Just 26 days before the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s long anticipated debut in Mexico, main event headliner and UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez had to withdraw from his scheduled bout against Fabricio Werdum after sustaining a partially torn meniscus.

His departure from the UFC 180 card is particularly deflating when one takes Velasquez’s Mexican heritage into account. As a bridge between the Hispanic community and a UFC product that was entering virgin territory in Latin America, Velasquez was a crucial component of the promotion’s intent to make the biggest impact possible.

Ironically, as crushing as the news was to the MMA community, particularly those who will be in attendance on November 15, the episode also breathes new life into the debate regarding promotion strategy in MMA.

This argument concerns which entity should be the primary focus of advertising, marketing and public relations efforts within the MMA industry. The promotion or its talent? The company or its fighters? The business or its faces?

Each approach has its merits. In the case of prioritizing talent, one might argue the idea of emotionally investing in another human being is the lynchpin of any successful story. The ability to relate to a central character on some level gives us, as viewers, greater motivation to engage ourselves with content, which translates into financial investment and commercial success.

Back in the mid 2000s, this outlook was characterized by another leading MMA promotion, Pride Fighting Championship.

Pride FC would organize events that profiled the fighters first and foremost, marketing the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Cro Cop over the company itself.  In an allusion to this strategy, some shows would open with talent being brought out onto the stage and profiled ahead of their fights. It was through building these fighters into headliners that the brand developed intrigue around its events. People attended on the merit of headlining bouts, not necessarily the promotion behind it.

On the other side of the coin, when promotional efforts are led by the company name it keeps influence centralized, allowing a promotion’s owners to more effectively manage their reputation without having to rely on the good behaviour or respectability of its contracted fighters. In a combat sport like MMA, where some personalities might be considered ‘volatile’, this approach to branding and business growth reflects the safer option.

This approach is also more sustainable as it does not rely on the success of a core group of fighters who carry the risk of defeat into every fight. As arguably the face of Pride FC throughout his tenure with the organization, it was interesting to observe how Wanderlei Silva’s consecutive knockout  losses to Mirko Cro Cop and Dan Henderson paralleled the promotion’s struggle to find new broadcast partners after the Tokyo-based Fuji Television Network terminated its agreement with Pride Fighting Championships. One might suggest that ‘The Axe Murderer’s’ new vulnerability highlighted the shortcomings of Pride’s investment into specific talent.

In the modern day, the UFC’s brand name stands above that of any of its fighters. The promotion’s shadow casts so far that those outside MMA are known to mistake the sport’s name for UFC. Since Zuffa acquired the UFC in 2001 its leading figures, most notably Lorenzo Fertitta, have openly cited this phenomenon as their reasoning for using the UFC as an entry point into the sport:

“…against the well-meaning advice of family and trusted advisors, including our father, my brother Frank and I purchased the UFC for $2 million in 2001.

It was a huge risk that at times looked doomed. But we stuck with it, confident that those three letters – U.F.C. – would become the brand to propel mixed martial arts into the same category as the other elite sports.” (Source)

The debate ties into the much wider discussion concerning fighter representation. By promoting its own name above its talent, the MMA promotion retains a greater leverage over financial distribution. In the modern era, broadcasters, venue owners and PPV carriers are not asking for the right to showcase a Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey, or Anderson Silva, they are asking for the UFC. While this outlook has drawn criticism in certain contexts, namely concerning fighter compensation, it is also that has allowed the MMA and the UFC to expand as rapidly as they have, especially into foreign markets.

By prioritizing brand promotion ahead of fighter promotion, the sport and its leading organizations are not bound by the need to wait for elite domestic talent before entering a new country. While this occurrence is ideal, it is not necessarily essential. Instead, the UFC can harness the universal elements of fighting and one-on-one combat that epitomize MMA and transcend all cultural boundaries. To quote UFC President Dana White, “fighting is in our DNA, we get it and we like it”.

Let’s not forget the untimely injury sustained by Alexander Gustafsson just one week before the promotion’s debut in Sweden for UFC on Fuel TV 9 back in 2013. The UFC adapted and the show progressed as usual, enjoying enough success to warrant a return this past October that would meet the demand for elite MMA.

With fan favourite Mark Hunt inserted into UFC 180 to replace Velasquez, the UFC will continue to function, even while reeling from another setback for its heavyweight champion.

As much as the change might hurt the card’s viewership, the UFC can take solace in the fact that their approach to marketing is reaffirmed in a temperamental climate populated by injury bugs and upset losses.

Promotion first, talent second. The machine rolls on.

About The Author

Aidan O'Connor
Staff Writer

A native of Maidstone, England, Aidan has been covering MMA in a news or feature capacity since 2010. In addition to writing for The MMA Corner, Aidan also runs the MMAmusing Twitter account and enjoys the sport as an avid enthusiast. A graduate in English and American Studies, he currently works in marketing and public relations.