What we talk about when we talk about building 'stars' in the MMA business

4 December 2017

Francis Ngannou showed up to the UFC 218 post-fight press conference looking resplendent in a black-and-gold dashiki, flashing a thousand-watt smile as he nonchalantly discussed that time he nearly knocked Alistair Overeem’s head clean off his massive shoulders.

It was one of the most brutal knockouts this side of Sean Salmon, and it came against a perennial heavyweight contender who’s been in the UFC for longer than Ngannou has even known what MMA is. Was he impressed with himself for this act of sudden devastation against such a prominent opponent? Not particularly.

“That is the past we are talking about,” Ngannou said. “Now I am the present.”

If you were writing a superhero movie and wanted to shoehorn in an MMA fighter character, you couldn’t do much better than this. The boy from the sand mines of Cameroon who became the fearsome fighting prospect while homeless on the streets of Paris. A martial arts savant equipped with an almost supernatural punching power, tossing off quiet one-liners with an oddly terrifying tranquility.

If he wasn’t already a real person, “The Predator” would have a Netflix series or a role in an Avengers movie by Summer 2018.

Instead, you can find him most days just walking around the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, where he must seem to company executives like a walking answer to their prayers.

That question UFC President Dana White always says he’s so sick of hearing, the one about how the UFC will replace the aging or departing superstars who drive pay-per-view buys? Now he can just point to Ngannou, a 31-year-old heavyweight whom the UFC signed two years ago on a contract that paid him just $12,000 to show for his first fight with the promotion. Talk about your “penny stock” fighters who pay off big.

But is Ngannou a “star,” in the MMA sense of the word? How about Max Holloway, who swaggered in with another sci-fi necktie to beat up Jose Aldo for a second time in the main event of UFC 218? How about UFC women’s featherweight champ Cris Cyborg, who, along with Holly Holm, will headline the UFC’s year-end pay-per-view event on Dec. 30?

Are any of them stars? What does the word even mean to us?

Historically, the UFC’s own internal flowchart on the question “Is this fighter a star?” typically points straight to the follow-up: “Depends – are they asking for more money?”

See, when the UFC is making the case for our money, usually in the form of pay-per-view buys, star fighters are everywhere, lighting up the night sky with their cosmic brilliance. It’s when those same fighters make a case for more of the UFC’s money that the galaxy suddenly grows dark.

All you need to do is look at the one remaining consensus superstar – Conor McGregor – to know that money is inextricably tied up with the question of what it means to be an MMA star.

McGregor’s fame isn’t just built on winning fights. Lots of people win fights. There are UFC fighters who have won more and lost less than he has, but you don’t see them making international headlines when they speed off from a court date in a six-figure sports car.

McGregor is a star in large part because he lives like one. He’s larger than life, and he never misses a chance to prove it with his bank account. No matter how much natural charisma the man may have (and he has a ton), he’d never be such an enduring public fascination if he were making $80,000 a fight.

I was talking to Charles McCarthy recently, a former UFC middleweight turned MMA manager (now retired from both businesses), who made a similar point about the UFC’s struggle to generate new stars on a budget.

“How are you going to get us to believe these guys are stars if they still have to work a day job?” he said.

It’s a solid point, and something to think about when you hear a broadcast full of fighters begging for a little bit of bonus money.

And yet, that money has the desired effect, does it not? It convinces hungry young athletes to disregard imminent health risks for the sake of our entertainment. It also brings with it some instant attention. After every UFC event, bonus payouts are a guaranteed story. The less star-studded the fight card, the more importance the bonuses seem to take on.

For instance, look at new UFC women’s strawweight champion Nicco Montano’s win at the TUF 26 Finale on Friday. Her story coming into the bout was her spartan existence in a crappy little basement apartment as she struggled to make it as an MMA fighter. Then she banked $100,000 for the title fight, plus a $50,000 performance bonus and another $30,000 in “outfitting” pay.

“We were dirt poor just before tonight in all reality,” Montano said after the bout. And now? “I’m going to go move to an apartment with some water pressure, and buy some good food and treats for my cats,” she said.

We love these stories in MMA. We revel in them, whether it’s Junior Albini, the heavyweight who could only afford empty shampoo bottles for his daughter’s toys before his first UFC payday and bonus, or Pat Barry living on rice and ketchup and then suddenly trying to convince the bank that he really did have tens of thousands of dollars to deposit out of nowhere.

It’s prizefighting, after all. It’s fitting that the “prize” comes first there.

Which brings us back to Ngannou. His knockout of Overeem was so memorable that White promised him a bonus (of an undisclosed sum), which was welcome news to the new top heavyweight contender.

“I do need that money,” Ngannou said.

And sure, of course he does. He’s in the middle of doing the rags-to-riches story. Started from the bottom and now he’s here. But where is here, exactly, especially when the man he’s tentatively slated to fight next – UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic – has been sitting out while griping about pay?

It’s hard to convince us that we’re looking at superstars if they’re mostly paid like middle management. It’s not much easier even if you are paying them well but then keeping it a secret.

The way you know the stars in this business? They’re outwardly, visibly rich. They have power. They can call some of their own shots and stand their ground. They are people whose wealth has become inseparable from their public persona.

They are also, perhaps not coincidentally, exceedingly rare in the brutal business of MMA.

For more on the UFC’s upcoming schedule, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.

Filed under: Featured, News, UFC

Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie

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