Once upon a time only a handful of famous fighters enjoyed the spoils of advertising, nowadays, as more fighting disciplines come into the spotlight, fringe fighters are starting to enjoy the benefits as well and it’s all down to three letters. U.F.C.
Today, UFC is watched by over a billion households in over a hundred and fifty countries but there was a time, not so long ago, when mixed martial arts looked like a lost cause. It began as ‘anything goes’ contests between rival Brazilian martial arts gyms and initially, UFC was just that, no weight categories, no gloves, no rules. U.S. politician John McCain called it ‘human cock fighting’. And then the Fertitta brothers bought it in 2001 for just $2 million. They created an eight-page rule book and UFC entered the mainstream.
In 2007, playwright and director David Mamet wrote an article for The Guardian describing MMA as the future of American sport. In July 2015 U.F.C. signed a $70 million kit sponsorship deal with Reebok and suddenly leading global brands like EA Sports, Harley Davidson, Monster Energy and Budweiser were on board. U.F.C made stars of its top fighters and popularised martial arts disciplines which had previously been little known. Anderson Silva may not be the force he once was but as well as being an outstanding fighter he also pioneered the use of social media to spread his fame. His Twitter following was in in excess of seven and a half million, Conor McGregor’s following, by comparison, is yet to reach five million.
YouTube has enabled fans to view fight sequences over and over again and has been a major contributor to the fame and status of fighters. The world of film and TV have also been quick to get on board with the meteoric rise of UFC. MMA may not yet have its Rocky but following ‘Never Back Down’ in 2008 there have been a string of MMA based films and surely, it’s just a matter of time before the big one comes along. MMA stars haven’t been shy about their guest appearances on screen either. At the head of the pack, Ronda Rousey starred in both ‘Furious 7’ and ‘Entourage’. Perhaps the most significant shift in public perception is that UFC is no longer seen as barbaric and distasteful and its star performers are now recognised as the highly trained athletes and skilled performers that they are.
Ronda Rousey may be on the cusp of retirement but her power as a strong female role model is undiminished. In December 2016, she became Pantene’s newest brand ambassador, with the tagline ‘Strong is Beautiful’. She represents a dramatic break with the traditional representation of women in advertising. Fighters are now seen as desirable brand ambassadors. On his profile page, ex-boxer Carl Froch, talks about how as an ambassador for partypoker, he has ‘maintained the same aggressive style that made him such a formidable force in the ring’. UFC may have most of the stars but the recent success of Anthony Joshua, Unified World Heavyweight Champion, has made him one of the most talked about fighters on the planet. His association with Sky is indicative of public acceptance of aggression outside the ring. As he says himself ‘As a Sky Ambassador I believe I’m in an incredibly strong position to inspire others…’ And so he is.