Cheick Guillaume Ouedraogo's back has abs.
Most MMA fans know this man as Cheick Kongo, a name synonymous with a few things depending on how avidly you follow the sport: If you have watched at least five of his fights, you've probably seen him take out his frustration on the family jewels of his opponent 40% of the time. If you've watched at least three of his fights, you may have seen the low blows, but you at least know that he speaks limited English and is primarily a kickboxer. If you've watched at least one of his fights, you know that he's a very well muscled black man with very large muscles, who can kickbox a bit but has HUGE FREAKING MUSCLES.
Promoting Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry to the main event of last night's UFC on Versus 4 card is completely indefensible in terms of the sporting aspect of mixed martial arts, and that point is inarguable. Rick Story was the highest ranked fighter on the card, besting Nate Marquardt (2-2 in his last 4) in this sense even before "The Great" was forced to pull out of the fight. Story's loss definitely skews my argument, but there is no denying that prior to the card airing yesterday, if you were to ask any casual or avid fan of the UFC who the highest ranked fighter on the card was they would have to say Rick Story. If they did not say Rick Story, then they do not follow the sport close enough to apply to this argument. "Horror" was on a five fight win streak, his most recent coming 3 weeks ago to the perennially top-ranked Thiago Alves. He was the only top 7ish- hell, the only top 10 fighter performing.
So what prompted the UFC to promote Kongo to main event status? He was coming off an 8 month layoff after a draw against Travis Browne. His last win was over a year ago, against a man who had no right being in the current UFC cage in Paul Buentello. Kongo's UFC tenure will be at 5 years next month, and I guess that one might make the argument that he has a "name." I don't buy it.
Our society is focused on and fascinated by "health," but moreso by physique. If I polled every personal trainer I know, they would most likely tell me that most of their clients (and most of the people in the gym) are working out more for looks than for health. Though few of us have definition in our midsection, we are obsessed with dieting, supplements, and any fad that will possibly put us on the track to a six pack.
This obsession carries over into all sports, but I think is especially a prominent issue in MMA. You can try to deny that you are effected by someone's looks when judging their level of skill or athleticism, but it isn't true. We love heavily muscled athletes with low body fat, drooling over the vascularity of rippling biceps and chiseled pectorals. Think of the fighters that most often are featured in "MMA workouts" in fitness magazines- yes, Georges St-Pierre and Urijah Faber transcend the model because their physique matches their fitness level, but I feel that the people I have most often seen were people like Nate Marquardt and Todd Duffee, neither of whom are known for having exceptional cardio. But if you put a Gilbert Melendez or Clay Guida on the cover, or maybe Cain Velasquez, the issue will probably not sell as well. These fighters may have the exceptional conditioning that people could actually learn from, but we'd rather see juggernaut arms sledgehammer a tire- even though 90% of us will probably never work out that way.
Mixed martial arts fans will usually turn off the second the words "professional wrestling" or "WWE" are mentioned, because we don't want our sport's image to be tainted by scripted entertainment. There are probably a few common threads between MMA and Pro-wrestling, but after seeing the travesty of Rick Story's demotion on last night's card, one of these links is very distinct in my mind: image is EVERYTHING. If you want to be in the upper echelon of the well-known and well-liked fighters, you better have a either a fighting style that trumps image, a pretty face, an Adonis-physique, or a combination of the latter two.
Why was the UFC able to promote Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry to main event with little uproar from the hardcore fans, or media? I suspect that it's because subconsciously we all associate how someone looks with how they will perform. If we stood Roy Nelson next to Cheick Kongo and polled 10,000 people, how many would pick Roy in a fight (not counting those playing devil's advocate, picking Roy just to skew the data)? 10? 20? I would wager the number would be under 50, with my over/under being 25. When we see big guys, we immediately think tough- when the fact of the matter is that Dustin Hazelett could probably take 19 of the 20 biggest bar bouncers in your city in a fight.
I don't want to take anything away from Kongo's performance- actually, his comeback KO, because he was in serious trouble against a low level heavyweight- but he didn't deserve to be the main event last night. Kongo got the nod because the UFC was desperate to salvage a card ruined by Marquardt's absence, and they were confident that those people tuning in to see Story vs. Nate would stay tuned in once they showed footage of Kongo in the cage- doing his trademark right-arm-up, stoic-faced pose. You then see the interview, where his gruff broken English shines through; combine that with the visual stimulation of his upper body and your interest is peaked. You aren't staying to see the sport, you are watching to see the spectacle, and be entertained by a man possessing a physique that you never will. Why?
Well, because image is everything.
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