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UFC 250 as expected delivered a slew of exciting performances, as it added to the streak of must-see cards since the Ultimate Fighting Championship returned in May amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. The event featured a TKO via leg kicks, a walk-off knockout for the ages by rising star Sean O’Malley and a buzzer-beater right hand that solidified Cody Garbrandt’s return as a force in the 135-pound weight class. Amanda Nunes in the main event bullied Felicia Spencer in every facet of MMA for 25 minutes, proving that the perceived mismatch on paper between the competitors was indeed accurate. It may have been the first featherweight title defense for “The Lioness” but it felt more like a sparring session, validating some of the more extreme wagers that were placed on the match ahead of time.
This type of dominance has become commonplace for the 32-year-old Brazilian, as she has dispatched her last five opponents between two weight classes with relative ease. The last time Nunes faced any sort of real test came at UFC 215, where she was awarded a contentious split decision victory against current UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. “Bullet” can make an argument that she should have won that fight. However, she hasn’t faced much opposition in the cage since that bout, either, going on to decimate her last five opponents at 125 pounds, including former strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Indeed, having both cleared out their respective divisions of viable contenders, the only fight left for either Nunes or Shevchenko seems to be a trilogy bout that the UFC doesn’t want to make.
Fans and several pundits seem to agree with the promotion’s stance on the superfight. Statements and questions that range from “Nunes is the G.O.A.T.” to “Who can even challenge Nunes at this point in her career?” permeate social media, dismissive of the idea that there is a true test left for “The Lioness” in any weight class. To a lesser degree, the same sentiments are being shared about Shevchenko at 125 pounds, resulting in something of a paradox, given that the consensus view is neither woman has a worthy advisory available but a fight between them would be less than ideal. Indeed, their fight at UFC 215 was hardly an instant classic, but why do fans seem to be so disinterested while simultaneously hyping each woman as a world-beater? Shouldn’t fans want a third fight given that Nunes and Shevchenko have become so dominant and, according to a myriad of pundits, evolved so much as fighters since their last encounter? The answer may lie in the marketing of each athlete.
While the UFC always promotes its champions as being the best of the best, when dominant champions emerge within the organization’s ranks, the promotion tends to give them some specialized marketing. Whether it’s a simple as adding qualifiers like “a living legend” to their “UFC Countdown” promos or having commentators focus on where they are in the “greatest of all-time” conversation before their bouts, the UFC makes sure to paint those who have put together significant winning streaks while holding the belt as figures who have transcended the natural order of the sport. It’s important to note that it does not matter if the competition they face is subpar or legitimate; so long as an athlete continues to win and win big, he or she will be pushed as a true rarity.
This is done for good reason. As demonstrated by the likes of Jon Jones, Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, a fighter’s personality plays an important part in determining whether or not they become a crossover star, but their dominance in the cage is a prerequisite to that opportunity. Had Rousey lost to Cat Zingano or McGregor been knocked out by Jose Aldo at UFC 194, it’s likely that they would not have become the household names in the sport they are today. Cody Garbrandt, who was once viewed by many as the next crossover superstar in MMA, lost much of his momentum after dropping back-to-back bouts against T.J. Dillashaw. Holly Holm, who was undefeated and poised to become the face of women’s MMA after dethroning Rousey at UFC 193, never quite made it to the same level as “Rowdy Ronda” after dropping three straight following her championship win.
Once someone has had some time to solidify their place in mainstream culture, losses become more forgivable, as shown by McGregor’s continued drawing power. In fact, when a certain level of superstardom is obtained by a fighter, it can be partially transferred to those by whom they are defeated, as demonstrated by the rise of both Nate Diaz and Holm in popular culture. In this sense, the UFC could hypothetically keep itself in the mainstream spotlight perpetually by creating dominant champions who then pass on their fame to new dominant fighters who take their place. The conditions would have to be just right for that to be achieved, however, as the new titleholder would have to possess the right personality in order keep the casual fan’s attention for more than a fight or two.
This tends to be supplemented by the promotion pushing those it sees as having the X factor quickly into championship contention. McGregor was offered a title shot while sitting at No. 7 in the official featherweight rankings after defeating an unranked Dennis Siver, bypassing contenders such as Frankie Edgar on his way to becoming a star. Garbrandt received similar treatment from the UFC, earning a title fight after defeating Takeya Mizugaki, despite Dillashaw having a nearly air-tight case for a rematch against Dominick Cruz.
In all of these cases, personality and overall marketability played major roles in the promotion’s decision to back the athletes, but a key ingredient to their success was dominance. Although Shevchenko and Nunes both lack the mainstream attention that some of the more popular MMA stars have received, the longer they keep winning, the more opportunities they’ll receive to make the leap into recognition outside of the sport. Even if they fail to make that transition during their UFC tenure, as long as they continue to win, they can serve the purpose of transferring their name value over to the next worthy contender—one the promotion hopes to be easily marketable. In the end, a dominant fighter is the first step in creating a new star for the UFC, so don’t expect a superfight between two of them anytime soon.