In the world of MMA, it’s not always solely the action inside the cage that moves the needle. The recipe for MMA’s success has many ingredients. The fighters, obviously, are the most visible. But there are executives, broadcast analysts, coaches and people in many other important roles that complete the MMA recipe. These are the difference makers.
In this two-part feature, Combat Press writer John Franklin looks at the 20 (or so) most relevant people in the mixed martial arts world. Part one of this feature counts down positions 20 through 11 of the rankings, plus a little something extra. Check back later today for part two, where the countdown continues with the top 10 most relevant people in MMA today.
2015 was certainly an interesting year for Jones and Rousey. Beginning the year as the unquestioned King and Queen of MMA, they were perceived to be the two best fighters in the world. The year ended very differently. The two elite athletes had to face adversity. For Jones, it was out of the cage. For Rousey, it was in the Octagon. But both are left with an unsure future in their careers. While there has been nothing in the cage to dissuade Jones from thinking he is among the very best in the world, his inability to handle his life outside of it has everyone wondering if he can keep a multi-million-dollar career on track. Rousey’s career is off the tracks as well. The difference here is that it was a person that knocked her off and knocked her out. The person was a freight train named Holly Holm. A lot of Rousey’s aura was based on who she thought she was, but that perception was changed the night she fought Holm.
Whether or not these two can return to who they once were will be a compelling storyline for as long as they fight in the cage. We have been shown that both are vulnerable., but we have also been shown that their best is better than most, even in historical terms.
Silva and St-Pierre were the two most relevant fighters in the UFC for about five years. Both had grown weary of being champion toward the end of their title runs. The difference between the two is that St-Pierre was able to walk away with his legacy still intact, whereas Silva has struggled to find the right way to depart. The similarity between the two is that they have left an indelible mark on the fans of MMA and what they are doing will always be of interest to the fan base. Whom Silva fights next — this time, for the record, it’s Michael Bisping — and whether or not GSP is coming back to fight again — probably not — will always matter.
Side note: They may also be two of the only people who could book and promote a one-off fight without the UFC, especially against each other, and have some juice behind it.
No fighter and coach have more synergy than Johnson and Hume. Additionally, no fighter and coach have such a short distance between the coach’s mind to the fighter’s actions as these two. Hume didn’t become an MMA genius the day he met Johnson. He was an MMA genius before Johnson, but he may have finally found the perfect vessel for all that MMA knowledge. There is nothing Johnson cannot do in a cage. He may be the most complete fighter in MMA. He was so effective against John Dodson in the second fight that he made Dodson look slower than the challenger had ever been. He put Dodson in quicksand, took him to school and sent him to a different division. The fact that Johnson does what he does, at the pace he does, is another testament to coaching. No matter how good of an athlete you are, you don’t do the right thing that much unless you have been drilling it for months. Johnson and Hume, via Johnson, are enacting high-level concepts as fast as anyone in the history of MMA, and that just can’t be done without some muscle memory at play. The question for these two moving forward is where the challenges — and by extension, the money — lie and how do they get to them.
Knapp, the president of Invicta Fighting Championships, is as savvy as they come in this business. She understands that she can get more accomplished with a good working relationship with the UFC than without one. Knapp has never really publicly pushed back against the UFC or its president, Dana White, despite decisions being made that affect her company in a big way. This includes the public negotiations between the UFC and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, a fighter under Invicta contract. The UFC pretty much took full ownership of one of the most high-profile divisions in Knapp’s company, the strawweight division, to cast a season of The Ultimate Fighter, crown a champion and fill a divisional roster. Knapp just takes it all in stride. The payoff? A high-profile stream of her fight cards on UFC Fight Pass. (And this may not be the end of it.) Knapp is one of the foremost authorities on women’s MMA and, as such, she has an apparent understanding of what it takes to get it out there and how to best expose the public to her great fighters.
No one has used connections more effectively than Front Row Brian. For years, he has had the scoop on a lot of things, and he used those scoops to give himself credibility. He has so much now that you can not discount anything he reports on MMA, particularly because Brian is smart about what he reports. Since he is not beholden to anyone but himself, he picks his spots, makes sure he has things on good authority and is rarely wrong. He has now expanded his MMA footprint to include a podcast that he hosts along with Tom Lawlor.
One of Brian’s main connections throughout the years has been Chael Sonnen. They are friends and have appeared on each other’s podcasts. The position Sonnen is in now is a very interesting one. He is no longer a UFC employee, but he does work as an analyst for ESPN. This means that on some level he competes with the UFC, and more specifically Fox Sports, and other entities for the eyes and ears of the public, which is something Sonnen has never made any bones about desiring. He also has a very popular podcast and works as a color commentator for the World Series of Fighting. This means that Sonnen has as much exposure as ever and he is no longer shackled by the UFC. In fairness, though, it never really stopped him before. What all this means is that you can expect to be getting the straight dope from Sonnen and Brian for years to come, or whatever version of the straight dope they want you to have.
Just when you think the Diaz brothers are done with MMA, they show up in some capacity to remind you how important they are to the sport’s landscape. Nick, gone for almost two years, had last been seen screaming at Johny Hendricks that he was “too fat” before booking a fight with Anderson Silva, the Brazilian’s first since losing to Chris Weidman. In the fight, Nick, who had been cordial the entire pre-fight, spent the whole bout clowning Silva. This made Diaz fans even more resolute in their love of him. Then, when you thought you had seen it all, he gets a very heavy-handed suspension, becomes a sympathetic figure and the MMA world rallies around him. Not to be outdone, Nate, who had been absent for a year after Rafael dos Anjos took him apart in Phoenix, came back and surprised everyone by beating Michael Johnson. The win alone didn’t really raise much of an eyebrow, but the post-fight interview did. Nate gave an interview so explicit that Fox just bailed on it altogether — one long extended beep is about all the television audience heard — but the interview accomplished two things. One, the bad language made it a highly searched item the next day. Second, the fact that he called out Conor McGregor put him in talks for the Irishman’s next fight. Both things served to raise Nate’s profile. You can say what you want about the Diaz brothers, but they know how to shake things up. They shake things up with such authenticity that it makes them anti-heroes of the highest regard amongst their fans.
With all due respect to fans that watch MMA regularly and believe they have a clue about what they are watching, if you don’t read or view one of these five gentlemen before an MMA event, then you don’t know shit about what you are about to watch. Black, Slack, Hardy, Wyman and Ruebusch are the five best analysts at breaking down fights in MMA right now. That is said without a qualifier, too. The time and effort these men put into breaking down fights is expansive and it shows. Between them, nothing is missed. It would be easy to say that they are all taking advantage of a current trend where MMA fans want more in-depth analysis of fights, but that would be to sell them short on their accomplishments. They are why MMA fans want more in-depth analysis of fights. Their analysis and the manner in which they provide it has made high-level concepts more accessible to fans. They have all seen their respective roles expand based on their great work.
Black and Hardy have been featured in a more prominent role on UFC programming. Slack has made Fightland relevant as a place for analysis. Wyman switched websites and took on a more prominent role in his new position, and Ruebusch not only filled in the gap left by Wyman, but the two have a podcast, called Heavy Hands and built for true fight nerds, that is gaining a lot of traction.
An honorable mention here, only because they are already a part of the “machine,” goes to Brian Stann and Dominick Cruz, who are right there with these guys in providing passionate, insightful, self-aware analysis.
The two biggest media outlets in MMA are MMA Fighting and MMA Junkie. The faces and voices of those two websites are Helwani and Morgan, respectively. These two regularly vie for the “Journalist of the Year” award and seek to out-scoop each other on all stories. Both managed to land huge interviews this year. Helwani got a long, almost documentary-style chat with Jon Jones, and Morgan landed an interview with Ali Abdel-Aziz in the midst of all his controversy and got his first comments post exit from the World Series of Fighting. Both are well connected within the biggest organizations in the world. Morgan regularly is the first to ask questions at the post-fight press conference and Helwani is on the UFC Tonight program, which the UFC has a hand in producing.
For fans, these two are the David Letterman and Jay Leno of MMA reporting. The hipster, dry wit and polished delivery of Helwani contrasts with the head down work ethic and encyclopedic knowledge of Morgan. Helwani always looks to make the more artistic statement, whereas Morgan looks to just give the people what they want. Morgan has added a podcast, The MMA Roadshow, a brilliant nod to his hectic travel schedule, to rival Helwani’s largely popular The MMA Hour. Helwani seems to be more seeking of adulation than Morgan, but both guys are definite follows on Twitter and at their respective sites for MMA fans looking to be in the know.
What makes Master Cordeiro one of the best coaches in MMA is that he is not like Javier Mendez and Greg Jackson, in the sense that he takes fighters who are close and gets them over the hump. No, what makes Cordeiro impressive is that he takes fighters who are lost at sea, gives them a rudder and makes them champions. And not just “eke out victory” champions either. He makes them wrecking balls. What Fabricio Werdum did to Cain Velasquez and what Rafael dos Anjos did to Nate Diaz, Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone, would not have been thought possible two or three years ago in their respective careers. While Werdum did beat Fedor Emelianenko, he did it from his back, not on the feet blasting his opponent with all variety of strikes. While Cordeiro maintains the training of these champions, the two who may solidify him as one of the top coaches in the sport will be Kelvin Gastelum and Beneil Dariush. If he can turn these two into champions, it will go a long way to making Kings MMA the go-to gym to acquire championship-level stand-up skills.
The likelihood that Joe Rogan walks away from the UFC increases with each passing year. As his personal empire grows and he expands the means by which he communicates with an audience about MMA without the UFC, the path out the door becomes less difficult to find. In the meantime, the torch to all that Rogan is, well, it may be passed to Brendan Schaub. The two shared an awkward podcast moment about Schaub’s future as a fighter and, in a weird twist of fate, it seems to have made them closer.
In 2015, we saw an increase in what may be Rogan’s best MMA innovation to date, the Fight Companion podcast. It allows Rogan to “commentate” fights that he is not commentating in an official capacity for the UFC in a looser manner that his fans most likely prefer. His guest on the Fight Companion podcasts is Schaub, who is becoming a prolific podcaster in his own right, hosting The Fighter and the Kid podcast with comedian Bryan Callen. Rogan and Schaub are a one-two punch of behind-the-velvet-rope access — Rogan with years next to the UFC brass and Schaub with years as a fighter and some pillow-talk time with Ronda Rousey. These guys are the future of full-access, no-holds-barred podcasting for MMA.
The list was finished, but honestly we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Herrig. Here’s why. She operates in a world that many fighters have not yet figured out. She is the best marketer of herself in all of MMA. Here’s a question: What is Herrig’s record in her last five fights? Very few know and very few care. That doesn’t mean that she is irrelevant as a fighter. In fact, she is very relevant. What it means is that she doesn’t tie her ability to market herself to her career. She’s a fighter and that brings access, both of which matter more than her ranking. She is a celebrity. That is her brand, and that’s not said in a derogatory way. She makes people care about what she is doing with her life, and there is not a shelf life on that. It’s not tied to the whims of the UFC brass. She has the game plan for surviving the Reebok deal with the type of sponsors that would make most fighters jealous. If more fighters paid attention to Herrig’s business model, they would be better for it.
One of the most compelling things is when people do something that is against the norm or they set a trend in a marketplace. These four honorable mentions are so ahead of the curve right now that they don’t really have very many peers in the industry, if any.
Let’s start with Cruz. We used to podcast together and I can tell you firsthand that he has information that no one else does and that many don’t even realize the importance of. At the end of the day, companies exist to make money. Cruz understands that you can follow the money to determine what moves the companies are going to make.
Dardashtian lives in the MMA world professionally in sort of the same place as Mike Russell and the Bloody Elbow boys. She reports on things that aren’t fun, but are necessary. The legal aspects of the careers of Jon Jones and Nick Diaz, performance-enhancing drug use, UFC antitrust lawsuit and conflicts of interest of Ali Abdel-Aziz are relevant to the sport, and an understanding of them helps with an understanding of the sport. Many journalists, this one included, tend to focus on things outside of the cage to the extent that they affect things inside the cage. All of Dardashtian’s reporting has ramifications inside the cage.
Fightmetric and Reed Kuhn of Fightnomics are at the forefront of the analytics movement for MMA. The difference between them is mostly in what is being done with the data. Fightmetric focuses on data collection. They provide a lot of the data that UFC analysts can use to further enhance their knowledge or illustrate their point. Kuhn uses his data collection to prove or disprove a hypothesis of his, and it’s all great stuff. His book, Fightnomics, goes into further detail, but it covers analyzing small cage vs. large cage, striking assessments and assessments of who wins bonuses and how fights end at a given weight class. The crown jewel of his work may be the Uber Tale of the Tape, which breaks down fighters by their numbers even further than a traditional tale of the tape. Great work is being done by all of these people. Don’t let the fact that they are ahead of the curve dissuade you from following their stuff. Just catch up to them.