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Elias Theodorou and the art of self-promotion

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

You might have heard about Elias Theodorou. Or maybe not. It all depends, really.

If you're Canadian, like he is, the chances are good. After all, he isn't just a UFC fighter who took part in The Ultimate Fighter: Nations and now competes on Saturday's UFC Fight Night 54 main card in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He's also been a model, actor and generally in front of a camera in Canada for a numbers of years.

Yet, if you're American, maybe he's not quite so familiar. The UFC now has more fighters on their roster than the NBA does on theirs. Standing out in the UFC these days is harder than ever. And given we aren't readily exposed to Canadian media here in the lower 48, whatever work Theodorou has put together in Canada - while admirable - it hasn't reached much of us down here.

But that isn't stopping 'Spartan', who is nothing if not a relentless self-promoter. Disclosure: I hadn't planned on doing any interviews for UFC Fight Night 54. Not out of spite, of course, but workload. Yet, Theodorou direct messaged me on Twitter, essentially daring me to interview him.

That's unprecedented in my journalism experience, so I took the Pepsi Challenge. What I discovered was a guy who was naturally good at turning heads, both with some of looks that have put him on the cover of Harlequin novels, more than 10 televisions shows and even offers to take smaller roles in motion pictures like 'Godzilla' and 'Robocop', "which are both filmed in Canada," he told MMA Fighting, ultimately declining the chance. "I had fights coming up and that was my priority. These are all things I can fall back on afterwards.

"Obviously as an athlete I have a shelf life," he explained. "I want to have something to do when I'm done."

Theodorou says he walked an early career path, or at least a partial one, of modeling because it came easy. Not that he wasn't committed to the work and that the hours weren't long, but that the opportunities came with a fair amount of ease. But it was never a priority. It was a means to an end, something to help buttress what he had discovered as his true passion.

"Actually, in reality, I've been doing martial arts since my first year in university. I was enlightening the body, so I decided the mind might as well follow as well. Basically, I started martial arts when I was about 20 years old.

"Now I'm 26 and just fell in love with [MMA]," he said. "All of modeling and the acting and all that actually came while I started going pro three years ago as an assistant to make money in regionals. Obviously, the first couple of fights, you don't make money. The idea of potential money, that's why I kind of just dabbled in everything and put my hand in every single cookie jar see what grabs."

What grabbed and stuck was MMA. Theodorou went pro in June of 2011 and through nine fights has remained undefeated.

Still, skeptics abounded, at least in the early years. Fighters are expected to have grisly, mangled visages and poorly-crafted, half-inked tattoos canvasing their muscled if battered bodies. Models don't typically fit that description.

"Actually, my first two fights I went out to Calgary, which is about a 4 or 5 hour flight from Toronto and I went with my brother," he said. "My coach at the time wasn't able to come with me. My brother, who knows even less about martial arts than me, we went down to basically be someone else's stepping stone. Like, the local town boy's stepping stone. First thing they do once we get weighed in is, 'Look at that pretty boy. We're going to smash him.'

"I ended up breaking his collar bone and his face. It kinda worked out. If looks could kill, they probably would."

Theodorou made his way through more established regional promotions and even a solo fight in Bellator before finding himself on TUF: Nations, where he won the contest, beating fellow finalist Sheldon Wescott by TKO in the second round at the TUF: Nations Finale in April of this year.

That success has brought him to Saturday's fight on the main card in Halifax, opposite Bruno Santos. There's a concern there, however. For a fighter like Theodorou, who prides himself on standing out in a crowd, facing a fighter like Santos, who prefers to slow fights to a crawl, that presents a challenge to win as much as it does to be remembered.

"He is vegetable lasagna," Theodorou says of his opposition. "That is definitely for sure."

Theodorou, though, remains undeterred. "He's obviously a grinder, which doesn't make for the most exciting fights sometimes. What ends up happening is I think that what he's good at, I'm better at. He wants to put people on the cage. The fights that I've had, I'm much better paced. If you actually look back to some of my previous fights in Bellator and other fights prior, I honestly have made someone verbally tap by breaking their orbital bone against the cage with my Muay Thai plum.

The Canadian goes as far to suggest UFC management would like to get rid of Santos and are using Theodorou to help usher his exit. "Let's just say I'm a company man and they wanted an exit for a certain person. I'm the man that's going to execute it," he said.

Fighting well in the UFC is fine, but that's what the UFC's appeal is. The ability to fight, unless its otherworldly, isn't sufficient to stand out in a very crowded marketplace. That's where Theodorou's believes the rest of his expertise will help with visibility.

"I have a B.A. in creative advertising. Since school finished, I've been basically working on the brand that is myself. The hair and all that jazz is that fun stuff. As a business, it's not only important how good you are, but if people want to come see you. Whether they love me or hate me, I'm just going to be me and just work with it.

But if talking to media (and downright soliciting them) is so easy, why do so many fighters seem to struggle with it?

"I understand it," Theodorou said sympathetically. "Again, it's the transition between the traditional martial arts and not really knowing your place. For a lot of these people, martial arts is the background they come from as a person. There's not really much depth. Not to really insult anyone, I'm just saying the idea that they might not know what to really say. Sometimes all they know is how to punch and kick someone. When you put a camera in front of them, they freeze.

"Every person's different. It depends on who you are and who can be when in front of a camera. I honestly love martial arts and I love being in front of the camera. One might argue I'm a little bit of a media whore, but I would argue the idea that I love showing everyone all the hard work I've put on and all the hard work that me and my team put together. I love just showing everyone what I got."

In front of a wide audience, Theodorou gets that chance when he jumps into the fray. He told MMA Fighting the most important headline he wants to read the day after his fight is one that reads he's 'legit'. And in true Theodorou fashion, he plans to use whatever attention his fighting brings to make the overall spotlight on his career that much brighter by marrying it with his gregariousness and outsized personality.

"Honestly, just being yourself and tweaking a little bit," Theodorou said, as he argues for what makes a successful fighter that people care about seeing in terms of their own presentation.

"Maybe having an energy drink. Or two."

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