MMA has serious PR problems – and it goes further than the image of the sport
Has anyone ever told you, ‘You talk too much.”?
In normal society, what we say determines a lot of who we are and who we associate with. You have a select group of friends because what you speak with them about and what you do with them is what you all have in common. You are who you are like.
Professional athletes, unfortunately, are public figures. Unlike politicians or celebrities, athletes often lack the awareness that comes with the ‘who you are is who you are like’ business. Politicians and celebrities are talented at making themselves appealing to wide demographics of people. They speak in generalities (often about social issues that group large amounts of people together).
Athletes speak like they’re athletes – stream-of-consciousness riddled with time-honored clichés. However, because baseball, basketball, football, hockey and all the other major sports have been around for so long, there is actually a PR history to pull from – that’s why you so see many polished high-level athletes in those sports. They rarely say the wrong thing and always appeal to casual fans.
MMA is a young sport compared to these institutions. There is so little PR to understand and most of it has been monopolized by UFC promo work. The image of an MMA fighter is purposely cultivated by promotions like the UFC to be the Chuck Liddell‘s of the world – no-nonsense, will-fight-anywhere tough guys. Even the boss, Dana White, calls everything like he sees it.
So what happens when a fighter comes up through the ranks observing these PR tactics? What happens when they open their mouths? Well, as often happens with someone who has no formal training or perception of human behavior, you get unfiltered logic (also known as illogical), little patience for reason, and no common sense. In other words, all the things that a casual person is frustrated by.
The issue with MMA is that fighters are required to inherit a certain image on fight day, during fight week, when talking about their next opponent, etc. The sport ethic dictates that in MMA there is no weakness, there is no courtesy for your opponent; there is only the goal of smashing them in the cage.
Look at Jon Jones. He comes from a well-educated, middle-class family yet struggles to jump in and out of the fighter image. Because, like Rousey, that’s not entirely who he is and thus he struggles with it. There is a feeling amongst MMA fans that Jon Jones is disingenuous. Well of course he is, because he tries to hard to be what he thinks they want to see. A well-crafted PR plan would be beneficial to Jones because it would filter down his image to what he dictates it to be. Instead, he too often allows himself to jump in and out of the MMA image.
Look at Ronda Rousey. Her attitude is praised repeatedly by Dana White because they are molding her image to be theirs. She’s tough, no-nonsense. She’s a fighter. But she also comes off as irrational. She acts like a schoolyard bully (also known as acting like a child). The reality though, is that Ronda Rousey is a bright person. She often displays incredible charm and perception – but it becomes lost when she morphs into the frothing-at-the-mouth fighter.
Conversely, there are fighters like GSP who are almost universally well-liked. Any negativity towards St. Pierre is in regards to his perfroamcnes in the cage (lack of fight finishes) and not his public image. He maintains a classy image as likely to admit his own fears as he is confidence in his skills. He does not attempt to inherit the MMA image.
More fighters would be wise to follow that example.