When Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez faced off at UFC 121 they represented more than just two fighters and their camps, they represented their communities. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
The UFC's main marketing push for UFC 121 was Brock Lesnar. They named October "Brocktober". They forced the notoriously reclusive champ to shoot enough footage for three UFC Primetime specials in the weeks leading up to the event. All of Brock's previous UFC fights were aired and re-aired on UFC Unleashed.
All of this was targeted at the UFC's existing fans, the majority of whom began following the promotion with the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. That program, of course, followed the WWE on Spike TV and owed its success to its ability to retain a large chunk of pro wrestling audience.
By the time former WWE champ Brock Lesnar made his UFC debut in 2007, the UFC was already closing in on the WWE in annual Pay Per View buys and Lesnar brought a second huge wave of WWE fans to MMA. Many of them liked what they saw and stayed around.
The UFC managed to secure the WWE's assistance in promoting Lesnar's UFC debut directly to WWE fans. But this came at some cost as many existing UFC fans, especially hard core MMA fans, were resistant to the invasion and 'pollution' of their beloved sport by a 'fake wrestler'. But in the end, everybody won, especially the UFC.
Brock brought a ton of new fans with him and he eventually earned a grudging respect from a lot of the MMA fans who resisted him. By October of 2010, Brock Lesnar was comfortably ensconced as the UFC's biggest star and all of his fights had a unique aura of "the big event".
But because MMA is a sport, and an infamously unpredictable one at that, they UFC also hedged their bets on UFC 121 by conducting a parallel marketing campaign on behalf of the challenger aimed at an entirely different demographic.
It's no secret that the UFC has been aggressively going after boxing fans and the demographic groups who follow the sweet science most loyally, i.e. African-Americans and Hispanics. The signing of Kimbo Slice and his Ultimate Fighter reality show career was designed to bring in African-American fans who followed the YouTube sensation. The casting of two of the UFC's top African-American fighters, both former light heavyweight champs, Quinton Jackson aka Rampage and Rashad Evans as the coaches of Kimbo's TUF season was designed to lock in those curiosity seekers as fans. UFC 114 which featured Rashad vs Rampage owed much of its success to that gambit.
They took a second stab at boxing fans with the signing of James Toney vs Randy Couture at UFC 118. This was aimed more at the middle aged white guys who still follow boxing but disdain MMA. It had some success in drawing mainstream media attention, but largely fell flat as a marketing effort. Toney was shot as a fighter. The boxer vs wrestler angle had been done so many times everyone, even old boxing fans, knew that the wrestler usually wins that one. If the UFC had managed to sign a David Haye or Kermit Citrone -- an athlete in his prime who had some other skills -- it might have been a different matter.
UFC 121 was the UFC's third bite at the boxing apple this year. This time they were aiming straight at the sweetest, fattest and most lucrative slice of that boxing pie -- the Hispanic audience. Cain Velasquez was largely unknown to casual fans going into the fight. He'd only headlined one UFC and that was in Australia where the U.S. media coverage was limited by distance.
But none of that really mattered because they aggressively pushed a very very simple meme -- "The First Mexican Heavyweight Champ". This was designed to aim directly at the burgeoning Mexican-American demographic, some of the most loyal fight fans on Earth. We won't know until the UFC 121 PPV numbers come out if that effort succeeded, and it will be hard to tell how many of the buys were for Brock and how many were for Cain, but there is some anecdotal evidence that the marketing worked. More importantly they now have an easy follow up plan to market Cain's first title defense, a fight against the even less heralded Junior dos Santos.
Unfortunately for the UFC, in the 21st Century it's very hard to market two different messages to two different demographics without both groups being aware of what you're saying to the other. Even more unfortunately, there is a fair bit of racial tension in the U.S. at the moment and Hispanics are right in the middle of it.
That means there was a backlash brewing before the fight even took place. I wrote about it last week.
I would like to remind fans that are bothered or offended by the "First Mexican Champ" angle that it doesn't really matter if Cain is Mexican or not or whether he' the first Mexican Heavyweight Champ (he's not, Ricco Rodriguez was). The main thing is that the target market thinks he's both. And there's nothing more all American than making a buck off of people's misconceptions.
And judging from Cain's appearance on Lopez Tonight, the marketing appears to be working with its target audience. Those UFC fans who were uncomfortable with the number of Mexican flag waving Latinos in the crowd at UFC 121 might want to brace themselves, especially if Cain has a nice long title run.
In the full entry we'll look at some anecdotal reports from fans in the arena in Anaheim and watching in bars around the country as well as more on the ensuing debate and backlash.
A reader wrote in to Wrestling Observer with this anecdotal report from Chicago:
My local sports bar in Chicago shows every UFC, even the lousy ones. I live in Bridgeport, traditionaly an Irish/Italian hood that has become more diverse over the years with Latinos and Asians. I showed up on Saturday to the bar an hour before start time and I have never seen so many Latinos waiting for tables and crowding the entrance to the bar to watch UFC. Never. I'd peg the bar half white, half Latino, roughly. Maybe more Latino. When Cain dropped Lesnar and they called the fight, the place went beserk. I don't recall it ever being that loud for any fight at a Chicago bar, at least I don't think so. Amazing main event, and props to Cain.
Before I get to the main event I have to touch on this. The "Brown Pride" element was very apparent all night. There were countless Mexican flags. The UFC made t-shirts that said "Brown Pride" on them. I know what they were doing with the marketing for this fight and it was very smart and I'm sure it will prove to be very profitable as well. I just didn't like it. There was a weird palpable energy in the building. I never saw a conflict or heard any racist shit from wither side but it was just weird. Lines were drawn that I feel had no place in the arena. It felt like it wasn't just Cain v. Brock or Diego v. Paulo. It was Mexicans vs. The World. I honestly just feel like it was exploitative and a cop out. Hats off to everyone in the crowd for being cool and civil when it could have very easily been very hostile.
This FanPost from Ajay Sandhu was particularly thoughtful and compelling:
Velasquez's Brown Pride tattoo and the UFC's targeted marked was inciting a lot of racist responses. Some had commented that the UFC's marketing and Velasquez's tattoo were examples of a larger double standard that allowed black and brown peoples to celebrate their races in ways that white people could not. Some even suggested that his tattoo was "unfair" because a white fighter who wore a "white pride" tattoo would probably be ostracized from his employer instead of receiving a marking push and a title shot.
Of course, this comment displaces the "white pride" label from its historical context - we all know that the "white pride" label has been taken up in western culture in a way that "brown pride" has not. The former is clearly not equivalent to the latter and thus there is no double standard here.
Now, I do not want to suggest that the same racist ideas informed comments from Pace or any other journalist. But I do find it ... "upsetting" that fans/journalists were so bored by Velasquez and the UFCs storytelling.
The UFC marketing was an attempt to attract a large Latino fan base over from boxing, it told the unique story of Velasquez's humble beginnings (I loved hearing from Cain's father - in fact I think a strong cast of supporting characters if what makes 24/7 and PRIMETIME great) and his win over Lesnar last night means that the UFC were on point.
If they had continued to market Lesnar and ignored his undefeated challenger, Cain's win would have only hurt. But, because the UFC took the route they did, Cain could grow into a star with drawing power that might even parallel Lesnars someday. Theres nothing desperate or hokey about that. Its just good business, and for once, it was an interesting story from the UFC about a great heavyweight whose proud of his heritage.
We'll come back to this topic again but in closing I would like to point out that combat sports have a long history in the U.S. of serving as a dramatic stage on which racial and cultural tensions have been played out. From Jack Johnson to Mike Tyson, the struggle of African-Americans to take an equal place in American society was played out in the boxing ring.
It's a sign of the brand new significance of MMA in American culture that the tensions around Mexican-Americans and immigration are being played out in the Octagon. I think it's a good thing. It won't be easy, but sports help people vent emotions around big issues. Let's blow off steam rooting for our favorite fighters and then all have a beer afterwards. It's much better than having a race riot.