Eleven months ago, Dana White had it oh so easy.
The two best heavyweights in mixed martial arts, one loss between them, vying for a belt during UFC's network television debut? The worst salesman could have sold Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos to the public, and, to his credit, the charismatic UFC president essentially admitted as much.
Nearly a year later yet another fight week is upon us, though circumstances are noticeably different. White actually has to earn his keep by trying to convince fans, even rabid ones, that forking over $55 to watch an all-time great fight a guy who split his past 10 bouts dating back to June 2006 is a suitable way to spend a Saturday night.
Stephan Bonnar isn't a special fighter. He might qualify as mediocre.
But due to circumstances beyond the UFC's control (namely, injuries), here's Bonnar, having made the trip to Rio de Janeiro with a chance to fight the best of the best, Anderson Silva.
White called Saturday’s main event the most important moment of Bonnar's professional life. A proverbial "Rocky" situation. While attempting to sell the unsellable, however, White must do more than marshal the innate promoter’s instinct coursing through his body. He must tread delicately. Convincing fans that purchasing a mismatch makes sense, and ensuring they won’t feel stupid when Bonnar is smeared out on the canvas is tricky stuff. White has to be honest -- just not too honest. So far, that’s what he has been.
White has taken several positions around UFC 153, some more reasonable than others.
He explored the virtues of a “fun fight,” a concept that drew his ire in the past when other promoters (i.e. Pride) also went this route.
He attempted to portray Bonnar as “dangerous” to Silva, which is laughable based on everything we know about the two.
He bellowed about how much larger Bonnar would be on fight night compared to the UFC middleweight champion, as if size itself is some magic elixir for being slow and obscenely hittable against a fast, accurate sniper.
The best thing White did was sign off on a marketing campaign that reveled in the concept that Bonnar doesn’t have a prayer, a funny spot with “Ultimate Fighter” pal Forrest Griffin, who knows exactly how dangerous Silva can be. They sit and chat. Griffin offers salient points that essentially alleviates Bonnar of options on fight night.
Don’t stand with the guy. Don’t grapple with the guy. Don’t show up, OK.
It’s all for laughs, but once in a while the funniest concepts are also the most real. Just don’t show up Stephan, you're gonna get hurt. It should be on the poster.
These are the sort of things that happen when a squash match sits at the top of the card. You do what you can as a promoter, hope one of the myriad talking points plants itself in the minds of paying customers, and cross fingers that they won’t feel ripped off in the end.
If all goes according to plan and fights remain intact for November and December, White and his marketing team won’t need to be so crafty.
Georges St-Pierre versus Carlos Condit sells. Junior dos Santos versus Cain Velasquez 2 (despite the fast ending the first time) sells. Benson Henderson versus Nate Diaz sells. They’re all extremely competitive fights (on paper). No 13-1 underdogs whose best trait is durability.
No promotional legerdemain aimed at sucking fans into a fight that’s all empty calories.
You have to figure White prefers the easier route -- the one that calls for, you know, quality fights. Sure, the carnival barker routine suits him fine. He’s a salesman. A terrific one at that. But any huckster knows that selling miracles is bad business over the long haul, mostly because they’re in short supply.