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A persistent problem for MMA and its popularity level in recent years has been the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s inability to create new superstars. Combat sports are driven by superstars, and without fighters who feel like larger-than-life personalities to bring in casual fans, these sports struggle. This wasn’t an issue for a long time, as the UFC was once a superstar-making factory, from Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Anderson Silva to Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones, Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.
In recent years, the veritable foundation of star creation has gone dry. It’s hard to quantify the sport’s popularity with so many cards on ESPN+ rather than rated television stations and ESPN changing the nature of the UFC’s pay-per-view model, but it’s not hard to recognize MMA is not as popular as it once was. Many of the UFC’s current champions haven’t caught on with the broader public, and the biggest new stars are mostly known for their rivalries with previous stars (Daniel Cormier with Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov with McGregor).
This ongoing issue has led to recriminations, and like on so many issues, fingers are most often pointed at UFC management. Ultimately, it is of course the UFC’s responsibility more than any other party, particularly given that’s where the decision to run so many shows rests. However, oftentimes media members and fans overestimate the ability of certain fighters to become difference-making stars.
Just because someone is really good at fighting doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be able to connect with the public. So often it feels like observers will point at certain fighters, note they’ve won impressively against elite competition and blame the UFC for not having found a way to turn them into household names. There is more the UFC could have done in many instances, but it’s not a simple equation, particularly when the product is not red hot as it once was.
Take Stipe Miocic and Amanda Nunes. Both are excellent fighters and highly respected champions. They’re also low-key personalities who have never much gotten into the promotional side of the sport. It’s frustrating that one of the most accomplished heavyweights in UFC history and arguably the best female fighter of all-time aren’t better known, but it’s not as if there isn’t a history of great individual athletes who never became major stars because of their quiet demeanors. It doesn’t seem like a lack of fame bothers them all that much anyway; they seem content to let their work speak for itself. Nunes and Miocic, meanwhile, have more marketing upside than many of the other UFC champions.
This isn’t to excuse the fact that the UFC hasn’t been able to do more with many of its present champions; it’s simply to point out that there are inherent challenges in that task and sometimes a promotion is dealt a better or worse hand. If we agree that McGregor and Rousey are the parties that deserve the most credit for their superstardom, it follows logically that fighters too play a primary role when they don’t reach that stature. Luckily, when it comes to evaluating why there aren’t more difference-making stars in the sport today, a perfect test subject just arrived on the scene.
It’s never perfectly clear who fans will gravitate to, but if you’re looking at the traits you want in a star fighter, Israel Adesanya checks every box. Adesanya rose through the ranks quickly, and he still has the undefeated record as champion that adds intrigue for many fans. He has a fighting style that’s not just entertaining but spectacular. Like Silva, he’s able to pull off techniques one wouldn’t expect to work against elite competition. He’s a joy to watch in the Octagon, and he just knocked out a proud champion on the biggest of stages.
Adesanya is also a dynamic personality. He clearly enjoys talking about the sport and about his fights. He’s cocky but in a charming way that isn’t a turnoff. He’s also perfectly happy to talk trash to sell a fight, engaging with the usually reserved Robert Whittaker and already laying the groundwork for an eventual superfight with Jones. He can talk fans into the seats and entertain them when they arrive. He even has what’s likely the best nickname in the sport: invite your friends over to see “The Last Stylebender” in the main event and there’s sure to be intrigue.
Given all these positive traits, there’s simply no excuse if Adesanya keeps winning and isn’t one of the biggest superstars in the sport in short order. This one is as easy as it gets, as Adesanya is a promoter’s dream. As such, he’ll offer a window into what’s going on these days when it comes to MMA star production. If Adesanya is a major name by this time next year, it will be an affirmation of the importance of traits he has that other top fighters don’t. If on the other hand he ends up as just another champion, it’s a clear sign that the UFC needs to do some rethinking about what it’s doing to build its top stars.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.