MMA, like many other individual sports, is a curious platform for self-expression. As fans we know these athletes, not only for how they perform in the cage, but for how they perform as promotional fodder as well. For a select few we even get a glimpse at their personal lives, what they do when they’re not hyping a fight, signing a shirt, or posing for a photo. And eventually we, as fans can construct a multifaceted picture of who these athletes are.
Of course we don’t, not really. As hardcore fans we subside almost entirely on a steady diet of hate and love painting fighters with broad personalities to fit in with some interview they did 2 years ago, or that great fight they won or lost, etc. It all boils down to a twisted morass of expectations, performance, and promotion and has left fighters with a curious situation.
There are a very limited number of public personas a fighter can adopt if they want to be respected by MMA’s core fan base. The support of this core fan base is a tenuous thing, but its importance can’t be undervalued. We’re the people that drive baseline PPV sales, who get in Dana’s ear and tell him who should be on the main card that isn’t, that give a fighter that boost of initial marketability that can carry them on to bigger things. As women’s MMA drives its way slowly into the mainstream of the sport, it comes loaded with similar, but even more constricting expectations. I’ll get to that further along, but first…
The acceptable personas for core MMA fans are:
1.) The Strong Silent Type – Bam. That’s like 70% of all MMA fighters’ right there. It requires you to say almost nothing outside of promotional duties, and you can hype a fight talking about how you’re gonna smash the guy, because he “isn’t on your level, doesn’t have your heart,” etc. etc. This is the easiest persona to maintain and of course the most boring. It’s also fairly reliant on your ability to deliver results, as the boring loser is the first guy we forget.
2.) The Heel – This of course is the big draw. If you can be an asshole, especially a winning one, then you can make money flow like water. This option also gives you the most career leeway. You can lose, but if you’re a big enough jerk you can still be relevant. Downsides of course are, that if you let it get out of control people can really start to hate you, and you just might get tazed in a foreign country.
3.) The Crazy Guy – This is really sort of a crossover extension of being the Heel; a blurry continuum in which fighters may be closer to one end or another. As fans we love to watch a train wreck, especially when it comes with dancing girls, fire extinguishers, or licking someone’s blood off your gloves. Being crazy is always a good way to endear you to hardcore fans, to obtain that true “cult” status. Just don’t be, you know, “CRAZY”.
4.) The Perfect Gentleman – This might as well be fictional for how often it actually works. There’s GSP, maybe Randy Couture (maybe). And that’s about it. Because if you want to make this work, you have to be perfect, all the time. That’s just about impossible; in fact it’s remarkable that GSP has made this work as long as he has. And of course the worst part of this model is that if you try and fail, woe be upon you. No one is more hated, and despised than the guy who tries to be perfect and fails.
And it’s the last part, the Perfect Gentleman, which brings me to women’s MMA. As true fans, we seem to hold women to only one standard, and that’s perfection. A woman in MMA that wants to endear herself to longtime fans of the sport has to be perfect all the time. She has to be engaging, polite, respectful, and sane, and even then if she’s not pretty we don’t care. Strong silent women are branded as men and women who act like heels, or act crazy are whiney bitches. And if you’re incredibly professional, and not incredibly attractive, then you’re just another meaningless and forgettable face in the pantheon of sports we don’t follow.
It interests me to see Ronda Rousey emerge the way she has, because she’s gone through a lot of hate, and I don’t know that she’ll ever have a fan base with “hardcore” fans. But she’s successful, she’s grabbed a casual market, and if she can turn that into lasting success she may rewrite our expectations of women as fighters and their ability to be endearing without being promotionally flawless. Anderson Silva’s certainly doing it on the side of men’s MMA, his persona now is the only one I can think of that is both shamelessly original and generally endearing. But he’s had to be the best fighter in the world to get there. It’s hard to think that if he were some middle of the pack plugger we’d find any room for his dancing, metrosexuality, crying, and general unusual emotional outbursts.
Rousey’s not there, she’s good, but she’s not prolific. And if she can’t reach that level I don’t know if her gains in promoting women as something other than model/fighters are anything more than an amusing cul-de-sac. For the sake of the sport, and for the sake of my own distaste with the cut and dried models of acceptable fighter behavior, here’s hoping she succeeds.