By Matt Saccaro
The UFC had a promotion problem with Renan Barao. He was one of the sport’s greatest fighters, yet he couldn’t fill a bar showing the PPV if they gave away free food and free beer.
Fans didn’t care about Barao, and there was nothing the UFC could do to change that. While Barao’s inability to speak English, rugged
good looks, and total apathy regarding the salesman aspect of being a prize fighter certainly didn’t make promoting him easy, building Barao was still the UFC’s job. And they continuously failed.
First Barao was a “monster.” Then he was a “killer.” Now he’s “the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world,” according to White, and just in case you aren’t buying that, he’ll go ahead and bury you with stats. Because nothing gets fans fired up for a title fight quite like math.
It’s hard to blame the UFC too much. On paper, Barao should be a superstar. His unbeaten streak is legitimately impressive, even if the first few years of it came against regional nobodies, and even if White apparently felt the need to fudge some of those numbers when touting Barao’s stats (“The kid hasn’t lost a fight in 35 fights,” said White, which isn’t exactly true, since Barao is 32-1 according to Sherdog and 28-1 according to MMA.tv).
But if Barao’s struggle to go big time tells us anything, it might be that skill doesn’t sell as much as we’d like to pretend it does. Not by itself, anyway. Not if it comes wrapped up in the package of a 135-pound fighter who doesn’t speak much English, doesn’t have much in the way of an identifiable personality, and – let’s just be real here – looks a little bit goofy.
Leading up to UFC 173, The Washington Post ran a story about the UFC. Renan Barao’s name wasn’t mentioned once. Instead, the article was a thinly veiled hagiography of Dana White. The Renan Barao situation, in addition to the above, was also the result of promoting the brand and the figurehead over the fighters. The question most casual fans asked during fight week was “Who the fuck is Renan Barao?”
Furthermore, the “this guy is a pound-for-pound monster, buy our shit” line has been trotted out far too often lately. According to MMA Owl’s Mike Fagan, Dana White—and the UFC’s promotional efforts by extension—have touted as many as five pound-for-pound kings in the last year. Exaggerations lose selling power as they become more common.
But the UFC got lucky last night. Instead of a champion with zero marketability thanks to the language barrier and a lemur-like face, the UFC now has TJ Dillashaw to work with—a conventionally attractive American who won the title via complete domination. Hopefully the UFC has learned its lesson, and will promote Dillashaw as something other than a great fighter, because it has been proven time and time again that greatness alone doesn’t sell.