Opinion: Heavyweight Gold and Short-Term Memory

By Danny Acosta May 20, 2016

Stipe Miocic is the man of the hour. The 33-year-old returned home to Cleveland, Ohio, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title in hand after knocking out Fabricio Werdum in the UFC 198 main event on May 14. Miocic now resumes his double life, with a twist. Instead of being a firefighter and aspiring UFC contender, he is a firefighter and the “Baddest Man on the Planet,” courtesy of his newly seized heavyweight crown.

While Miocic’s blue-collar story should endear him to domestic audiences and beyond, it should not put new paint on the fact that high-level mixed martial artists, including those in the UFC, still hold day jobs and must rely on alternate incomes. It’s a reality the UFC omits whenever possible. Knowing the guy in the main event also works door security at a bar isn’t a hot selling point. Miocic is the exception, with his noble firefighting pursuits.

Look at the UFC’s top stars: Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. McGregor’s popularity comes from his lavish life as champion and persona as a cutthroat businessman. Rousey overcame a childhood tragedy and self-esteem issues to become an Olympic bronze medalist, UFC champion and confident cover model. The common viewer cannot imagine the life they lead, and that’s part of their appeal. The idea of working two jobs for less recognition and unseen consequences resonates but not in a positive fashion.

Fighting is seen as an opportunity, not a career path. The lottery factor in such sentiment muddies the massive resistance to opportunity in the field: financial obstacles, entertainment politics and consequential physical deterioration. How can a title challenger like Chris Cariaso be expected to beat one of the world’s best in Demetrious Johnson for a disclosed payday of $24,000? How about the $55,000 Ovince St. Preux was paid to face pound-for-pound king Jon Jones on short notice at UFC 197? Was the damage Rory MacDonald suffered at the hands of welterweight champion Robbie Lawler worth $59,000, before expenses and taxes?

Preparing for a 25-minute (or less) fight is a full-time job, and divided attention -- when one considers the media obligations someone like McGregor has to live up to -- can translate to a beating. That’s the crux of McGregor’s current squabble with the UFC. The featherweight champion has picked a heavyweight fight following his first loss inside the Octagon. McGregor wants to double down on his earnings before another defeat can poison his loss column and diminish his bargaining power. The reason he has risked fighting at the negotiating table is because independent contractors are free to do so, balancing the tactic that meets their price without losing their bid to another competitor. The rewards for walking that tightrope: healthy savings, retirement and a life after fighting, all of which are not traditionally available to most fighters. They have no organization that gives them a collective voice, so with increased fervor they are targeting significant championships that are hard to come by.

McGregor, however, has encountered the same problem as all fighters. Those associated with combat sports have short attention spans. A fighter is only considered as good as his or her last performance. Miocic benefited from knocking out Andrei Arlovski in 54 seconds in January, became the No. 1 contender following an injury to Cain Velasquez and disposed of Werdum in less than three minutes to win the title. He also prospers from competing in the heavyweight division, where no matter how little he talks, size and promotional interest yield greater purses. A smaller fighter like McGegor has to jaw on the mic to make up the difference.

Miocic is about to embark on defending the belt with the highest turnover in the Octagon, all while trying to carve out a legacy that stands out in a crowded sport with undersold athletes. His win over Werdum had the right kind of setting, and he enjoyed a decent buildup from prospect to contender. However, Miocic does not have a main-event personality. Thus, a more concerted effort will be required to build his popularity.

The UFC should be in the business of ready-made stars able to grace the sport with their presence on any given night to equal fanfare. Instead, it often operates in world where it sees fighters win championships and then figures out how to promote them, until they drop the title and have lived out their usefulness. That issue is exacerbated at heavyweight, where no champion has defended the title more than two times in a row. With that as the backdrop, how does Miocic -- and future champions like him -- leave a lasting mark? As it stands, the same meme culture that demeaned Manny Pacquiao after he was cut down by Juan Manuel Marquez in their fourth meeting will not allow for the kind of heavyweight legacy boxing enjoyed. MMA fans seek dominance out of their heavyweight champion then frown upon it from a flyweight.

Keep in mind, Chuck Liddell’s reign atop the UFC lasted just two years. The window of opportunity is small. What separated Liddell from the pack, aside from the time and place, was his public persona. He was everywhere, from commercials and movies to reality series and late-night talk shows. Is it possible nowadays to imagine such a pitchman emerging from the UFC’s heavyweight division? UFC fighters pitching exclusively for Reebok would seem to fall short when compared to how other sports operate. Isn’t there room for Miocic in beef jerky commercials?

Phil Davis, who headlined Bellator 154 the same day Miocic won the title, retained all his sponsors from the pre-Reebok UFC when he signed with Bellator MMA and picked up a new, lucrative rum sponsor in his free agent move. Sponsorships, to a certain extent, are how audiences come to know athletes. The current UFC landscape serves as a barrier for top athletes considering MMA moving forward. Will they pass up high league minimums in the NBA, NFL and MLB for the uncertainty that exists in mixed martial arts?

We are entering another groundbreaking period in MMA. Madison Square Garden will give the sport a WrestleMania-type platform, and the UFC will continue to be defined by how well it elevates individual stars. Those same stars may grow into adversaries, as McGregor has over the last few months. In doing so, they lift fighting’s cultural consciousness and carve out lasting memories, giving hard-working athletes like Miocic bigger roles to play in MMA’s next evolution.

Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.
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