At its heart, the UFC does not know how to market African-American athletes without controversy attached. Mighty Mouse’s departure proves that.
This Saturday, a historic MMA deal was finalized that sent one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in mixed martial arts history off to compete in Asia while bringing undefeated former world champion, Ben Askren into the UFC.
Demetrious Johnson was released from his UFC contract in order to sign a deal with Asia’s largest promotion, ONE FC. Former Bellator and ONE FC welterweight champion Ben Askren will be released from his ONE FC contract to sign with the UFC, bringing one of the most dominant wrestlers into the world’s deepest welterweight division.
Johnson (27-3-1) is widely regarded as one of the best fighters in MMA history. The Seattle area native got as far as a shot at then-champion Dominick Cruz as an undersized bantamweight in 2011, then really came into his own when the UFC instituted a flyweight division. Johnson won a four-man tournament to claim the crown in 2012 and then went on to successfully defend the 125-pound title 11 consecutive times, breaking Anderson Silva’s venerated UFC record for most title defenses. Johnson lost the belt in a split decision to Henry Cejudo at UFC 227 in August.
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According to reports, Johnson’s team hatched the plan to initiate the talent swap, as his coach Matt Hume doubles as ONE’s vice president of operations. Askren indicated his interest in the deal, and things proceeded from there.
The deal has been widely reported as the first ever trade deal in MMA but that is not true. Alexander Shlemenko was traded from SHINE Fight Promotions to the UFC for Jorge “Gamebred” Masivdal back in 2008 via matchmaker Ron Foster, one of the first and more prominent matchmakers of color in MMA.
In the past, “Mighty Mouse” has spoken out against the organization about what he considers to be unfair treatment. Johnson has accused the UFC and its President, Dana White, of bullying him during his tenure as a champion claiming that before the Cejudo fight, he was seeking a fight with then current UFC bantamweight champion, Cody Garbrandt, who agreed to go down in weight to challenge the dominant flyweight.
Johnson said UFC matchmakers delivered a message from Dana White that he must fight former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw or else. In response, “Mighty Mouse” said he didn’t care if they shut down the entire flyweight division, he was not budging from his stance. Johnson called this a new version of the same song and cited the UFC’s consistent attempts to control him, even as a champion who has been the consummate company man. In addition, Johnson accused the UFC of not understanding how to promote him.
Speaking on a conference call Sunday, “Mighty Mouse” discussed the various motivations he had for wanting to join ONE and what it took to get him there.
“At the end of the day, I felt that I’m pretty young in my career and I wanted to try something different,” Johnson said. “I’ve always wanted to travel the world and compete and actually grew up watching Asian mixed martial arts with Pride, mostly. To be able to have the opportunity to travel over to Asia in a whole new weight class, it’s something I couldn’t pass up.”
At its heart, the UFC does not know how to market African-American athletes without controversy attached. Fighters like Demetrious Johnson who don’t use social media as a hype bazaar and don’t make headlines in their personal life are an enigma to the UFC.
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Askren (18-0, 1 NC) has found success everywhere he’s fought, winning the Bellator welterweight title in 2010 and leaving the company while still a champion in 2014 to sign with ONE. Askren went 5-0 with a no-contest in ONE, where he held the welterweight belt until announcing his retirement last fall. Askren has wasted little time calling out much of the welterweight and lightweight divisions for fights.
ONE FC is a true disrupter and its purpose from the outset was to give Asian’s more power in the global martial arts business they innovated. Having first signed and promoted former multiple time women’s boxing champion, Ana Julaton’s conversion from boxing to MMA, ONE FC has focused on building up a region with billions of people while not working about American acceptance.
Although Johnson will undoubtedly do well in ONE FC, the lack of respect should be seen as a blemish on the UFC’s inability to keep one of the best talents and former champions in the world happy enough not to depart on his own terms.
Today’s MMA fighter, unfortunately, is tasked with being both an expert marketer and top-tier athlete. Unfair for sure, but a necessary evil if you want to get closer to what you deserve.
For UFC and MMA athletes, especially of the Diaspora, the difference is to coon or not to coon; become a character like Conor McGregor or Rampage Jackson or face American invisibility while performing on the biggest stages.