Nice Guys Finish First
Last month, Brock Lesnar lost his UFC Heavyweight championship in spectacular fashion. It was awesome. The noticeably smaller, but more skilled and better prepared Cain Velasquez defended the early takedown attempts and let the big man tire himself out before landing crisp boxing combos that would end the fight at just over the three minute mark. A quick and brutal ending to a fight that Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg qualified of: “the most important Heavyweight fight in the history of the UFC” at least sixty-eight times during the evening.
During his tenure as a champion, Lesnar has been an amazing promotional tool. Not only is he the size of a video game character, but the guy came to the UFC with a legion of pro-wrestling fans behind him. Oh yeah, he can also fight. Until recently, that was just a detail. Brock had been hired for his motivated salesmanship and his capacity to drive both opponents and fans mad with anger. As long as he could hold on to the belt, he could sit on his challengers and punch them into submission, but that was not the important part. Then came Cain Velasquez. A polite, well-spoken guy with an undying drive and a superb work ethic. He did not play into Lesnar’s talking game and the hype about this fight turned around Velasquez’s prior performances. Brock talked and talked, but Velasquez kept his focus and only answered that the fight meant the world to him and that it was his chance to shine.
Cain embraced the opportunity.
That makes the UFC championship picture more interesting than ever. Cain Velasquez, Shogun Rua, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Frankie Edgar and to a certain extent Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz have all something in common. They do not talk smack. Well, maybe a little, but they do not use that to sell their fights. They are athletes first and foremost and let their performances talk for themselves. With the fall of Brock Lesnar, that makes the seven kings of the UFC, respectful sportsmen. I don’t know about you, but I am seeing a pattern here. Is smack talk still the road to success?
Because it had been in the past. The UFC of ZUFFA LLC has been built on The Ultimate Fighter fame and therefore loves storylines. Good Vs Evil, Martial Artist Vs Brawler, Respect Vs Arrogance, name an archetypal battle, it’s probably been done by the UFC before. There’s nothing wrong with it, it helped the sport develop. Guys like Phil Baroni have turned it into a career. But now that the UFC has grown and the talent pool is deeper, is it worth it to try and talk your way to the top? Take the example of Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. Two legendary champions, both extremely confident, but having two very different personalities. At the twilight of their respective careers, their fate could not be any different.
Both have lost their last few fights, but Tito is now struggling for relevancy as Chuck is walking into the sunset with a satisfying situation. Ortiz is fed to the tigers as Chuck is gravitating in UFC’s, frequently representing them in PR operations. The good guy became a business partner while the bad guy is going down in flames. Is this bound to become a pattern? I think so. In a company where the image has become everything, it’s important to pay attention to detail. Relevant PR operations have to be done by fighters who people can bond with and relate to. Putting a major antagonistic figure on a public tribune is asking for disaster. They will portrait UFC athletes as being foul-mouthed bullies or they will be too nice that they will give the impression that the UFC’s fights are as credible as those in the WWE.
There is only one way to go for the disrespectful and arrogant in the UFC and in mixed martial arts in general. Down. In a organization that loves to build up their promotion around narratives, it is unthinkable to leave the bad guy unpunished. Since Tito last beat Ken Shamrock in 2006, he has lost to Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida and Matt Hamill. On top of that he drew with Rashad Evans. A hard road, far away from the title picture. Tito can sell a fight, that’s for sure, but isn’t there something sweet in seeing the cocky, former dominant champion getting beaten over and over again by the likes of Liddell and the goofy Forrest Griffin?
Now that the curiosity factor of having Brock Lesnar for champion is passed, Brock is going to get fed to the wolves. I expect to see him to get the likes of Junior Dos Santos, Brandon Schaub, Sean McCorkle, Mark Hunt, Shane Carwin (rematch)…anybody with size that can potentially hurt him. Now that he’s been a champion and we all hated him, Brock’s marketability is in defeat. When he’ll get stopped with punches (and he will) a few times in a row, maybe Brock will think he should have kept his mouth shut and paid his dues before entering the big show.
I’m sure some of you are wincing. It is a long shot to predict Brock’s demise, but I am pretty confident in what I say. Is there a smack talker on top right now? No. All the dominant champions are self-assured, respectful martial artists. Aldo, St-Pierre and Anderson Silva have been sitting on their title for a while and have a long reign ahead of them. It’s too soon to form an opinion on Velasquez, Edgar and Cruz, but I’m not sure it’s a coincidence. MMA is a harsh mistress, any fighter will tell you. Is smack talk getting out of style? I’m not sure yet. Chael Sonnen sure would be the greatest example for that if he did not fail his drug test after his fight with Anderson Silva. I’m just waiting for somebody who can go through the same things than GSP, Anderson Silva, Cain Velasquez and Jose Aldo and still find the energy and the bravado to talk smack. A few weeks ago, I was at Hybrid Combat Promotions and one of the fighters told me something that sums up my feelings pretty well:
“You have to be humble in MMA or MMA will humble you”
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