As we have seen in the last few days, what you say in the UFC can have consequences. Miguel Torres has paid a steep price for what he has claimed to be just a joke. And while Rashad Evans hasn't faced as severe a punishment, his public persona has taken a hit based on his attempted Penn State joke. And while it's very easy to say they should have known better than to say these things, is it entirely their fault?
One of the worst things a fighter can be called today is boring. No one ever disputes that Jon Fitch is the clear consensus #2 welterweight, yet anytime his name is brought up, a majority of people will say they don't want to see him fight. And he is further handicapped by his personality. Jon Fitch may be a great human being, but he rarely says anything that moves the needle and brings little passion to his interviews. People aren't interested in Jon Fitch, and in a sport where each fighter is his own team, his own brand, you need get fans to be passionate about you. Otherwise, your fights don't sell, you get buried on undercards, and you don't fight for championships. How do you do get people that invested in you? Personality. And what's the fastest way to get people to like you? Be funny.
Comedy is hard. When you are working in a comedic realm, you are often dealing with people's prejudices, fears, and hot-buttons. You force them to deal with things they may not want to. Aside from the subject matter, there's a natural timing and rhythm in telling a joke that not everyone has or can learn. For example, when Tom Brady hosted Saturday Night Live, he was awful. Truly awful. But put Peyton Manning in there and he killed. Same show, same writers, both NFL quarterback, both used to being center stage, but one succeeded and one failed. Manning has the natural timing, Brady doesn't. And so it goes with fighters. Take anything Chael Sonnen has said and have Mark Munoz say it. All you would hear is crickets. It would never work.
This isn't the NFL or MLB, where you can use the team as a starting point to get the fans interested and the most talented players then have an easier route to become stars. There are hundreds of fighters trying to capture fan interests to propel their careers. And as much as fans want to say it's all about the skill, what makes people care enough to buy PPV after PPV is having an interest in the fighters. They want to love the nice guy with the tear-jearking story. They want to hate the villain who talks trash. They want to cheer the clowning, smiling goofball that they think it would be great to have a beer with.
Chael Sonnen is the extreme example of a fighter who has used his over-the-top personality to advance his career and public persona. Time and again, you here people complain that his record isn't that good, that his grinding style isn't that interesting and that he's a jerk. Yet when he fights, everyone watches. When he makes an outrageous statement, everyone listens and comments. Guys like Forrest Griffin, Brock Lesnar, BJ Penn, Nick Diaz, Michael Bisping and Josh Koscheck have these outsized personalities as well, some are crafted (Lesnar,) some are natural (Diaz,) and some are a combination of their nature and planning. But regardless of how they got there, they've all used this to their advantage.
And other fighters see this. They want to climb the mountain and see that making bold or funny or controversial statements can get people interested. When the fans are interested in a fighter, because of like or dislike, they watch that guy fight. The more people who watch the fight, the better opportunity there is for the next fight. But here's the problem, not everyone can be that guy. Some people just don't have that piece to their personality. So as long as we as fans are asking these fighters to do more than fight for us, but to entertain us, to make us care about them as people, to make us react to them, guys like Miguel Torres are going to make mistakes.