Note: This article was originally written and submitted as part of Bloody Elbow's 'The Ultimate Fight Collection 2013 Contest' back on December 21st, 2013. Part of the terms of the eligibility stated that we could not post the article in any other locations and therefore, it was never uploaded here at Water Cooler MMA. However, now that the contest is over, I figured it was worth reposting as I feel it is a pretty good read, even if some of the breakdown is a bit outdated at this point. Please enjoy!
Whether we want to admit it or not, the ‘likability’ factor plays a huge role in modern day MMA. The good guy-bad guy dichotomy is stronger in our sport than in any other, amplified by the simple fact that at the end of the day, the goal is not to run past a painted line or put a ball through a hoop, but rather to use any and all skill you have acquired over a lifetime of training to try to finish an opponent with the exact same mindset and background. The simplicity of the sport captures our attention and the complexity keeps us coming back. The most memorable moments in our minds are strongly correlated with an emotional tie to what we are watching. There are very few situations in sports that can match the pure thrill of watching our favorite fighters achieve glorious victory and the utter defeat of watching them fall short. The same concept can be applied to our least favorite fighters, as the level of love or hate determines the strength of the emotional response, independent of the side of the spectrum on which we reside.
There is no denying that this past year has been a special one for the UFC and mixed martial arts as a whole. It seems as if every couple weeks, a new ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate emerges, and the increased exposure around the world has given us never-before-possible access to the athletes that populate our sport, both for good and for bad. In this article, I will explore some of the UFC’s most polarizing figures and how their public perception has changed throughout the year; whether fairly or not. We all have our favorites and least favorites, even journalists, and when writing an article focused around likability, you are bound to make some people upset. While individual feelings may vary, there is a distinct general opinion about certain fighters and one thing is true above all else. Whether you love them or hate them, these guys move the needle.
The Ultimate Fighter serves two central purposes above all else. The first is to discover hidden talent and add depth to a weight class by giving ‘unknown’ fighters a platform upon which they can showcase their skills. Whether recent seasons have actually succeeded at such a goal is debatable, but we’ll save that topic for another day. The second purpose is to allow fans access to the hard work and preparation that fighters must undergo in order to compete at the highest level. Personalities are discovered, work ethic revealed, and lack-there-of exposed. Coaches are as much under the microscope as the contestants and despite all the editing and storytelling, a person’s true colors always seem to bleed through when it’s all said and done. You simply cannot maintain a fake character through six weeks of non-stop filming, and one of two things is bound to happen as a result; villains become heroes and heroes become villains. In 2013, we had an example of each.
In the 18th season of The Ultimate Fighter, we saw Chael P. Sonnen, the American Gangster himself, coach against the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion of the world, Jon ‘Bones’ Jones. Since his first match against Anderson Silva at UFC 117, Sonnen has been successfully trolling MMA fans around the world. The incessant insults, endless one-liners, and particular distain for MMA’s home country of Brazil had, in many ways, made him into public enemy number 1. Some people loved him for it, more hated him, but one thing was for sure, made abundantly clear by his choice of TUF team name. Chael was the bad guy. People believed the character and booed the man. He was ripped by fans on message boards and by fighters at press conferences and in interviews. He was called overrated, arrogant, and selfish. Chael Sonnen played the villain role and he played it well.
Every now and then, however, a glimpse of the ‘good guy’ would shine through. I first discovered the real Chael on an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience. It was here that Chael repainted himself as a likable guy for the first time in years, however it wasn’t until The Ultimate Fighter that Chael allowed the man behind the mask to be revealed to a much broader audience. New layers of likability were added as he showed compassion for this team members and outstanding leadership through good times and bad. Follow this up with a series of fights against guys Chael openly showed respect for, namely Jon Jones, Shogun Rua, and Rashad Evans. and suddenly, we are entering the era of ‘Chael Sonnen: The Good Guy’.
Season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter, coached by UFC Champion Ronda Rousey and bitter rival Miesha Tate provided a different perspective. Pre-TUF Ronda Rousey served as the beloved face of women’s MMA. The name calling at the time ranged from icon, to pioneer, to sweetheart. She was the woman who single-handedly made Dana White change his stance on women fighting in the UFC, and this feat cannot be taken away from her. However, the depth of exposure she was receiving at the time was minimal. A brief interview or magazine photo shoot barely crack the surface of a person’s true being. As we learned with Chael Sonnen and so many others throughout the years, public persona is often very different from the person lying underneath. With Ronda, behind the infectious smile and bubbly personality lies a fire and an obsession with winning. Specs of this can be seen in interviews and feature pieces done throughout her career, and the revelation should come as no surprise since you don’t become as dominate as she is without an extremely competitive focus. However, the crying, screaming, and middle finger-ing still caught the TUF audience off-guard as general opinion turned from outright love, to defensiveness, to eventual hate.
Of course, some existential factors need to be considered before casting judgment. You can’t believe everything you see on TV. An entire team of people are in charge of telling a story through cutting and editing clips together in a ‘logical’ order. This is not done for malicious reasons, but rather for entertainment purposes. Granted, there is an equally strong possibility that the producers actually toned down Ronda’s emotional episodes rather than build them up, but it’s still worth keeping the thought in mind. The other factor is Rousey’s preexisting distain for rival coach Miesha Tate. When Rousey signed on to coach TUF, she expected to be sharing the experience with #1 contender Cat Zingano. She may very well have declined the opportunity had it been with Tate from the beginning, and it’s possible Tate simply brings out the worst in Rousey. It may not be fair to judge Ronda’s entire personality based on her interaction with her worst enemy on a reality TV show. But since when has fair stood in the way of the general public casting judgment on someone? Rousey has fallen from her once towering pedestal, and while there is plenty of time to right the ship, she has seen a certain decline in likability.
So, how much is real and how much is manufactured for TV? It’s hard to tell. But the fact remains the same either way. As 2013 comes to a close, Chael has become a good guy and Ronda has turned bad; at least for the time being.
A close fight is important for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is entertainment and increased popularity. A solid back and forth affair can do wonders to project a pair of fighters into the spotlight and launch their careers to the next level. But what if you’re already in the spotlight? What if you’re universally accepted as one of the greatest of all time and have handled nearly every opponent that’s stood across the cage from you? In this case, a close fight serves a different purpose. It serves as a legacy builder. 2013 gave us two of the most memorable title defenses in UFC history, shaking up the likability of all parties involved.
The first took place at UFC 165 and the second at UFC 167. Both fights involved a perennial champion attempting to defend the belt against yet another rising contender. In both fights, the champion won via razor close split decision, and in both fights, the champion looked to have taken far more damage than the challenger. I am of course referring to the Jones vs. Gustafsson fight and the St. Pierre vs. Hendricks fight. Personally, I had the champ winning both fights and not because of that ludicrous ‘you have to beat the champ to be the champ’ expression, either. I scored both fights 38-38 heading into the final round and felt that both Jones and GSP finished strong, winning their respective fights 48-47. We can argue about who beat up who and which fighter landed the bigger shots, but at the end of the day, three fairly even rounds beats two more lopsided rounds every time. The vast majority of fans and media didn’t seem to like this concept too much, taking to the blogs and message boards to vent their frustration. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, however in this particular case, their hate was often pointed in the wrong direction. While plenty of lame was given to the athletic commission and the judges, a portion of the anger was pointed at the champions, as well. Logically, the winning fighters had nothing to do with the final decision but emotionally, a feeling of resentment began to build. People felt Gustafsson and Hendricks deserved the belts and began to look at Jones and GSP as false champions. Amazing. Two of the best pound-for-pound fighters of all time viewed as false champions…
Jones will one day have a chance to prove the critics wrong as he and Gustafsson are set to do battle once again, assuming they can each get past their upcoming opponents first. Hendricks may not be so lucky, as GSP has officially announced his ‘taking a break’ from MMA; at least for now. I believe that one day, these emotions will balance out and Jones and GSP will have their legacy raised even higher as a result. But for the time being, the two champions have turned heel, and the challengers have more fans than ever. Quick side note – the same can be said of Weidman vs. Silva although the story is a little different with Weidman coming out on top. Nevertheless, 2013 was in many ways the year of the upset, even if the judges’ score cards didn’t always agree.
AND THE NEW…
With all the good guy, bad guy team switching going on, there are bound to be a few openings for new members. Chael and Ronda may have traded roles, but Ronda is nowhere near as hated as Chael was, nor is Chael as loved as Ronda. The general outcome of this whole shift is a much more mild landscape just waiting for new standouts to emerge.
So who spent their 2013 capturing the emotions of MMA fans around the world? Conor McGregor turned some heads this year, however the verdict is still out on what his role is going to be. His bottomless trash talking makes him an obvious candidate for the ‘bad guy’ role, but his charming wit and go-for-broke attitude endear him to the fans. Time will tell on this one, but no matter how he’s viewed in the future he’ll be providing endless headlines for media members to salivate over for years to come.
What about the big guys? Dating back to the early days of boxing, the heavyweight division has always been the glory division. Traditionally, MMA has put more emphasis on the upper-middle weight classes, but that isn’t to say the heavyweight class was ignored. Brock Lesnar was one of the best villains the UFC ever had. From his aggressive, not-so-technical style to his past in pro wrestling, people loved to hate this guy. Is there a current heavyweight capable of filling this role? Perhaps not yet, but Josh Barnet is probably the closest. With his questionable record in odd ball promotions, his history with pro wrestling and past incidents with Performance Enhancing Drugs, Barnett has the backstory to rile up the haters and the skillset to shut them down. After two first round finishes in 2013 and a huge fight against a top five heavyweight in Travis Browne set for UFC 169, Barnett could very well be the new face of evil by the end of the year.
In many ways the opposite of Josh Barnett, we find our new good guy in the smallest of weight classes. I mean who better to lead the forces of benevolence than a fighter named after a superhero? Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson has had an incredible 2013, defending the UFC Flyweight title three times and earning three post fight bonuses in the process (1 KOTN, 1 SOTN, 1 FOTN). He expresses class wherever he goes, says all the right things, and above all else, he puts on outstanding fights. He is truly one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, a pioneer for the UFC Flyweight division, and he’s showing no signs of slowing. In fact, he’s getting better. Johnson is a top candidate for 2013 'Fighter of the Year’ and will likely be in the discussion next year as well. Fight fans love this guy and for good reason. Mighty Mouse is as good as they come.
Looking back, 2013 was truly one of the best years in UFC history. Let's end it with a bang at UFC 168! Thank you all for reading this post and have a Happy New Year!