What’s in a name? MMA Retirement Edition
Name recognition is a key factor in virtually any professional sport. A highly recognizable name can garner attention, endorsements, accolades and opportunities from almost any area. Even losing athletes can extend their time in the limelight by being a notable personality and a name that the fans remember, much less fighters that have managed to do well in their respective disciplines.
Over the course of the last few years the sport of Mixed Martial Arts has undergone a passing of the guard that has seen a number of top fighters leave the game. Former champions such as Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and even Brock Lesnar have left the sport for greener pastures or were simply put out to that pasture by up-and-coming talent. The recent retirement announcement of Kenny ‘Keflo’ Florian has led me to reflect on some of the characters and names that we’ve come to know in the heyday of the UFC. Although not every fighter has achieved the level of success of others, they have definitely made their mark on the consciousness of the fanbase. We remember them and we pay for the cards based strictly on our recognition of who they are and how well they fight.
If the UFC does have a weakness, it’s in turning some of the new faces into new names. The Ultimate Fighter catapulted Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar into the spotlight. Tito Ortiz made his name by creating an unruly image and producing some legendary moments of bad blood with his opponents. Chuck Liddell was seemingly the only fighter truly promoted by the UFC, and has always generated tremendous ratings. His signature mohawk reached mini pop-culture status amongst tough-guys and fashionistas alike. However, in order for the UFC to succeed in the future we will need to get behind the breakout stars of this era. The Ultimate Fighter has probably run its course for making stars out of nobodies, so self-promotion has been the vehicle of choice in the case of a lot of today’s fighters.
In the near future we’ll be seeing other superstars on their way out of the UFC door. The aforementioned Tito Ortiz and Forrest Griffin are fighting in a retirement match at UFC 148. Both Matt Hughes and BJ Penn are on their last contracted fight for the UFC with neither expected to renew. Wanderlei Silva has already been threatened by the UFC brass with a forced retirement, and another bad loss in the near future will likely ensure that retirement. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira will be nursing an extended rehab with his broken arm, and as with Wanderlei he will need to stay in the win column to stay active. Anderson Silva is 37 years old, Dan Henderson is 41, a loss for either in their upcoming fights could signal a potential end to their careers.
Although we are probably seeing some of the best fighters on the horizon with guys like Jon Jones or Rory MacDonald, the names don’t yet resonate with the public. Talent alone will not do it, a lot of fans know Brock Lesnar but don’t really know Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos as his successors. The fighters that we have come to associate with Mixed Martial Arts post TUF have finally come of age. The time to compete in a sport is extremely limited and even moreso in combat sports. We may not see villains like Josh Koscheck or inspirational heroes like Randy Couture if we don’t start investing some promotional power behind new personalities. After all, the casual fans know the big names in MMA, even if they weren’t a favorite fighter, even if they never held a championship belt, even if they never won the big one. As the sport was coming up we relied on these guys to sell fights and excitement and they did their jobs.
Every time I see a fighter from the ‘old-guard’ retiring I always get a little gloomy that we won’t see another one just like him. Who is the next Ken Shamrock? Who will bring the drama like Tito Ortiz? Will there ever be a new rivalry like Chuck vs Tito? Time will tell who the next stars of the sport will be, hopefully the UFC puts some muscle behind getting the faces out there for public consumption. The talent is just getting better and better, now we just need the personalities to match the skill.
Who knows? MMA may have its own version of Ali or Tyson in the midst already.