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Like many mixed martial artists and combat sports fans, Alton Cunningham was raised on World Wrestling Entertainment.
“I grew up watching WWE, so growing up watching that, I felt that’s what I wanted to do,” he told Sherdog.com. “As I got older and more mature, I was able to discover the sport of MMA. My aspirations slowly started shifting towards MMA, and I knew once I saw Brock Lesner make the transition, that’s what I wanted to do. I knew that not only would I be fighting in the UFC, but I will be fighting for and winning the world title. It’s just a matter of when, not if.”
Although MMA fans love to hate professional wrestling, Cunningham thinks that his fellow fighters can learn from the performers in the WWE.
“There’s a lot of crossover between the two, especially the promos, but also, more importantly, building a brand for yourself,” he said. “A lot of fighters go in there like, ‘Whatever, man. I’m not going to s--- talk. We’re just going to go in there and play by the book.’ Shut the [expletive] up, man. That’s not how it works. If you want to make money for yourself, you want to build a brand for yourself, number one, you got to be yourself at all times. Like, you think I don’t want to fight Jon Jones? Damn right I want to fight Jon Jones. So whether people take it as me being cocky, it’s just me being myself and that’s what I see in the WWE.
“These guys get these characters, but really, it’s just an extension of themselves,” Cunningham added, “and they are able to express that on a major platform; and that’s what I feel like MMA fighters can learn from the WWE: getting a voice [and] expressing yourself. Especially with social media, it’s easier to make a brand for yourself, and I use that to my advantage. Some people like it, some people don’t, but it’s not about them, it’s about me. Me and my team are trying to eat right now. We’re hungry.”
True stars in MMA are worth their weight in gold, and what they do outside the cage can be just as important in terms of popularity as how they perform inside of it. Cunningham, who will face the American Kickboxing Academy’s Tony Johnson as part of Season 3, Episode 2 of Dana White’s Contender Series on Tuesday in Las Vegas, understands the importance of branding himself and has already built a following through his “Welcome to the Darkside” vlog series.
“I’m really just a character myself. I feel like I’m a very colorful personality, so if I’m not expressing myself, I don’t feel comfortable,” he said. “I’m always trying to express myself and doing the best I can at uplifting everybody around me, because that’s just the type of person I am. I’m very emotional, very colorful, and that’s where my branding comes from. It’s not anything fake, just me being myself.” Cunningham has followed the examples set by some of his contemporaries.
“I mean, you look at [Conor] McGregor. You look at all his antics. That’s just who he is. It would be different if that wasn’t who he was,” he said. “Look at like [Quinton] ‘Rampage’ Jackson, who is from my hometown, or my boy [Muhammed] ‘King Mo’ [Lawal]. They are personalities, and that’s just who they really are. What you see is what you get with those guys, and I’m the same way. Same with my coaches and teammates. We are all very colorful personalities. If you walk into my gym, you will see people from the suburbs and people from the hood, and we’re all just here taking it in, having a good time. It’s a very open environment.”