Kamaru Usman was winning the whole way, cruising to a unanimous decision victory until Leon Edwards caught him with a head kick that left him unconscious on impact. The fifth-round knockout earned Edwards the UFC welterweight title and snapped Usman’s incredible 15-fight winning streak. The second-longest such streak in promotion history.
Nine weeks later, Islam Makhachev bull-rushed through Charles Oliveira, winning with an arm-triangle choke submission in the first round to win the UFC lightweight title. Oliveira had won 11 straight. And just three weeks after that, Alex Pereira stopped Israel Adesanya with punches in the fifth round. Like Usman, Adesanya was en route to prevailing in the fight before losing via TKO. Pereira took home the UFC middleweight title, ending Adesanya’s 12-fight divisional winning streak.
Usman, Oliveira and Adesanya were among the planet’s top five pound-for-pound fighters. And within 12 weeks, all were finished by opponents, and none of them now hold UFC titles.
All of this is to say what is obvious: MMA is a brutally difficult sport. One where it is hard to build any momentum and easy for everything you’ve built to be slapped away in one fell swoop. Lengthy winning streaks are nearly impossible to put together and can be halted violently. Consistency, which can be easier to attain in other athletic ventures, is almost a badge of honor here. It’s that hard to achieve.
That brings us to the latest Legitimate Questions mailbag and the most intriguing question of the week from longtime combat sports journalist Jonathan Snowden.
Have an MMA-related question? Please send me a tweet at @marcraimondi, tweet your questions using the hashtag #ESPNMMAmailbag or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What would it take for UFC to capture lightning in a bottle the way they did with Conor/Rousey?
Is there anything we learned from that boom that is applicable to future stars? Or were they just unique butterflies?
— TheRealSnowden (@JESnowden) November 19, 2022
The process of building stars is fascinating because there is no process at all. Such a formula does not exist. Sometimes it can be completely organic, and other times athletes who seem to check all the boxes don’t ever connect with fans in that way.
One of the things McGregor and Rousey had in common was that the UFC recognized what it had right away and promoted both incredibly hard from the beginning of their UFC runs. McGregor’s second UFC fight was strategically held in Boston, a city with an enormous Irish American population. His third UFC fight was a headliner in his hometown of Dublin.
In Rousey’s case, the UFC gave her the first-ever women’s bantamweight title without ever having to earn it in the cage. She headlined her first UFC fight on pay-per-view — and it was the first women’s fight in UFC history. Regarding Rousey, something like that can never happen again, given the context.
That is not to say the McGregor path would be easier to reproduce. Hardly. He and Rousey understood MMA was an entertainment medium — perhaps primarily with everything else coming second. It helped that both were professional wrestling fans growing up and had an innate idea of how to make themselves into what were essentially characters — their personalities turned way up to 11. They leaned into the promotional aspect of MMA, from social media to doing an absurd amount of interviews. There were world media tours and gym workouts that the UFC would not normally do for other fighters.
But McGregor and Rousey also had to continue winning fights. The other stuff will get you only part of the way there. Winning (and winning spectacularly in many cases) turns someone who gets clicks on social media into a superstar. Both of them delivered in that aspect with victories and highlight-reel finishes.
You could see the UFC going to a similar playbook with Sean O’Malley early on. But O’Malley’s early years in the UFC were filled with injuries and headaches with USADA. Then, he lost to Marlon “Chito” Vera in 2020 after injuring his leg. His momentum halted at that point, though he has gotten some of it back and is now the No. 1 contender for the bantamweight title.
To put it in perspective, McGregor was headlining a UFC Fight Night in his third UFC fight and fighting for a title in his sixth. O’Malley, who is very popular with Generation Z and is almost like the UFC’s version of a Paul brother, has had 10 fights in the UFC and has not done either.
For a long time, there was a perception that stardom in MMA came at the beginning of your career; if it didn’t manifest itself early, it would never happen. That is no longer the case. Both Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal got over (to borrow a term for popularity from pro wrestling) late in their UFC careers, becoming cult figures because of their anti-establishment attitude and willingness to get into bloody wars with opponents. For those two, winning fights wasn’t nearly as important as the authentic personas they portrayed, though Masvidal’s knockouts of Darren Till and Ben Askren propelled him.
People connected with Masvidal and Diaz so much that the UFC created a mythical Baddest Motherf—er title for them to fight for in 2019 at Madison Square Garden. To add to the pro-wrestling vibe, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was there to put the belt on the winner, which was Masvidal.
Diaz and Masvidal might not have achieved box-office and pay-per-view numbers as big as McGregor or Rousey, but they also didn’t have the full force of the UFC’s promotional machine behind them from the jump. The fans just decided they were stars, despite their records. It’s almost like in WWE when the likes of Daniel Bryan and CM Punk got over with the fans, despite WWE force-feeding John Cena and Roman Reigns to the masses.
I’m curious if there will ever be stars like McGregor and Rousey in the UFC again, but there will be fighters who get close. No one on the UFC roster is an obvious choice to be the heir apparent, though Khamzat Chimaev and O’Malley have the potential to reach a high level. Francis Ngannou has a chance to be someone special. He looks like someone out of a Marvel movie, hits like a truck and carries himself well. Adesanya and Usman are stars in the Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva kind of way, based on delivering consistently over a long period and acting like top-tier professionals. Brandon Moreno has some potential there, too.
Bo Nickal is an up-and-coming fighter who could be a big deal before long, too. And the aforementioned Vera has a chance to be the next Diaz or Masvidal, someone the UFC never necessarily pushed out of the gate but who the fans have embraced. You can see that connection between Vera and the fans growing in real-time right now.
Building a star is a nebulous process, and there is no one-size-fits-all blueprint to it. For a long time, Demetrious Johnson was one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, yet fans would leave before his main events. Then you have someone like Jake Paul, who is a marginal prospect in boxing, but he’s one of the most talked about (and highest-paid) fighters in that sport courtesy of his background as a social media influencer and his ability to promote.
None of it makes complete sense. But suppose there is a fighter out there with an over-the-top caricature of a personality that connects with fans, who is willing to build their brand through multiple mediums and can knock people out viciously. In that case, the UFC can put its marketing machine behind that athlete and potentially turn them into the promotion’s next megastar. Those types of fighters just don’t come along very often, and you can’t book them to win every time out as you could in WWE.
How would the UFC be run differently if someone else was in charge instead of Dana White? More cross-promotional bouts, higher fighter pay, modifying/adding weight classes, etc. Would they be more open-minded if that were to happen?
— Unified Rules of Podcast (@Unifiedrulespo1) November 19, 2022
I can’t imagine it being markedly different. Especially at this point, the UFC is a well-oiled machine, and White’s vision has been executed. If he were to depart the promotion, which is not likely to happen any time soon, it would run pretty similarly, if not completely the same. White has all his people in place, and his right-hand man, Hunter Campbell, UFC’s chief business officer, is involved in most of the major deals and decisions.
This is an interesting question, given what’s going on in WWE right now. Vince McMahon has retired, and his daughter, Stephanie, and son-in-law Paul “Triple H” Levesque have taken over the company along with president Nick Khan. There have been quite a few subtle (and some not-so-subtle) changes in WWE over the past few months, most notably in creative philosophy — how some wrestlers and titles are booked or positioned, the openness to mentioning wrestlers’ histories in other promotions, etc.
There might be changes like those if White were to leave, but that old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rings true here. The UFC is on an incredible hot streak coming off the pandemic era with 27 straight arena sellouts. The quality of the pay-per-view cards has been high and so has been the matchmaking, which has produced compelling challengers for longtime champions recently, to the point where said challenges are knocking off those champs.
Cross promotion, increase in fighter pay and alterations in weight classes are things a small segment of fans would be interested in. But how would any of those things benefit the UFC in practicality? The UFC doesn’t need to cross promote; it is already the promotion with an enormous market share of the best fighters in the world. And regarding fighter pay, when has a corporation truly ever decided unilaterally to pay its labor more money? That’s not how it works — those changes need to be compelled via collective bargaining, legislation or both. These things don’t have to do with White anyway. If he were to leave, the most notable difference in the UFC might be having a president who drops fewer F-bombs in interviews.
— Bernie Bahrmasel (@BernieBahrmasel) November 18, 2022
Probably pretty well, but I can’t envision him making that jump. If Diaz wanted to be under contract for a promotion, he would have stayed in the UFC. When I spent time with Diaz before UFC 279, one of the things he said that stood out most was, “the coolest thing is a mother—er who can do whatever he wants.” To me, that rules out Diaz signing with a BKFC or a Bellator or a PFL. For a one-off? Maybe, but the right price and the right opponent need to be there, and nothing stands out concerning the latter at this moment.
After Jake Paul beat Silva in a boxing match last month, it seemed like a Diaz vs. Paul matchup was in the offing. Diaz’s team and Paul’s team got into a scuffle backstage, and Paul called Diaz out. But now, if social media is any indication, Paul is toying with the idea of finally doing a Tommy Fury fight in the United Kingdom next. Where does that leave Diaz? Well, he’s not on anyone’s schedule but his own, and his Real Fight Inc. promotion is still coming together. His team believes there will be several non-Paul big-money opportunities out there. There should be more movement here early in 2023.
If Islam Makhachev beats Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 284, is he the new P4P No. 1? — @gaming_mario_official
He’d have to be. At this moment, ESPN has Volkanovski ranked No. 1 on our pound-for-pound list, and Makhachev is No. 2. The UFC 284 main event should be historic, as it will likely be the two top pound-for-pound fighters in the world facing off. That does not often happen, if ever. It’ll be a special event, a true superfight.
Yet, I understand people having qualms about crowning Makhachev as the pound-for-pound king this early (if he beats Volkanovski). It took Makhachev’s longtime teammate and now coach Khabib Nurmagomedov until literally the final fight of his MMA career to finally be deemed the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Usually, that distinction is reserved for someone who has held a UFC title for an extended period and is on a historic winning streak. Makhachev has won 11 fights in a row, but he just won the lightweight title last month.
If he beats Volkanovski, who has been sublime as featherweight champion, you cannot deny Makhachev. One other thing to consider: the return of Jon Jones. If Jones is back early in 2023 and wins the heavyweight title, how can he not return to being the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter?