Some fans still believe in Fedor Emelianenko. For others, Georges St. Pierre holds a special place in their heart. Despite a recent loss, many are inclined to promote B.J. Penn as the best fighter in the world. But few would argue that Anderson Silva is not one of the top five pound for pound fighters in the world and possibly in MMA history. His string of wins is record setting; his ability to frustrate and then eviscerate opponents a thing of legend.
So, why hasn't the broader audience caught on? Despite the UFC spending years pimping Silva as the best fighter on the planet, despite a succession of impressive knockouts and submissions, despite a fun loving personal magnetism that leaves everyone in his wake smiling-Anderson Silva can't attract fans. As we discussed yesterday, his pay per view main events are indisputably among the worst performing every year. Without exception shows he headlined were box office bombs, to the point that the UFC felt the need to bring in big guns like Chuck Liddell and Penn to prop up Silva's shows. That hadn't happened since Tim Sylvia was stinking up the heavyweight division.
We know Silva doesn't draw. The real question is the one that keeps philosophers up nights and weed dealers in business, the biggest question of all -- why? Why doesn't a fighter, universally considered one of the very best of all time fail time and again at attracting an audience? I don't know, but I have a few ideas.
Nationality in itself isn't an issue. Brazilians like Royce Gracie and Vitor Belfort attracted fans in the UFC's glory days. More recently, Wanderlei Silva has become a legend. But there is a distinction between these three men and Anderson Silva: they at least make an effort to speak English.
Silva has steadfastly stuck to Portuguese in his on camera appearances for the UFC. If you've been around backstage at the UFC, you know Silva speaks some English. His comprehension is certainly very good. But when the red light comes on, it's all Ed Soares all the time.
In today's America it's hard to be a star without speaking English. Even the biggest ethnic draws in boxing, men like Manny Pacquiao, speak the Queen's tongue. If it's important to Silva to maximize his income opportunities, he's really missed the boat by refusing to give English a shot. In a big way.
Race is the hidden boogieman in most discussions of MMA versus boxing. Mixed Martial Arts is still a sport dominated by Caucasians. One of the few professional sports in America that can still make that claim outside of golf and Nascar. At UFC 117 there is exactly one fighter on the main card of African descent: Silva. UFC 118 features one African American on the main card. Spike's next Fight Night features a grand total of zero black athletes on the main card.
Like it or not, this racial makeup is going to attract people with impure motives. Chuck Liddell is no racist, but there is a reason he was the most popular fighter in the world with many disaffected young white males. There's a reason that some MMA apparel companies feature imagery derived from the Third Reich. This isn't coincidence This is the audience.
Slowly, as the sport goes more mainstream, this is changing. Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson may have finally shattered the myth that African American fighters can't draw by bringing in more than a million pay per view buys at UFC 114. Young stars like Jon Jones and Muhammed Lawal have the potential to make a new generation of black youth fans of MMA, instead of boxing stalwarts.
The issue is bigger than MMA. It's bigger than sports. And it's an issue that has seen America take some enormous strides forward to confront in recent years. But racism is far from dead and I think plays no small part in Silva's failures at the marketplace.
3. Attitude and Effort
Somehow, Anderson Silva's off the charts athleticism and skill hurts him with fans. He just makes everything look so easy. With rare exceptions, he's been so good, so much better than his opponents, that he doesn't even have to break a sweat.
To many MMA fans a fight is a journey. Everyone becomes human once the bell rings. Even a monster of a man like Brock Lesnar has to tap when a hold is locked firm and takes a step back when punched in the face. Even the great Fedor Emelianenko has faced adversity only to triumph in the end, or not. We've seen St. Pierre humbled, seen Penn struggle just to continue. We've never seen Anderson Silva look human. And that's a big part of the problem. Fifty dollars is a pretty significant investment for many fans. Perhaps it doesn't seem worthwhile to invest that money in a fight that doesn't seem in question. Perhaps Silva is just too good, fans too unwilling to believe that an opponent, any opponent, can really test him.
Silva, of course, makes this problem worse by toying with so many of his foes. Dancing around the ring, screaming, taunting, refusing to engage-none of this makes him look particularly vulnerable. It just solidifies in fans' minds that Silva is on another level. And who wants to pay big money for a mismatch?
If I were the UFC, if I were Silva's manager, I would attempt a complete makeover. It doesn't matter so much if he's hated or loved. We've seen both heroes and villains attract huge gates. What he does need to be is understood. To be the kind of star a man of his talents deserves, English is the name of the game. He can't stop being black. He likely can't stop being exceedingly arrogant. That's just who he is. But he can learn to speak English and that will change everything.