ANAHEIM CA - OCTOBER 22: UFC Heavyweight fighter Cain Velasquez weighs in at 244 lbs at the UFC 121 weigh-in at the Honda Center on October 22 2010 in Anaheim California. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
I find it incredible that there was even a shred of a debate about whether the UFC's decision to openly and aggressively market Velasquez's Mexican heritage made business sense. They deserve applause for the move, not hand-wringing and consternation. Josh Gross has more:
Much was made on blogs and fight fan forums about the marketing of UFC 121 and Cain Velasquez to the Mexican audience. The UFC billed him as the first potential Mexican heavyweight to win a major championship in combat sports. Velasquez, born in Salinas, Calif., considers himself American but he also grew up paying respects to his Mexican heritage.
The push by UFC appears to have been a huge success, as the nearly 15,000 people inside the Honda Center, many waving Mexican-flag colored garb, were clearly behind Velasquez.
"I think Cain winning the title and holding the title is a big deal for the Latino market," UFC president Dana White said. "Mexico dominated the lighter weight categories in boxing and I think they will in mixed martial arts eventually, too."
The difference between Velasquez and other Hispanic fighters, especially those native to Mexico: wrestling. There will need to be a steep learning curve for many young Hispanic fighters making their way into MMA, unless they're exposed to wrestling at an early age. For now, Velasquez would seem to be the exception. But with a fighter like him to look up to, let there be no doubt that a young crop are already mapping out their careers to the top.
"I feel great being the first Mexican heavyweight champion of the UFC," Velasquez said. "I'm going to keep representing. This belt I dedicate to the Mexican people in the United States and Mexico."
The UFC has attempted to make inroads into Mexico for at least half a decade. Velasquez could be the key to getting that done.
The truth is that Velasquez's Mexican identity is as tenuous as it is real. Neither born in nor native to Mexico, he's nevertheless very legitimately part of the vast diaspora of those in America who identify themselves as having a common identity or ancestry connected to Mexico. But, as Gross ably points out, much of what makes Velasquez the fighter he is today are his wrestling skills he likely could have only received in America. His citizenship is unquestionably American, but his identity is fluid and malleable. The UFC recognized as much.
And who in their right mind can think this is something lamentable? Velasquez is not media savvy. Likely never will be. Marketing him on his personality or scary skill-level is a fool's errand. But his identity - a Mexican-American heavyweight of more than considerable skill in front of a massive opportunity - represents a very unique moment. The UFC needed something of a Trojan Horse to begin meaningfully engaging Lations, in America and Mexico, and Velasquez's title shot was the best available option.
I'm not here to suggest there was nothing about the push to market Velasquez so nakedly nationalistically that wasn't clumsy or awkward. Or maybe even slightly racist. There was something a little unseemly about how obvious the marketing pitch was. But the UFC is just beginning this effort. They are developing best practices. And they didn't naively pick any Mexican to promote to other Latinos. They found one with a special opportunity who could achieve something historic for that audience and combat sports itself. The point is the UFC finally had a real opportunity to connect with a huge market that has heretofore not relaxed it's profound attachment to boxing. So they took it. And we are to believe this is regrettable? To whom?
It's yet to be seen whether or not this push of Velasquez will pay important and large dividends, although anecdotally the signs are positive. And while much is being made of Velasquez as an Atlas carrying every Latino MMA fan's dreams on his shoulders, any real effort to engage the Latino market will have to be far more comprehensive. Just remember this: if you're offended by the notion of the UFC using a fighter's mixed heritage to attract new and potentially lucrative audiences to grow the popularity of and eventually the quality of MMA, you're the one standing in the way of the sport's progress and development.
Of all of the very legitimate reasons to criticize the UFC's business decisions, the idea some would select this move as their whipping post is downright offensive. The UFC is doing more to attract Latinos to MMA than any other MMA organization or entity. They deserve a round of applause, not anachronistic criticisms that are as out of touch as they are unproductive. Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good.