The UFC has been struggling to develop stars.
With a UFC women’s bantamweight championship bout between Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 215 fast approaching, there is no better time to take a closer look at the division. After losing Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, it’s time for the UFC to promote and develop a new crop of viable stars.
Star power, or a lack there of, is a strange concept. Mixed martial arts is a sport focused on individuals, and business begins to skyrocket when somebody like Rousey or Conor McGregor emerges from the pack and gets everybody talking about them. Unfortunately for the UFC, eventually everybody loses or temporarily leaves the sport to box Floyd Mayweather or something. So this leads to a need for innovation and promotion, something that could be risky when it’s so much easier to rely on old talent or hope someone else fits the McGregor mold.
In theory, Nunes is in a great position to be a breakout star. In a company that paints in such broad strokes, she is a proven finisher with 13 of her 14 wins by stoppage. Nunes has also dominated the two biggest stars in women’s bantamweight history back-to-back, in a combined four minutes. Not to mention, “The Lioness” is the first openly gay champion in UFC history. The UFC has a partnership with GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and Nunes could very easily be a spokesperson on the company’s behalf in this regard and promote the various joint ventures they have engaged in. In addition to learning and improving her English to help make herself more marketable, she is also unapologetically herself, speaking her mind about Rousey both before and after their fight.
The problem? Nunes doesn’t have the right look or attitude for the UFC’s marketing machine. Her build is bulky and less traditionally feminine, at odds with the likes of #12 ranked strawweight Paige Van Zant, who has a full Reebok sponsorship due, in a large part, to her appearance. Notably, it was Rousey who received all of the promotion in the build up to her drubbing at the hands of Nunes. Nunes, who was the defending champion, received little to no airtime and took a back seat to Rousey. Also, any potential support that she had from UFC fans was eroded by Dana White’s comments after UFC 213.
Being the second woman to beat Holly Holm in the UFC, not to mention totally out-striking the former boxing champion, Valentina “Bullet” Shevchenko was one of the greatest female Muay Thai fighters before even stepping foot in the octagon. Now, just a year removed from her previous match with Nunes, the rematch is happening for the bantamweight title after Shevchenko managed a submission victory over Julianna Pena. Oh, and she was also a dancer and model in her previous life and provides the ever-elusive chance of creating a star that could help lead the UFC into Russia.
She has the charisma and presence to back up her skills but has shown a potential for hanging back. Like Nunes, Shevchenko suffers from the shadow of Rousey. She didn’t beat Holm, she beat the woman who beat Rousey. If the UFC can move the marketing machine forward, instead of focusing on getting a cheap pop by mentioning an ostensibly retired fighter, the UFC has a huge star ready and waiting.
My wildcard pick for a potential star in the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division is the former Invicta FC champion, who is undefeated as a bantamweight since 2010. Tonya Evinger is a brash, outspoken champion with a 19-6 (1) record. She doesn’t fit the usual mold for promotable female fighters. Evinger wasn’t going to change her attitude for a UFC contract, her own words being: “I don’t give a (expletive) about that.” Her personality is genuine, she really doesn’t give an expletive. Her entire career has been an exercise in doing things her own way regardless of who is watching, from her climb up the ranks to her self-promotion via social media.
Like a female Stone Cold Steve Austin, she flips people off, talks trash and whips ass. If she loses, she goes out on her shield and doesn’t make excuses. This has earned her a legion of fans who will support her as she cuts through the nonsense and forges her own path, whether that was football and wrestling growing up, or fighting any and all challengers. Her attitude was best expressed at the UFC 214 post-fight press conference: “Obviously I’ll fight anybody, so let’s do it.”
As for the process of creating stars in general, you have to get the potential stars out in the mainstream media. Sometimes the outlets come to the person in question, but the UFC needs to act on their behalf and convince the show’s talent bookers to bring the person on.
The promotion helped in making Rousey and McGregor stars. They have the charisma, the story and the talent to back it up, but charisma and talent don’t matter nearly as much if nobody’s watching. Perception of reality is just as important as reality in this regard. You can’t make people win, but you can take those winners with star potential and promote them to the moon. In the struggle to build stars due to charisma, appearance or whatever reason, they would do well to remember the words of Paul Heyman.
We had a very simple philosophy when it came to our wrestlers: accentuate the positives, hide the negatives.
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