Photo: Getty Images/UFC
Like a lot of MMA fans, I have a warm place in my heart for Pride Fighting Championships and still consider it the best MMA promotion that ever was. There are many reasons: elite-level matchups; awesome grand prix events; the crazy and memorable freak shows; a particularly good combination of ruleset and ring that struck the right balance between grappling and striking; and a half-dozen others. However, the one aspect most relevant to this article’s title is how good Pride was at promoting its fighters and events. There was a real awe and wonder when Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva or Kazushi Sakuraba would walk out that is missing from modern Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders.
Why is this? In terms of fighting ability, the current crop of UFC champions is far superior to Pride’s best, as the sport has evolved and improved greatly. The UFC also has far more avenues for promotion than Pride had, and utilizes them at every opportunity. So what's the problem? To put it succinctly, the promotion sucks at promoting. We will examine three areas where the UFC fails, and how each can be improved.
1. Promotion of the Fighters
Put very simply, Pride as well as the UFC of that era presented their fighters as larger-than-life badasses. Wanderlei Silva wasn't just a regular guy outside the ring but “The Axe Murderer,” a brutal, feared monster who would probably beat you to death with Thai knees and soccer kicks if you looked at him funny. Mauricio Rua wasn't just a great fighter, but someone who crushed the jaws of gorillas with flying knees in the Amazon jungle—or, at least, that's what one unforgettable Pride promo video led me to believe. While less memorable, the UFC approach back then was still far more effective than what it does today. In the intro to events, fighters appearing in black-and-white would talk about how badly they would kick their opponent's ass before “Face the Pain” would kick in and we would be treated to a highlight reel of them finishing opponents.
Either approach, however, is superior to what the modern UFC does, where it presents fighters as relatable, normal guys and girls no different than you or me except for their job. I don't want fighters to be just like me. I want them to be extraordinary. Something different, something cooler and greater than anything I encounter in daily life. And yet, whether it's dorky commercials, seemingly every single Dana White's Contender Series participant crying about a horrible family tragedy, or promos showing them smiling and laughing with their families, the UFC conveys the exact opposite.
Is it that the personalities back then were more compelling? I don't think so. Compare Emelianenko with Daniel Cormier. Each one is a friendly family man outside of their profession, both have slightly portly physiques and both are capable of extraordinary physical feats inside the ring or cage. Early in his career, Cormier was even nicknamed “Black Fedor.” And yet, Emelianenko was portrayed as a force of nature, a literal cyborg, and to this day his name is spoken with mythical reverence by fans. Sadly, the same isn't true of Cormier, who is every bit as great and impressive. Thanks to UFC promotion, he often comes across as boring and hokey. But it doesn't have to be this way! Think of what Pride could do with such a superlative, vicious fighter who picks up giants and slams them to the canvas as if they were mere children!
Perhaps one of the most egregious examples is Dustin Poirier. One of the most exciting fighters in MMA history, he is a genuine knockout artist who thrives in back-and-forth wars of attrition. A man who loves hurting and destroying his opponents, only growing more excited as the battle becomes tougher and more brutal. Yet, what was the video package that played before his second fight against Eddie Alvarez?
It was Dustin, with his wife and daughter, having a good time at a local restaurant. Poirier being a dutiful husband and doting father. Both of those are laudable qualities, but they're the absolute last image I want to think of in the context of a big fight. The UFC was doing him a tremendous disservice here, as Poirier should rightly be one of the biggest stars in MMA history.
Amusingly, one of the reasons Conor McGregor is so popular is that he never portrays himself as a normal guy. On the contrary, he is a crazy, supremely arrogant, brash jet-setter who dominates and humiliates opponents. Surprise surprise, that's a far more appealing image than a smiling, normal guy.
The way for the UFC to fix this is simultaneously easy and difficult. Make the fighters seem cool and extraordinary. This is easier said than done, but no longer portraying them as normal, relatable people would be a good first step.
2. Promotion of the Events
I'm no music snob, and there are a wide range of styles that can be effective in selling a PPV. However, the weepy pop songs with female vocals that the UFC uses for their promos surely aren't the way. Nor do I care for Ron Perlman's stilted, one-dimensional narration, which might work in small doses, but only makes me roll my eyes after a while. This is all a matter of taste, but the main point is that if I go on Youtube and search for fan-made promos rather than the official UFC ones, I will find something far more appealing. As I'm sure most would.
Look at this old promo by Genghis Con, who presently does videos for Jorge Masvidal. To this day, it blows anything I've seen from the UFC out of the water, despite the various professionals they employ. This problem is exacerbated by virtually all UFC event promos looking and feeling the same. The same type of intro of both fighters. The same type of highlights accompanied with Joe Rogan's comically exaggerated claims—which we will get to in a minute—and the same type of music.
Why not shake this up? Why not contact the more skilled fan video makers out there and have them submit their own promos? Masvidal, a very smart, forward-thinking fighter on multiple levels, did exactly that when he snapped up Genghis Con, which is one reason his channel and brand are so popular. The UFC would do well to heed his example.
3. Commentator Hyperbole
No one minds a promotion's commentators exaggerating a little here and there, or stretching the truth. We expect it. But there's a big difference between that and constantly pushing a company narrative to the point of absurd lies and comparisons.
And there's been an awful lot of the latter in the UFC. Rogan is a particularly bad offender, and I've noted his shameful calls in the past and how it's often been counterproductive, harming the marketability of a great champion in Amanda Nunes, among others.
But it's unfair to pick on only Rogan here, especially since it was only a few weeks ago that Dan Hardy uttered one of the most insane comparisons you will ever hear from an MMA promotion, small regionals included. Talking about Irene Aldana, he stated that she was a great Mexican fighter in the vein of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez. Whom was this asinine claim supposed to fool? Certainly not any fan that knows who Alvarez or Chavez are—legendary champions who transcended boxing in their native country and are among the greatest fighters to ever live. On the contrary, it brands Hardy as a shameless shill who is dishonest and can be safely tuned out. Whom was it supposed to help? Certainly not Aldana, an exciting contender who incurred unnecessary derision and dismissal towards due to Hardy’s silly comparison. This was only made worse when Holly Holm ended up utterly dominating Aldana in the main event. In the process, many fans may end up writing off Aldana as over-hyped and overrated thanks to the awful framing of a commentator.
Had the discussion around Aldana been more sober and restrained, this wouldn't necessarily be the case. Rather, it would be seen as a great champion in Holm defeating a tough, worthy foe who wasn't yet ready for that level, rather than exposing her as a hype job.
There is an art to presenting fighters in the best light, exaggerating just enough to help them while still maintaining credibility. While Dana White has never followed this formula, he is also a bombastic promoter. He can lie and we expect it. Commentators, however, need a certain level of credibility, which is ruined by such absurd statements. This, in turn, compromises their ability to promote fighters. One hopes the UFC learns this lesson sooner rather than later.