UFC 222: Mackenzie Dern and the Anatomy of the Hype Train
What Makes a UFC Hype Train
It's one of the MMA community's most used terms: the "UFC hype train". By layman's terms, a hype train is a fighter who is heavily promoted and whose popularity may precede their actual fighting ability. While most of these fighters are actually good and even great fighters, the amount of attention they are being given overshadows their ability.
Sometimes hype trains succeed in the case of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey but often times they get derailed like in the case of Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt. The things that build a hype train are plentiful and complex but we break them down:
Spectacular Finishing Ability
This is arguably the most important factor of a hype train. Spectacular means "beautiful in a dramatic and eye-catching way". There is no quicker way to make a name for yourself than a highlight reel finish like when Rousey armbarred Cat Zingano in 14 seconds or when Francis Ngannou sent Alistair Overeem to the astral plane with a Mortal Kombat-style uppercut.
Being a topnotch fighter with amazing fighting skills definitely helps a fighting career but the UFC has a tendency to focus on fighters who end fights dramatically. Simply going to decisions is almost a deathknell and even Georges St-Pierre, who went to decisions for most of his career, was a finisher on his rise to stardom.
Age and Appearance
Sex sells. Appearances matter. First impressions last. Whatever catchphrase or mantra you use for marketing, it also applies to a sport where athletes punch each other in the face. Female fighters like Michelle Waterson (pictured) and Paige VanZant have been heavily promoted by the UFC and have been staples in their FOX events.
Not only is Dern a BJJ world champion and exciting finisher but she is young and attractive. Having beauty on your side isn't essential to being a popular fighter but it doesn't hurt either. Add the fact that popular social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat put a lot of focus on attractive people and this is added incentive for the UFC to lean to the pretty faces within the promotion.
Nationality and Ethnicity
Mixed martial arts is a global phenomenon and despite its niche status, the UFC is broadcasted in over 156 countries, has held events in over 22 countries, and have fighters from at least 51 different nations. And the UFC continues to expand having held its first event in China late last year and heading to Chile for the first time history.
The UFC has scoured the globe looking for fighters from all backgrounds and they have held The Ultimate Fighter shows with local flavours like TUF: Latino America and TUF: China. Being a great fighter can earn you a UFC contract but being a great fighter from a unique country like Cameroon (Ngannou) certainly helps.
Speaking English is a huge plus as it helps the UFC with its marketing. Dern is Brazilian-American and speaks fluent English and plenty of Brazilian fighters like Cyborg and Anderson Silva learned the language and have gained increase prominence since.
A Gift of Gab and a Colourful Character
You can argue that fans don't just fall in love with the fighter: they fall for the person. This is why fighters like McGregor and the Diaz brothers have intense fanbases.
In McGregor's case, his ability to not just create poetry with his tongue but create a larger-than-life persona accelerated his ascent to superstardom. The Diaz's weren't as eloquent in their speech but were memorable personalities in their own right.
While this isn't necessary to be considered a hype train, it makes a fighter stand above the rest. This is the case with "Sugar" Sean O'Malley fighting this weekend on the main card. The American has an electric fighting style and looks straight out of an 80s pop show. O'Malley is considered one of the UFC's hottest prospects.
Success outside the UFC
Almost all if not all hype trains are undefeated or have rarely lost in their pro careers outside the UFC. Sage Northcutt and Cynthia Calvillo were unbeaten. VanZant and Ngannou had only lost once. And in the rare case of a hype train who is also an MMA veteran like Hector Lombard, he had a 31-2-1 record heading to the UFC with a Bellator title and a long list of knockouts.
Dern is unbeaten in MMA though she has only five pro bouts and has only started fighting since 2016. But favourable matchmaking, as has been done with several other hype trains, is often a tactic employed. It's up to the fighters to deliver on their promise and to ensure their hype train gets to its destination.
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