The UFC has a whitewashing problem. Deadspin’s Greg Howard argued that, when given the choice, the UFC will always put their promotional efforts behind white fighters instead of fighters of color. A quick look at their history will show few, if any, dark-skinned faces among the brand’s most identifiable fighters; think Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar, GSP, Chuck Lidell, and even Ken Shamrock. Taking nothing away from any fighter on that list, it seems a little absurd that the UFC has not found a way to connect with minority viewers the way it has with white ones.
Anderson Silva is, in the opinion of many, the greatest MMA fighter of all time. Why is it that the UFC needed a charismatic white opponent in Chael Sonnen before they would seriously throw their promotional muscle behind him? How have they still not figured out how to make a star out of Jon Jones, who is nearly as charismatic as he is athletically gifted, and who has not legitimately lost a fight in eight years? How is Dana White’s face more recognizable to the average casual sports fan than Demetrious Johnson, the Strawweight Champion who is ranked by the UFC itself as the second best fighter in the entire world? Once again, it seems as though the UFC has a whitewashing problem.
There are some rational arguments that can be made for why the UFC decides not to push certain fighters. Some feel that Anderson Silva’s fighting style is not fan-friendly, that Johnson lacks charisma, and that Jon Jones can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble with the law. However, when looking at the big picture, we see an organization that fails to make stars out of fighters who are not white. It is also worth noting that Floyd Mayweather, Jr . (an African-American) is the biggest draw in boxing’s history, and this in large part because he is the best boxer of his generation. He has a long history of domestic abuse, and many of his fights are about as exciting to watch as watching paint dry. Do not tell me that the UFC can not make major stars out of the most talented fighters on that roster.
They wouldn’t, would they?
I am not saying that the UFC is intentionally pushing down minority fighters and promoting white ones. I am saying that they are neglecting certain fighters, likely out of an unintentional bias, and they are throwing their promotional muscle behind untested but photogenic white fighters like Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant. The UFC knows that if they are going to grow, they need to expand beyond the niche fan base that they have currently. All effort in recent years has been towards that goal, with mixed results. It is clear that UFC President Dana White wants desperately for MMA (or at least his version of it) to be accepted by mainstream America. They have taken the same tired approach to approach to mainstream acceptance that the entertainment industry has taken for decades: pretty white faces on big billboards. As I noted before, the results have been mixed. Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor have both been transformed into legitimate celebrities because of their careers with the UFC. Beyond that, the “white face on a poster” strategy has yielded little return. It says a lot that the third most recognizable face in the UFC is Dana White’s. So what if the whole “bring MMA to mainstream America” is a fool’s errand? Maybe instead going into the mainstream, they need to go beyond instead.
The truth is, they are closer than they think. In recent years, they have put a heavy emphasis on reaching out to international markets. The UFC now has a presence on multiple continents, holding multiple events overseas, and has made it a point to promote fighters from all over the globe (as much as they overdo it with all the Reebok flag stuff). This strategy seems to have paid off, as Irish fans have turned up to support McGregor much like Swedish fans have gotten behind Alexander Gustafsson. Where this strategy falls apart is in the promotion of American fighters. The UFC seems painfully unaware of the fact that America is not just one big country.
Before you get carried away and assume that that this is some wacko liberal anti-American nonsense, at least consider this: the American experience of a person of color born in South Central Los Angeles is different than the experience of a white person born in Vermont. Americans in Nebraska live in a very different America than those in New York City. There are more than one Americas, and the UFC should be marketing as such. This raises the question, to which mainstream America are you trying to sell your product? To which mainstream America should you be selling your product?
Scarborough conducts a survey annually that measures interest in combat sports among key demographics. Here is the data from 2013 comparing interest in pro boxing and MMA. This survey suggests that the two combat sports are roughly equal in popularity among white participants. This is not the case among African-American or Hispanic participants, both of whom prefer professional boxing by a margin of nearly ten percent. African-American and Hispanic fight fans prefer professional boxing to MMA by a significant margin. The UFC can and should be doing a far better job at selling their product to African-American and Hispanic viewers.
This is not to say that there are not black MMA fans who are as passionate about the sport as the white fans are. The survey looks more at groups of people, just as the UFC needs to be selling their product to groups of people. It does not seem insensitive to suggest that the UFC might have trouble convincing groups of African-American and Hispanic people to attend their events when the UFC fan base resembles something you might see at a Donald Trump rally.
(I am not just basing this claim on the survey numbers above, I have been to multiple UFC events and the Trump rally claim is pretty accurate).
It’s more than race
While the company has a long history of disproportionately promoting lighter skinned fighters, this is only a part of the problem. The UFC whitewashing is broader than skin color. It is a shallow, misguided, and thinly veiled attempt to pander to a narrow section of the population (most of whom happen to be white). It’s Paige VanZant on Dancing With the Stars. It’s outfitting every fighter in Reebok and wrapping them all in American flags for the posters. More than anything, it is a lack of realness.
The word real, in the true American sense, is typically used in urban settings among people who have had to struggle for their very existence. People who are real have grown up in challenging and often dangerous environments, but have managed to find their way. America’s history of institutional racism has created the circumstances where large numbers of minority citizens are trapped in lower-income urban areas, but this does not mean that there are not white people struggling as well. The point is this: there is an entire cross section of the American population who’s experience vastly differs from the kind of people the UFC is trying to market to.
So what needs to be done? The truth is, there is no easy solution. There is no one fighter that the UFC could promote that will be the answer to the UFC whitewashing problem. However, there is a fighter who could go a long way towards drawing in a more diverse audience. He has actually been on the UFC roster for years, and the promotion has almost gone out of their way to not promote him. He is the Mexican-American from Lodi, California who just handed Conor McGregor the biggest loss of his career. His name is Nate Diaz,and he is real.
The press conference for UFC 196: Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor made clear just how far the UFC whitewashing machine had come. Here was Conor McGregor, the UFC’s newest poster boy and one of the company’s biggest draws (second only to Ronda Rousey), an international superstar with a ready made fan base of Irish-American fans in every city. Sitting next to him was Diaz; often maligned for being corporate unfriendly but suddenly thrust into the most high profile fight of his life. During the press conference, McGregor called Diaz a “little cholo gangster.” He would not admit this in public until after the fight, but Diaz said that was the only thing McGregor said during the lead-in to UFC 196 that bothered him. The fact that the second most mainstream recognizable face in all of MMA saw fit to race bait Diaz, and the fact that he was cheered for doing so, speaks volumes. At this moment, the difference between who the UFC is trying to market to and they are failing to market to was more clear than ever.
For those who do not know, Diaz grew up in Stockton, California under the most challenging of circumstances. He grew up surrounded by poverty, drug abuse, and violence. Supported by a single mother, he lived in a hotel with his sister and older brother, Nick. He has stated publicly that a lot of why he stuck with his martial arts training was the fact that the older students in his class would buy him food after class. His story is a compelling one, and it is somewhat astonishing that the UFC has invested little time in telling it. One would imagine that people from similar backgrounds would turn out in droves to watch him beat up on a slick talking, sharp dressing corporate spokesman like Conor McGregor.
Indeed they did. Dana White claims that UFC 196 did over 1.5 million buys. In the past (during contract negotiations), White has claimed that Nate Diaz is not a “needle mover”, but the numbers say otherwise. They show that, despite the fact that Diaz will never deliver a perfectly scripted promo, is not willing to mindlessly shill Reebok gear, will not refrain from cursing on national TV, and is difficult to work with because he insists on being paid what his services are worth. Nate Diaz is real, and he is exactly the kind of star that the UFC needs to combat their whitewashing problem. Maybe now, the UFC will realize that they do not need to chase some mainstream demographic that may or may not exist, because they have a ready made star on their hands. Maybe it is time to focus on a broader audience of fight fans, and to stop wasting energy on trying to clone Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.