MMA Stardom: Fighting Most Important

August 3, 2009

Anderson Silva’s up-coming light heavyweight tilt against Forrest Griffin provides the perfect background for today’s discussion: MMA stars. 

What is the definition of an MMA star?

Generally, there exist two types of stars in any sport: athletic stars and cross-over stars. Athletic stars gain acclaim and following through their in-competition achievements. While cross-over stars are known for some combination of their appearance, charisma, or human interest in addition, obviously, to athletic ability. It’s that combination that allows these athletes to “cross-over” and derive interest from a non-sporting perspective.

Unfortunately, the most common misconception regarding MMA stars is that they must be charismatic, attractive, and intriguing individuals in order to be deemed a star. In other words, fighters like Anderson Silva or Lyoto Machida should be incredible orators, public ambassadors, and/or willing extra-curricular participants in order to draw PPV sales. This is patently false.

The simple truth of the matter is that fans attend events to be entertained by the fighting. All the talk, the glitz, and the glamour mean nothing at the end of the day if the fighting is garbage. Thus, as a fighter, the most important trait one can have is an exciting, entertaining fighting style.

Chuck Liddell is arguably the most popular MMA fighter ever, but he didn’t reach those heights on the back of his good looks, incredible charm, or engaging personality. Let’s be honest, we’re talking about a man that once appeared intoxicated and nearly fell asleep during a morning talk show interview… No, Liddell was popular because fans always knew what to expect from him: someone that was going to engage his opponent and likely knock him out.
And, while far from conclusive, the PPV numbers and TV ratings would seem to further support this hypothesis. Liddell’s numbers grew as he became more dominant and his sheer presence has carried many a PPV. The UFC promoted Silva as the “Pound-for-Pound King” for Spike’s UFC: Silva vs. Irvin and he went on to destroy his opponent in front of over 4 million viewers (3.1 rating); had he been able to dominate Cote his PPV draw ability would have soared (despite the fact that UFC 90 did only 300,000 buys). Furthermore, a similar trend is evident with Lyoto Machida; as his victories have become more dominant, his following has expanded (including a Hughes-Serra assisted 635,000 buys at UFC 98 when he took the title).

Does this mean that MMA should forget about building a cross-over star? Absolutely not.

Brock Lesnar is perhaps already on his way to becoming that cross-over star that everyone covets – even if he isn’t what people envision as the typical cross-over. He’s a polarizing force that draws interest not just because of his ability, but his freakish size, nasty demeanour, and unpredictable public mannerisms. Some will tune in to see the spectacle that is the gargantuan man beating another over the head with repeated hammer fists. Others will tune in to see “that lippy WWE son of a gun get what he deserves.” Others still will watch because of their appreciation for his wrestling ability and to see how much he’s improved since his last fight.

However, to expect that MMA is capable of building a host of cross-over talent is probably unwise – not to mention unnecessary. A cross-over star is a rare, if not generational, breed of athlete. It’s not everyday that a De La Hoya comes knocking at the door of any sport. Brock may not ever reach that level of popularity – and as I’ve pointed out, certainly not in the same fashion – but that doesn’t matter.

The sport doesn’t need to have multiple jack-of-all-trades; it just needs good, exciting fighters.

If Anderson Silva can bury Forrest Griffin this weekend under a “ballet of violence,” most, if not all, will be forgiven and he’ll likely continue his ascension towards being one of MMA’s must-see PPV draws.

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