Fifty-five thousand screaming fans will pack the Rogers Centre in Toronto Saturday night to see Canadian hero Georges St. Pierre defend the welterweight title against former Strikeforce star Jake Shields. In Ontario the event feels like a big deal. Toronto is buzzing and local media coverage is everywhere. The city has come out in force for the first major event since the sport was legalized in the province last August. They will set North American MMA records for both attendance and gate. But the local hoopla may be deceiving. For those expecting a big buy rate in the U.S. - prepare for disappointment. If our internet traffic is any indicator, and usually it is, this is a show that hasn't succeeded in capturing MMA fans' imaginations. Here are three reasons why:
1. Nobody is buying Jake Shields as a legitimate threat
Jake Shields is like a rock band that has thrived on a small label. He's an indy darling; his first UFC bout with Martin Kampmann akin to his major label debut. And like most indy acts exposed to the bright lights for the first time, it was a complete failure. Not an unmitigated disaster mind you - at least Shields managed to eek out a win. But boy was it close. Shields left the Honda Center in Anaheim that night letting out a huge sigh of relief. Kampmann had pushed him to the limit - hardly a great sign for a fighter being sold as a legitimate contender for the welterweight title.
The UFC has spent an hour of programming time with their latest UFC Primetime series looking to build Shields back up. If you watched the reality show in a vacuum, you'd think Shields was the prohibitive favorite. Of course in real life St. Pierre is anywhere from a -350 to a -500 favorite. The only word for that is "overwhelming." And why not? The champion has won eight consecutive fights since his stunning upset loss to Matt Serra in 2007. He's made it look easy; destroying NCAA wrestling champions, muay thai strikers, and jiu jitsu standouts with equal aplomb.
That's the hidden secret lurking beneath the surface. Shields isn't being overlooked here. He isn't being punished for not competing in the UFC for most of his eleven year career. He's not being given much of a chance because he doesn't have much hope of winning. MMA fans have seen Jake Shields - and we have found him wanting.
It's hard to get fans excited to see an unfamiliar, likely noncompetitive outsider facing a five round shellacking. It's even harder when, like Shields, your highest profile fights have been five round snoozefests. Fans in Toronto don't count. They just want to see the UFC live, even though most of them will simply be staring at a giant screen, the fighters far below them little more than ants scrambling around. They want to see Canada's best combat sports athlete since Bret Hart. But they don't reflect the masses.
2. Randy Couture is old enough to be your dad.
Okay. In the spirit of full disclosure he's not old enough to be my dad. But he's damn close. And that's telling. The fact is, this is a youth oriented sport. It's a sport targeting young men specifically. We hear this all the time when the UFC trumpets their success in drawing these same young men to their SPIKE TV programming. But in this case, it's the classic double edged sword.
Young men don't want to watch guys who look like their bald uncle using "old man" tricks to win a sporting contest. You know about old man tricks right? If you've ever played basketball against a guy in his late 30's or 40's you do. They know just how to bump you with their butt, just when to give you a nudge with their elbow, and exactly where they need to be standing to hit the god awful 1950's set shot they prefer. Couture is the old man of MMA. Balding, ugly, and deathly dull. He may be Joe Rogan's hero. He may be mine. But to the kids who make up this sport's audience, he's yesterday's news.
3. No one knows who Jose Aldo is.
Judging from our recent MMA World Cup experiment, Jose Aldo is a living god. He's come down from heaven (up from hell if you are an opponent) to dispatch leg kicks and smiles with equal skill. Unfortunately, he's done so in the relative obscurity of the WEC. World Extreme Cagefighting was a hardcore favorite, but it hasn't proven to be an effective star maker.
The fanbase, generally, doesn't know much about Aldo. Like most Ed Soares clients, he eschews the media in America. A tour of the major websites would have gone a long way in getting Aldo over as a personality. By all accounts he's charming, has a sly sense of humor, and probably donates time to charities as well. Who would know? In the end, their recalcitrance, their refusal to do media appearances is costing Brazilians at the box office. It's certainly costing Jose Aldo.
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