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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returns to Las Vegas for UFC 216. Unlike previous cards with two title fights, this one seems to have little hype surrounding it. Recent promotional muscle has gone toward the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor boxing blockbuster and the forthcoming return of Georges St. Pierre, which highlights UFC 217 in November. As a result, the events in between have been lost in the shuffle.
Considering the potential marketing goldmines present at UFC 216, it’s unfortunate so little has been done to draw attention to the card. Never mind the fact that flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson was rebooked for the co-main event slot and can break Anderson Silva’s title defense record with a win against Ray Borg. UFC 216 also features two of MMA’s most charismatic and entertaining personalities: Kevin Lee and Derrick Lewis.
Lee will take on Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight championship in the main event. This will not be his first turn in a headlining role. In his most recent appearance, Lee battled Michael Chiesa in the UFC Fight Night 112 main event. Little thought was given to their fight when they took their places at a star-studded UFC Summer Kickoff press conference. After Lee and Chiesa were involved in a physical on-stage altercation, the buying public suddenly cared and decided to pay attention. Lee submitted Chiesa with a rear-naked choke and received airtime during the Fox Sports 1 post-fight show. He capitalized on the platform and provoked Ferguson, who was serving as a guest analyst for the event.
The 25-year-old Lee was once again the center of attention at a media luncheon on Monday, when he stood in stark contrast to earlier cringe-worthy displays from Ferguson and Fabricio Werdum. Simply put, he does exactly what he needs to do whenever a microphone is put in front of him. McGregor’s enormous shadow looms over this event and every other significant fight in the lightweight division. With that in mind, Lee did not neglect to mention the absentee champion and put down a deposit on a fascinating hypothetical matchup between the two. The Xtreme Couture representative has an undeniably tall task in front of him in the form of Ferguson. Should he pass that test, there would be no logical reason for the UFC not to go all-in with Lee.
Lewis, who will square off with Werdum on the main card, is another marquee personality not getting the attention he deserves ahead of UFC 216. Since his Octagon debut in 2014, he has paired eight knockout victories with enough entertaining soundbites to put together a standup routine. Lewis is also a must-follow on various social media platforms.
Beyond those efforts, Lewis recently played an important role in leading his adopted hometown of Houston through the tragic fallout from Hurricane Harvey. He spent a substantial amount of time patrolling flooded streets, rescuing those in need and making the interview rounds to publicize the need for additional assistance. At a time when the United States is faced with the aftermath of several natural disasters, the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, political turmoil and the inevitable intertwining of sports and societal issues, the UFC would be doing itself a favor by throwing its weight behind who rushed out to save lives. While Lewis has headlined three previous Ultimate Fighting Championship events, the fact that he has not been pushed into the spotlight even more is surprising to say the least.
In addition to their work outside the cage, the in-competition efforts of Lee and Lewis also make the cut. Lee has finished his last four opponents inside two rounds and has his sights set on “El Cucuy,” a former “Ultimate Fighter” winner on an historic nine-fight winning streak. Lewis has only heard the final bell once in the UFC and finds himself matched with a former champion and one of the division’s greatest submission artists in a bout with obvious title implications due to the comically thin nature of the heavyweight division. Both Lee and Lewis also happen to be African-American men with the ability to reach a historically loyal combat sports audience that has not quite crossed over fully to MMA. Lee has already vocalized his intention to take on that mantle; and Lewis’ efforts alongside rapper Trae the Truth in Houston drew the attention of black media that had previously made little to no mention of mixed martial arts.
We’ve seen the UFC hype Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt as stars despite their resumes not lining up. We’ve seen a move to win over soccer moms, young females, NFL fans and other groups that may not have shown interest in MMA. The UFC’s efforts have forced new audiences to take note, even if only temporarily. A similar push behind personalities like Lee and Lewis could broaden the horizon further.