By Steve Juon
The polarizing MMA debate on SPORTS versus ENTERTAINMENT can be boiled
down to a simple Boolean logic gate: "Frankie Edgar or Kimbo Slice."
The former choice implies an athlete whose skill set is greater than
his charisma, the latter choice implies an athlete whose charisma
vastly exceeds his combat prowess. People engaged in this debate,
whether in sports bars or internet hangouts like The Underground,
often seem to be deadlocked in this paradigm with no hope of breaking
free. Instead of looking for common ground, they look for people to
join their cause, hoping to amass more true believes to their way of
thinking. One army stands with their "purity of sport" banner held
high, and the other defiantly waves their "give me exciting fights"
banner defiantly in their direction.
A recent debate I recently had about the merits of Ricardo Lamas as a
draw illuminated for me why this is a faulty MMA logic gate that
should be removed and replaced. Last month in Chicago I got to
experience the complete range of what Ricardo Lamas can offer both UFC
and parent company Zuffa. In pre-fight media interviews he was humble
about his prospects for a title shot, noting he wasn't looking past
Erik Koch or any opponent. His stated desire to impress both Dana
White and the fans with his performance (http://bit.ly/YAdzSr) came
true in a big way with a TKO win via an elbow that blew up Koch's face
at 2:32 of the second round. It was so brutal that several people in
press row winced when it landed, and had it not been for Anthony
Pettis stopping Donald Cerrone in the very next fight via TKO as well,
a Knockout of the Night bonus would have been his.
Lamas now owns a four fight win streak, with one of those wins being
an equally impressive arm-triangle choke submission over #5 ranked UFC
featherweight Cub Swanson. It's no surprise that many people in the
"purist" camp believe he's in line for a title shot against Jose Aldo.
For better or worse though the same man who seemingly stole away his
fight bonus now also gets to steal his spot, as Pettis campaigned for
a title shot if he was willing to drop down to 145, and Dana White
agreed to give it to him. This has led to some back and forth banter
between his manager Ed Soares and UFC, which for long-time MMA fans is
nothing new, as we've seen gamesmanship in his management of Anderson
Silva as well. For Soares to say who "deserves" a title shot or not is
a negotiating tactic. In this case Dana countered that Aldo could have
a lightweight title shot if he beat Pettis, and now it seems all
parties are on the same page - except of course Ricardo Lamas' fans.
The crux of the debate I had over Lamas stems from my belief that his
win on the opening fight of UFC on FOX 6 moved him on to a big stage -
over four million people saw him destroy Erik Koch live on free
television. Even the biggest UFC PPV of all time, UFC 100, did only
40% of that audience with 1.6 million buyers. Now that doesn't make
Ricardo Lamas a household name - far from it - but it does make him a
draw "in potentia" with an impressive win streak and some mainstream
exposure none of his previous fights had. Lamas is exactly the type of
fighter Dana White loves - he works hard and he wins big. His
detractors believe he doesn't have the charisma to be a draw on TV or
PPV though, and this is where I think the logic flaw occurs. Jon Jones
was not a star when he beat Andre Gusmao in the prelims of UFC 87.
Cain Velasquez was not a star when he beat Brad Morris in the prelims
of UFC 83. Neither one was seen as a fountain of charisma at the time.
A string of impressive wins over increasingly higher profile opponents
gave them both credibility as an athlete and the media exposure to
develop into a star with drawing power. It might be early to say the
same of Lamas, but he's on a similar trajectory.
The "sports entertainment" people can be just as stubborn as the "pure
sport" people when it comes to fighters like Lamas. I actually saw the
statement "He's not a draw and he never will be one" bandied about as
though it was a fact. I'll admit Pettis has more razzle-dazzle in his
game and more recognition to his name than Lamas right now, but it
took an amazing WEC fight with Benson Henderson to put him at a new
level of mainstream recognition - and even he has not reached his full
star potential. None of these men can currently do the kind of
business GSP can fighting virtually anybody on a card. Some men can be
instant stars just by their physical presence - say a Brock Lesnar.
Some men become stars based on their ability to do exactly what they
promise to - say a Royce Gracie. And some men become stars by being so
dominant for so long that even their ALLEGED lack of charisma can't be
a detriment to their drawing power - say a Matt Hughes.
The Brock Lesnar types of this world are one in a billion. A sport
like MMA needs people who make their name with their mouth (Chael
Sonnen) and their fights (Benson Henderson) just as much as it needs
"charisma." Both sides of this argument get it wrong though. The pure
sports side will say that it's wrong for Anthony Pettis to get a title
shot over Ricardo Lamas. It's not wrong if it's good for business and
it makes everybody money, and if Dana White, Joe Silva and Lorenzo
Fertitta think Pettis is a moneymaker then it's the right call. The
UFC machine is just as capable of making stars as it is promoting
stars though or we wouldn't see Jon Jones in the position he's in
today. They rolled the dice with him at UFC 128 and hit a natural -
they recognized he was a star "in potentia" and gave him the chance to
prove it. His win over Shogun Rua was his coming out party.
Now if you told me Ricardo Lamas was no Jon Jones right now, I'd agree
with you, but the future is unproven and what makes MMA such a great
sport is that any fighter can rise to the occasion. In pure "sports
entertainment" you might be the best athlete putting on the best
matches, but if the promotion hasn't decided you are a star, those
efforts are fruitless. MMA fighters can be comforted by the knowledge
that UFC doesn't operate by the Boolean logic gate that you're either
an athlete OR a star though. You can be one and become the other, and
sometimes you can even be both. In the short term Lamas is not the
guy, but with a four fight win streak and four million UFC viewers on
TV, the premise he will "never" be a star is flawed. The purists need
to accept that the occasional Chael Sonnen vs. Jon Jones fight is good
for business, and the entertainment faction should accept that the
occasional Frankie Edgar or Ricardo Lamas fight is good business too.
Unwarranted assumptions on either side need to go. It's not bad to
make money, nor is it to give a guy like Ricardo Lamas a chance to
make some money too.
--- Steve Juon is a freelance journalist, frequently covering MMA for
Wrestling Observer as well as for his own site AngryMarks.com. You can
follow him on Twitter @angrymarks.