It seems everybody and their mother has been writing about how Dominick Cruz just isn’t that marketable, singling him out as a force holding back the 135lb division.
Alright, I’ll buy that. Except Dominick Cruz isn’t alone.
The trouble, if you want to even call it that (note that all this bashing of Cruz has happened before we even see ratings numbers, and the news that UFC on Versus drew a record gate) is that MMA seems to have two different lines of promotion.
The first is the “As Real As it Gets” moniker- the televised, regulated equivalent of a street fight, with a heavy dose of Pro Wrasslin thrown in. Feuds, larger than life characters who want to beat each other up and finish the other.
The second is the “These are the finest athletes in the world” bit which Dana so often says, in a push for more traditional coverage and acceptance. As MMA gets bigger and bigger, the talent pool grows, and in order to stay at the top you have to be a better and better athlete, spend more time in the camp, be more of a freak of nature like Jon Jones, and yes, fight smarter and less riskily.
There’s no doubt which made MMA popular in the U.S in the first place. The characters who kept the UFC alive and grew the sport were the larger than life characters. Batshit crazy Ken Shamrock fighting arguably-more-disconnected-from-reality Tito Ortiz. Ortiz fighting Chuck Liddell, who would out drinking the week of his fight. Griffin. Lesnar. Penn. Hughes. Jackson. Etc.
Many of those guys trained sporadically, adding to their charm. Now they’ve all faded, partly due to age, but also partly because they’ve been supplanted by people willing to train harder and sacrifice more than them. The days of Matt Hughes sauntering into the gym two weeks before his championship fight are over. Ditto B.J Penn training when he feels like it and remaining the greatest lightweight in the world. MMA no longer has a small talent pool, and no longer has the luxury of having champs who spend as much time building their image as they do in the gym.
Cruz is far from alone. How exciting,character-wise, exactly is Frankie Edgar? The only thing you could say about him is he’s more interesting than the man he’s about to fight for the third time, Gray Maynard. Quick- Name something interesting about Cain Velazquez!
GSP was interesting when he broke in, partly because he was handsome, partly because he was Canadian, but partly because he was also a new kind of athlete. Now he’s one of many, fights cagey, and is increasingly maligned by fans.
The truth? The story of the incredibly dedicated, diligent athlete who attains an unheard-of physical and technical perfection is really fucking boring after a while, even when the fights aren't People would rather see the California Kid go out there and do something stupid like throw a spinning back elbow to match his personality. Except well, you know. There’s a reason Cruz is champ and Faber isn’t.
The UFC knows this, which is why they keep giving their strongest personalities title shots they arguably don’t deserve. Jackson, Penn, Sonnen (before he pissed red) and Faber have all been given second chances where the Fitchs of the world wouldn’t.
Anyway, this is to say the issue is much bigger than Cruz or Edgar. We can complain all we want about Cruz being champ and no one caring, but the fact is if the UFC got so big partly off the back of WWE fans coming over, it’s hard to complain when they start when the product changes to something they don’t like. And we should probably get used to seeing it more and more.