The ever-ambitious UFC strawweight Paige VanZant will once again find herself in the reality television spotlight when she takes part in an upcoming athlete-themed episode of the Food Network’s “Chopped.” The episode will give the UFC and VanZant the always-coveted mainstream visibility, but it also illuminates the imbalance between what the promotion projects to the outside world and what they present in a fight card.
Before getting too deep into this conversation, one thing should be pointed out; Paige VanZant will never be evaluated fairly based on her merit. It is true that she has been pushed by the UFC because of her looks and stardom. However, on the attractive woman-athlete spectrum, she is closer to Serena Williams than Anna Kournikova.
It is in this unbalanced standard that VanZant finds herself in a bit of a predicament. Consider how the UFC’s former undisputed media darling Ronda Rousey checked virtually every box. She had a dynamic personality, an inspiring backstory, posed in bikini photoshoots, and for a time was dominant on the media circuit and in the Octagon.
Unfortunately for all parties involved, Rousey was a supernova that cannot be easily replicated. It may be an oversimplification, but currently VanZant is an inferior version of Rousey.
This is not to say that the UFC should not capitalize on a fighter’s crossover appeal, nor should VanZant be scolded for enhancing her visibility; but if she is the best the UFC has to offer, the residual eyes acquired from her reality television escapades may be disappointed to find that she is a mid-level fighter.
Sure, there is always the possibility that the casual observer comes for VanZant but remembers Joanna Jędrzejczyk, but that mentality undersells the appeal of fighters who don’t fit the mold.
The UFC’s current model of “one size fits all” may no longer be necessary in the current segmented media environment.
Take a fighter like UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson. Johnson is the UFC’s most dominant champion yet a poor draw who gets relegated to Fight Night cards, while harboring the label of being boring.
Johnson does not fit the profile of a popular MMA fighter, but he is far from being dull dishwater. Johnson is a very intelligent avid video gamer who regularly streams his play for fans to interact with him.
“Nerd culture” would seemingly have no place in the UFC, but if WME-IMG officials want to cast the widest net possible, they will have to appeal to demographics outside of the stereotypical MMA audience.
The UFC has thus far been unsuccessful in promoting Johnson, but that does not mean that Johnson has completely failed in his role of self-promotion.
Placing a fighter like VanZant in parallel positions with a fighter like Johnson in the UFC totem pole further undermines the growing sentiment that the UFC is no longer a meritocracy.
VanZant is a good fighter and a star who deserves to be applauded for her ambition, but the fact that a fighter of her caliber penetrates the non-MMA world almost more than any other does not reflect poorly on her but does say something about her promotion.
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(Robert Vallejos writes a new Specialist column for MMATorch titled “Media & Business” focused on, you guessed it, the media coverage of MMA and the business side of MMA. He is fascinated by the presentation, business decisions, media strategy, and press coverage of both UFC and MMA as a whole, and will bring that curiosity to explore and delve into that side of MMA to his weekly Specialist column here at MMATorch. He explains his approach: “As a sport in its relative infancy, MMA does not receive the same level of scrutiny and informed analysis from the sports media as other more established entities. This is why it is vital for independent outlets such MMATorch to grow, while featuring a variety of voices. Unlike mainstream outlets, MMATorch is not beholden to any organization. Therefore I believe it is essential for individuals such as myself to explain not only the ‘what’ but also the ‘why’ of MMA.”)