass a 9-3 record that contained seven first-round stoppages—including her first two efforts in the UFC—did Nunes get a shot on the main card. VanZant's first such opportunity came in her second UFC contest, with a pro record of 5-1.
If all these clues are leading us to the right conclusion, Nunes will need to find a different path to stardom than the one VanZant and others like her in women's MMA have followed, and it can't be the one of least resistance.
There are three big avenues here that she, her handlers and the UFC—definitely the UFC—might explore.
The first is her sexual orientation. Nunes is the first openly gay fighter to win a UFC title. She and Ansaroff have what appears to be a healthy, fun and loving relationship. That Ansaroff is a fighter herself makes the union even more compelling. Now, this is something Nunes does depict in her social media.
This is not to call for some cheap thing that should be beneath our society here in 2019. No one needs to put Nunes on a stage and go: "Look! A gay person! Isn't that great?" But there are more natural ways to showcase their relationship, which doesn't seem like something Nunes or Ansaroff are reticent to do. Put them in position to be leaders in the LGBTQ community, both in sports and in general. If they wish, they could be advocates.
It's something that's important to Nunes. She recently told Nanda Prates of USA Today:
"Since childhood, I was already in love with girls. It’s how I’m born, I already felt that way. So I know there are girls who are going through the same things I went through. ...With me talking about this, maybe it’s easier for kids who are going through the same things to be more open with their parents and siblings. That they can help, and understand the child, talk to them, be friends with them. I want to help with the things that were hard for me. So I think as a champion I can help out a lot."
Outsports, the prominent site dedicated to LGBTQ sports stories, took note of the comments and Nunes' accomplishments, writing that "being a two-belt champion—joining Conor McGregor and Daniel Cormier as the only UFC fighters to hold that distinction—is an awesome accomplishment and will increase her visibility as an openly gay athlete."
The ground is fertile here. Why should this nexus be left to happenstance? Surely the UFC can find a way to flex its muscles on behalf of Nunes and Ansaroff in this arena.
The second is Nunes' highly accurate self-branding as "The Lioness." This one is simpler. She's a terrifying fighter—let her be terrifying! Lean into the lion parallels. Play up her unbridled aggression, the fury with which she fights, the only gear she understands being destruction. It's even more pronounced than it is with Cyborg. Then take that and juxtapose it with her unfailing friendliness outside the cage. Show a few of her highlights, of which there are many, then bring her grinning self out on stage for a fun Q&A. That's just one idea. You don't think people would enjoy that?
The third and final idea is two simple words: Ronda and Rousey. When Nunes ruined Rousey in 48 seconds back in 2016, she didn't "effectively" end Rousey's MMA career. She ended it. Rousey never officially retired, but she didn't need to. She might come back one day for a novelty match or two once pro wrestling dries up or gets boring, but that's not the same.
Still, Rousey remains pretty famous. In fact, she is probably still the face of women's MMA. Interesting, isn't it? Drawing a direct line from Rousey, through the Rousey-Nunes fight, then to Nunes today would appear to be compelling. And it would be a clear concept to communicate: Rousey was, Nunes ended that, now here Nunes is. Sure, it's more complicated than that. But it's also not inaccurate. It's a way for Rousey to retroactively put Nunes over, to borrow a wrestling term, to transfer Rousey's celebrity energy to Nunes.
All three of these things take that aforementioned thought and work, but they're there for the taking. Nunes might just be the best to ever do it. Not only does she deserve to become a star, she has the full capacity to serve in the role. She may not be what most UFC consumers are used to, but that may not be so bad.
Scott Harris covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.