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June 1, 2013

In Search of a Breakthrough: MMA Needs Superstars That Shine as Brightly Outside of the Cage as Inside It

By Raphael Garcia

In mainstream sports, what it means to be a superstar is different from what it means in MMA. The faces of players such as Tom Brady, Kevin Durant, Derek Jeter, and others appear on billboards, and in magazines, commercials, and television shows, commercials and billboards. Often, when they’ve hit superstar status, they can reach levels of popularity that rival the sports they come from. Mixed martial arts doesn’t yet have those kinds of superstars, but the sport needs a breakthrough star to impact the mainstream, and push the sport to the next level.

Some MMA fighters have crossed over into the entertainment world, but many times they do so after their fighting careers have waned, or they are no longer connected with the sport they came from. For example, Gina Carano has a prominent role in The Fast and the Furious 6, which is expected to be one of the biggest movies of the year. However, most moviegoers that weren’t MMA fans while she was fighting wouldn’t know about her background, and would think she is just another actress doing her thing on the screen.

Contrast that situation with that of her colleague in the film: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He went from being a professional wrestler to a major motion picture star, and has broken through to a level that has benefited professional wrestling, because he continues to maintain a relationship with WWE, returning sporadically, and even appearing in the organization’s annual Wrestlemania event the last two years. Now obviously the rigors of sports entertainment are different from that of mixed martial arts, and spending a comparable amount of time away from the Octagon would hamper the UFC athlete’s performance within it, but there still remains a potential for fighters to create opportunities that would not take too much time away from their training. In fact, as we speak, Georges St. Pierre is set to appear in a future installment of Marvel’s multi-billion dollar Avengers franchise, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, playing a villain. His filming schedule has been structured to not interfere with his training for his upcoming matchup against Johny Hendricks later in the year.

Looking at the UFC roster, there are a number of other individuals who have what it takes to become a breakout star. Obviously GSP is well on his way, but champions Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey are candidates as well. Rousey has already received more exposure than champions that have held their titles twice as long, and the more she wins, the more that exposure will increase. With her beauty, smile, and personality, do not be surprised if she were to be featured on the big screen in some form or fashion in the future.

Jones was the first fighter to be sponsored by Nike, and while hardcore MMA fans have already developed ambivalent opinions about him, his image isn’t at all sullied with the mainstream audience that the UFC wishes to cultivate, and that Jones needs to win over in order to reach superstardom. Plus, Jones’s manager Malki Kawa has already talked about his client appearing in movies and other entertainment projects, so do not be surprised at how big the “Bones” brand becomes over time.

Beyond these combatants, there are other athletes on the UFC’s roster that have characteristics that could push them to the next level of stardom, especially if they were to become champions.

Anthony Pettis is the first name that comes to mind. He has the good looks that could attract female viewers, and the flashy moves in the cage that impress viewers of both sexes, all while continuing to get his hand raised in victory, as he makes more and more fans along the way. He’s due to face Jose Aldo in a few months at UFC 163, but the big fight that awaits him is a potential rematch with Benson Henderson for the UFC lightweight title.

Urijah Faber, considered by many to already be an icon in the sport, is another fighter that has the look, personality, and in-cage abilities to become an even bigger star. While “The California Kid” is already sponsored by companies such as K-Swiss, he still has “room to grow.” Capturing a UFC title has not been in the cards for Faber since the WEC was merged, but if he can find a way to do so before his career begins to decline, the company will have another “poster boy” that can become a shining light for the sport, as his face is plastered on billboards, magazines, and various-sized screens.

For mixed martial arts to continue to grow, the sport will need superstars that can be recognized not only when they are battling in the cage, but wherever they may appear throughout all media. That breakout star hasn’t quite arrived yet, but when it does happen, this sport will make strides deeper into the mainstream, and embed itself deeper into the culture.



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