The Importance of a Fighter’s Brand

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With UFC 200 fast approaching, the talk in the MMA world surrounds the return of Brock Lesnar. Often cited as the main contributor to the company’s best selling pay-per-view card–UFC 100–Lesnar’s return to mixed martial arts seems a surefire method to boost sales and generate interest. To some, the necessity for this maneuver by the promotion is more than a bit baffling. Lesnar hasn’t competed in well over four years, and is currently contracted to WWE. But Lesnar has always understood the importance of a fighter’s brand and the power it gives him. In the case of MMA, the ability to create and market a brand is an essential skill that can make or break a fighter’s career.

Lesnar’s presence as a major draw cannot be denied. Of the top ten best selling pay-per-view events held by the UFC, Lesnar appears four times as a headliner. Only Conor McGregor appears multiple times in the top ten (twice in the top five, with Ronda Rousey rounding out the fifth spot). Each of these fighters can be described as having major flaws or holes in their game, yet they remain the biggest entities (and earners, for that matter) in the sport.

How can fighters that aren’t unbeatable be the sport’s biggest stars?

The simple answer is that these fighters have transcended the sphere of being pure athletes. They’ve allowed their personalities and individual quirks to shape the manner in which they are portrayed in the public eye. Many practices in prize-fighting revolves around public interaction, from weigh-in shows to press conference stare-downs; these moments give the viewing audience a chance to see their favorite fighters interact. The truly successful stars however, go far beyond typical displays of machismo and dominance and build their brand outside the sphere of sanctioned combat sports.

Take for example, boxing’s finest champion, the recently deceased Muhammad Ali. At any time in the last several decades, one could go anywhere in the world, and that name would still be known, if not celebrated. Ali was a master of selling fights, oftentimes goading even friendly, taciturn opponents like Henry Cooper and Jurgen Blin into the antagonists of the bout’s supposed story-line. To some, especially during his active years as champion, Ali’s theatrics were offensive and jarring, but Ali was cultivating his brand. Every quote and limerick about his opponents ensured him headlines aplenty, and served the dual purpose of dousing his challengers’ confidence. Ali separated himself from other boxers, became a giant among men, and then used his brand to tackle the problems of his era such as racism and the Vietnam war.

Ali was a master of selling fights, oftentimes goading even friendly, taciturn opponents like Henry Cooper and Jurgen Blin into the antagonists of the bout’s supposed story-line.

Another recently deceased iconic figure, Kimbo Slice, also cultivated a brand that saw him catapulted to stardom. Originally a backyard brawl legend in Miami, his popularity and status as a cult figure soared when his fights appeared on the internet several years past. Slice’s brand saw him make his professional MMA debut in the co-main event of an EliteXC card in November of 2007. His rise then saw him compete in the UFC after a run on their Ultimate Fighter television series as a member of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s team. Slice’s intimidating persona certainly aided him in becoming a draw, even in his later stages with Bellator MMA.

Slice’s abilities in the cage often seemed limited, but his brand ensured that he remained a draw throughout his career. For those more gifted in the sport’s many competitive facets, the idea of brand building holds even higher significance. Conor McGregor for example, is phenomenal to watch. He guarantees an exciting fight, and even better, an exciting build up to the bout. Taking a page (or a few to be certain) from Muhammad Ali’s playbook, McGregor’s pre-fight verbal barrage often leaves his opponents dumbfounded and prints headlines by the dozen.

If McGregor never went the route of branding himself a brash, arguably arrogant Irish warrior, would his talent alone allow him to reach the upper echelons of MMA? It’s possible, as some of the best pound-for-pound fighters were rarely outstanding orators in the realm of promoting fights. Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva and Demetrious Johnson are all considered near the top of that list, but none of them hold a candle to McGregor in sheer promotional dexterity.

How a fighter’s brand can enhance their skill set:

It’s arguable that the practice of emphasizing fighters’ attributes to brand them colorful characters could send the sport in the direction of professional wrestling. In turn, it could detract from great fighters’ opportunities if they aren’t fond of promotional work and are more concerned with simply fighting. McGregor’s own rise was seen as odd given that there were more established fighters in the division that were overlooked to allow McGregor a championship bout. While this is a valid concern, perhaps the best method of progress would be a combination of both worlds.

Consider Emil Weber Meek, the man who ended Rousimar Palhares’ four-fight win streak last month. Relatively unknown outside of Europe, the win over Palhares now sees Meek make his debut for the UFC in September at their Fight Night card in Germany. Besides the fact that he defeated the very dangerous Palhares, Meek has all the tools to be a star in the promotion: he has an 88% knockout rate, and has never been to a decision in his professional career. And then there’s the way he brands himself. Take one look at Meek as he walks to the octagon, and you’ll see why he stands to be a superstar in Norway: if his nickname “Valhalla” or his haircut and facial hair don’t tell you enough about him, the actual battle axe he carries with him certainly will. Similar to McGregor’s portrayal of a Celtic warrior going to battle, Meek charges to the ring like a Viking on a warpath.

The idea of nurturing a personal brand may seem to border on gimmicky, but at the end of the day, combat sports and sports in general are considered as entertainment. Promoters and fighters themselves always talk about performing for the fans, and making lasting impressions. The UFC is in the business of putting together the best fighters against each other, but it’s also in the business of selling experiences and memories. Memorable moments start with memorable fighters, which is why establishing a brand is important in the sport’s current state.