MMA needs a Muhammad Ali, a Hulk Hogan, a Joe Namath.
The sport needs a crossover athlete who can make the industry part of Americana, who can force people to forget that it is a bloody combat sport and instead get people excited about experiencing the spectacle of MMA.
Could that man be Chael Sonnen? He’s probably the closest crossover athlete the UFC has. There may be fighters who are more skilled, more talented and more fierce in the cage, but none has Sonnen’s remarkable ability to tell a story whenever he opens his mouth. Other fighters know how to be mean or talk trash, but the MMA superstar who is one day able to transcend the sport is the one who can motivate the masses through positive energy.
Sonnen certainly has the charisma and intelligence to be the sport’s icon, but he is missing something major. He’s not a champion. The crossover star needs to be a world champion who can parade his title around on morning and late-night television shows.
Chris Weidman could have been that man, but we haven’t heard anything from him since his epic victory over Anderson Silva. It was one of the biggest upsets in MMA history, yet Weidman hasn’t exactly electrified the mainstream.
Unfortunately, the biggest star in MMA right now is not a fighter; it’s UFC President Dana White. White is a brilliant businessman, but he’s not a fighter and it is going to take a fighter to electrify the masses. White is way too disrespectful of his fighters, the media and anyone he disagrees with to ever be the unifier of MMA and the mainstream.
There is no magical recipe for creating a crossover star, but the UFC must somehow do more to create an icon, someone who is a household name who everyday fans and mainstream America can believe in.
That person could be Sonnen. If he can get a title belt around his waist, there might be no stopping him.