The MMA media and fan bubble is a powerful force that often causes what Julian Sanchez might call epistemic closure. We've all tightly narrowed the sources of media and the bias or worldview they bring to the point where we've lost contact with other points of view or even the outside world. When we open up the range of media sources, it turns out there are a lot of casual sports fans who have no idea who Cain Velasquez is.
I did a spot yesterday morning on 106.7 The Fan's morning show, The Sports Junkies, to talk about UFC 121. You can listen for yourself here:
These are four guys who eat, sleep and breathe sports. They are all UFC fans and have had fighters in studio, Dana White on the phone and been to several UFC events live. Guess what? They'd never heard of Cain Velasquez. Literally never even heard his name until that morning. I didn't read much into it at the time. The Redskins are so huge in DC (their game against the Eagles did a mind blowing 56 share) I figured those guys had more than their hands full trying to cover their season.
Then Jordan Breen Tweeted something after doing a morning radio spot in Canada that got my attention:
Layfans and casual consumers seem to have no clue about Velasquez. Biggest hardcore-casual thought disconnect I think I've seen in MMA.
I also noticed that despite the big media push Cain is getting and despite how many experts like current fighters or media members are predicting Velasquez to win, he's still a betting underdog. Not a significant underdog, but clearly across the board not the betting favorite.
How can that be?
My sense is that putting Velasquez against Nogueira - a more well-known casual MMA commodity and former UFC heavyweight champion - in Australia where much of the bigger North America media organs were out of touch hurt his exposure stateside. Cain has obviously put on exceptional performances no matter the opposition. But looking good against Jake O'Brien or Denis Stojnic or even Ben Rothwell doesn't mean much. Doing well against Nogueira means quite a bit more, but not if the American big media misses the event. Highlight reels of past performances of great, but they don't make quite the impression live, sensational outcomes can.
This isn't a prediction of how well the card will do in terms of PPV buys. Given there is more of a supporting cast (although Tito Ortiz's drawing power is greatly diminished) to the main event with UFC 121 than there was for UFC 116, both might end up selling well. This also isn't a critique of the UFC's international expansion efforts. Who could argue a sellout crowd at the Acer Arena is bad for MMA?
But going international with big time fighters in potential star-making performances has a real opportunity cost. Velasquez asserted himself in the most important way when he smashed former UFC and PRIDE heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 110. He earned a number one contender spot and as it turns out, most of the favorable predictions from MMA insiders and experts heading into tomorrow's fight. Unfortunately, most casual fans missed the show. They'll be watching Velasquez for the very first time. The UFC is damned if they do, damned if they don't, but on it's face that seems to me quite a shame.