Why the UFC Is Playing the Race Card With Brock Lesnar vs Cain Velasquez

As long as he's winning, Brock Lesnar is the golden boy of the UFC. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Dave Meltzer breaks down the business implications of this bout, via the Wrestling Observer (subscription required) and explains why the UFC has been forced to push the nationality angle in promoting Cain Velasquez -- it's all they've got:

But in UFC, the key difference is marketability. Lesnar has a full understanding of the role of headlining PPVs. He doesn't like aspects of it, but understands what it is, why it is, and what he should be doing. He doesn't really like people, but he captivates people. Velasquez is shy, quiet, and not a strong personality. There is a reason on the countdown specials, that you see his trainers, Javier Mendes, Bob Cook and Dave Camarillo doing so much talking. They realize they have to pick up the slack.

From a UFC standpoint, as long as Lesnar is on top, it will be a golden era for the heavyweight division. But as we'll likely see with the lightweights, the business the title matches draw is based a lot more on who is champion than just being a championship match.

With the realization that the title could change hands, there has been an attempt to try and find something about Velasquez that will make him memorable, hence all the television commercials pushing that he may become the first Mexican heavyweight to win a combat sports world championship, and his push to improve his Spanish, plus playing up that heritage on television and sending him to Miami to promote the fight on Univision.

Meltzer also has complete fight-by-fight breakdowns of both fighters' UFC careers and a breakdown of their NCAA wrestling careers. If you're a serious fight fan you subscribe to the Wrestling Observer, that's all there is to it. 

Anthony Pace has more on the UFC's promotional dilemma heading into UFC 121:

Since Brock Lesnar stepped into the UFC in 2008, he's done gangbusters for the company. The UFC's explosive growth over the past two years coincided with his arrival in 2008, fully cementing the broad pro-wrestling audience that was first exposed when The Ultimate Fighter debuted after Monday Night Raw those many years ago.
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The best sell for a heavyweight champion is the combination of physique and charisma. That's the difference between guys like Lesnar and Tim Sylvia. Velasquez isn't a physical specimen (if we're being honest, he's rather doughy) and comes across as rather reticent. I also wouldn't expect him to develop the enigmatic lure that skyrocketed Fedor Emelianenko to mainstream recognition. Keeping that in mind, are we in a situation where the UFC would once again favor Lesnar to retain the title?

Zuffa has launched a concerted effort to give Velasquez his own branding, that of being the "first Mexican Heavyweight Champion". It's a bit hokey, in my opinion, and reeks of being a desperate contingency plan.

Zach Arnold points out some of the risks of the nationality-based promotional angle:

It's been interesting to see how Zuffa is marketing the upcoming match between Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar. They've marketed this fight as Cain's chance to become "the first Mexican Heavyweight champion" despite the fact that he was born in Salinas, California. He's gone on record to push for the repeal of SB1070 (the Arizona immigration enforcement bill that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into state law.) Last week, when Brock Lesnar was asked about this issue during a UFC conference call, he was not enthusiastic about being part of this specific discussion.

One of the major claims from critics of MMA about UFC is that the majority of their fan base is supposedly white. (I don't necessarily agree with that assumption, but let's assume it's true for this argument.) Does all the "Brown Pride" talk and "first Mexican heavyweight champion" marketing turn off white UFC fans or is it a matter where white fans largely don't care one way or the other about this?

Both fighters have played along with this angle. Cain has accepted the mantle of champion of the Latin people:

"The Latin people here in the U.S. and the Mexicans in Mexico need a champion. For us, we have a rich tradition in boxing and to not have a Mexican heavyweight champ is unheard of. We need it."

"I'm glad I'm able to be in this position, that I can give that to them. I want to give this belt to them. The people need a champion."

And Lesnar has responded in his own, inimitable, if predictable manner:

"Listen, when I get done whooping your ass, I'm gonna do drink a Corona and eat a burrito just for your Hispanic heritage. How about that?"

I know from watching the responses of Bloody Elbow readers to Cain Velasquez' "Brown Pride" tattoo that the focus on his heritage is upsetting and confusing to a lot of MMA fans.

But there really aren't a lot of good options when it comes to promoting Velasquez. For one thing, he's a hard-working, soft-spoken guy with a low key approach to fight promotion and apparently no interest in trash talk. That is great if you need to work with the guy, but doesn't make him all that sexy as a title challenger. Secondly, his fighting style is anything but flashy. He's a wrestle-boxer with limited KO power and a seemingly bottomless gas tank. Basically he's a heavyweight version of Sean Sherk without the steroid controversy and inferiority complex. 

The harsh reality is that a Brock Lesnar loss will be a short-term hit for the popularity of the UFC and MMA in the U.S. Lesnar has been the biggest star in the UFC since he took the title. While Velasquez could eventually become an iconic figure should he manage to knock off Lesnar and go on to put together a two or three year title reign, that will be a long, hard road for the UFC. 

But due to the sporting nature of MMA and the fact that Lesnar vs Velasquez is a very evenly matched fight as reflected in the tight betting odds, forces the UFC to prepare fans and themselves for the very real possibility of a Lesnar loss. 

The scariest scenario for Dana White has to be the prospect of Velasquez surviving an early Lesnar blitz and coming back to dominate a gassed-out champ positionally for the final three or four rounds without landing significant damage. 

They've clearly indicated that if Cain Velasquez is going to be their heavyweight champ, they'd rather he be seen as a polarizing figure who symbolizes the uneasy cultural adjustments being made on the north side of the Mexican border. 

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