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The MMA Learning Curve

Pramit Mohapatra of The Baltimore Sun makes a salient point about marketing fighters correctly, particularly as the top-tier PRIDE fighters slowly matriculate to the UFC.  Notable quote:

I hope UFC carefully considers what it does with the new wave of fighters it is bringing into the promotion.  When UFC announced the signings of Mirko Filipovic, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Dan Henderson, the fans in attendance at each announcement hardly seemed to recognize these world-renowned fighters.  I hope UFC considers bringing these fighters along slowly and giving them the sort of marketing they give their TUF fighters.  I would be willing to argue that more UFC fans know who Forrest Griffin is than Dan Henderson.  And yet Henderson is the one with two PRIDE belts.

Henderson is being given an immediate title shot against Rampage and since he is the PRIDE champion this makes sense.  But, what happens if Henderson defeats Jackson?  Will a loss in his first title defense make Jackson's victory over Liddell seem like an even bigger "fluke" to fans who don't know who Henderson is?  Or, what if Henderson loses to Jackson?  Will those same fans understand the magnitude of such a victory?

These aren't easy questions to answer and UFC has many tough decisions to make as it moves forward as the leading promoter of MMA in the world.  Clearly, fans pay big bucks to see the best matchups.  However, UFC 71 showed that there is a learning curve associated with introducing a fighter to the public.  Unless fans appreciate both fighters in a fight, they will not realize the magnitude of the matchup they are witnessing, even if their beloved champion goes down in 1:53.

Longtime or hardcore fans have been wondering why Rampage was booed at UFC 71.  The fact is they weren't booing the Rampage we know, they're booing the Rampage they knew.  The UFC storyline works to hype fights, but it doesn't always tell the whole story.

With respect to the learning curve, Pramit is 100% correct.  Dana White is right to insist that as a sport, MMA has a more universal appeal than football.  MMA can go international a lot easier than other, more cultural-centric sports.  But MMA - both in terms of understanding the sport itself on a technical level and as an industry - also requires a lot of education.  Now that the mainstream outlets are paying attention, many are dismissing it out of hand because they don't see the technique involved or they believe the hype for the match-ups is misplaced when stars and poster boys get KOed.  To anyone who knows the sport well, it's the not least bit surprising Rampage won and none of the harcore fans are complaining the fight was "too short".  The newbies?  They're up in arms.

In my view, even though Dan Henderson holds two belts he should still have been given one fight in the UFC as a tune-up.  Henderson is good enough and professional enough not to blow the opportunity and it would give the magnitude of a Rampage - Henderson match-up the attention and importance it deserves.  I don't think an immediate title shot will necessarily ruin anyone's career, but it's certainly not the optimal way to do business.