By Matt Saccaro
MMA history is awash with hundreds of “prospects” and “next big things” who never panned out, who fell flat on their faces and were either mocked constantly or worse, forgotten. Names like Denis Kang, Ulysses Gomez, Rameau Sokoudjou, Hector Lombard and Uriah Hall evoke thoughts like “failure.” But are these men at fault for being considered wastes of talent, or is it the fault of the fans and the media who took flesh and bone and sculpted it into something divine? Who took men and, through words, made them into gods?
That’s the dark side of hype, a topic I’ve written about in the past. Fans and the media ascribe almost superhuman abilities to certain fighters, abilities that they can’t consistently live up to, if they can live up to them at all. Denis Kang, for example, was this mythical creature from outside the UFC and one of many Guys to Beat Anderson Silva™, yet he went 1-2 in the UFC, only beating Xavier Foupa-Pokam. Silva, himself, was another fighter who had an ungodly amount of hype. Silva’s was, in part, deserved because he was able to make some of the most dangerous men in the world look like nerdy high school kids. But the hype got too far. When he fought Chris Weidman, people thought Anderson Silva was a real-life Neo who would dispose of Weidman with no effort. Then Weidman humiliated Silva. Suddenly, Silva was “done,” “too old” and “needed to retire” because he lost to a guy that everyone had just said was no threat to him at all.
The lesson? Hype cometh before the fall. Too much hype can ruin a fighter. If a hyped fighter loses, the derailment of their hype-train looks like something out of Back to the Future III. They go from a stellar talent to a bum who got lucky a few times.
But there’s also a positive side, and we saw it at UFC 165.
There has been hype around Jon Jones for years. He’s the GOAT and he’s not even 27 yet. He’s got NFL-caliber genetics. He’s got insane reach and more talent than any other fighter in the entire light heavyweight or heavyweight divisions. He could fight and beat the entire UFC flyweight division with one hand behind his back, and so on. UFC 165 was supposed to be just another violent notch on Jones’ belt. Despite what the “It’s So Big” trailer said, the only head that was going to be exploding that night was Alexander Gustafsson’s when Jones began to elbow him into unconsciousness.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Alexander Gustafsson and Jon Jones treated the MMA world to one of the greatest title fights of all time at the cost of their physical longevity. Jon Jones looked human, and Gustafsson looked like a legitimate threat. The event, horrific “OMG LOOK HOW TALL HE IS” ad campaign aside, was a success…and the reason was hype.
We expected UFC 165 to be nothing but it became a classic. It was going to be a pro wrestling-like squash match. Jones would go out there and crush jobber-to-the-stars Gustafsson in a round or two. Then the light-heavyweight division’s last contender Glover Teixeira would walk into the cage and challenge Jones to a fight, setting up a money main event for the Superbowl card or some other PPV. Instead, Gustafsson arguably beat Jones and is now deemed a worthy contender and one of the best in the UFC.
Jones’s hype made it this way. If we knew both fighters were evenly matched, last night would’ve been just a fight that we expected to be closely contended. It still would’ve been fun, just not the legendary near-upset it became.
UFC 165 is one of the rare instances where hype made the situation better rather than making it worse. Jones’s hype made Gustafsson a star in the MMA world, and has now given the light heavyweight division a feud to look forward to. Hype elevated both fighters and re-ignited interest in a division, rather than discarding another contender into the ash heap of MMA history.