Rashad Evans v. Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson And The Role Of Race In UFC 114's Marketing

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Rashad Evans v. Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson And The Role Of Race In UFC 114's Marketing

When Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Rashad Evans step into the cage Saturday night at UFC 114 it will be the first time two African-American fighters have ever headlined a UFC event.  Kid Nate of Bloody Elbow wrote a piece and much debate followed over just how important race truly is in combat sports marketing.

There really isn't a debate to how important race has been in boxing marketing.  Mexican and African-American fans have always identified with racial stars.  To this day the biggest stars for each race are significant cultural figures and the fanbase comes out in a way that is reflected in the huge buyrates that a fight like Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Juan Manuel Marquez was able to pull.  Boxing even has "Latin Fury" cards on pay-per-view catering entirely to the Latino fanbase.

Clearly there is a difference between boxing and MMA in that boxing has a long history and a wealth of "cultural currency" that has built up a connection between fans and athletes.  MMA is a much newer sport, unlike boxing the sport hasn't existed while the success of a black fighter such as Jack Johnson or Muhammad Ali was seen as having much deeper meaning to people than simply any other athlete succeeding.

When Rampage and Evans meet it won't be a Jackie Robinson taking the field moment and I don't think anyone is attempting to argue that it will be. What matters in this fight is expanding the sport's appeal within a group that is somewhat under-served  currently. Prior to this fight the most divisionally relevant contest between two African-American fighters was at UFC 19 when the winner of a mid-card bout between Kevin Randleman and Maurice Smith would advance to meet Bas Rutten for the UFC heavyweight title at a later date.  That is a very long time to go without a high level bout between black fighters and helps to show exactly why this fight is a big deal if the UFC wants to gain a better foothold in the black community.

From a recent post at MMA For Real:

"Urban-sense" catapulted Jay-Z, son of Marcy Projects, to pop culture ubiquity whereas a Lupe Fiasco-type will never be so embraced by the African-American community. A lot of black people will never watch a Clint Eastwood film, but will come out in droves for Tyler Perry's latest offering. These same reasons are why UFC 114 on Saturday is likely the most important offering by Zuffa since UFC 100 last July.


What was so special about these two fighters was the potential they carried for inroads with the black community. They were two sides of the same coin: Rampage was rap and Evans was R&B; one came from the streets of Memphis and wore a chain around his neck, the other from Detroit with smooth style (I know he’s really from Niagara Falls, but he reps MSU and perception is everything). And they are still perhaps the only currency the UFC has to cash in with the black community.

Anderson Silva is an outsider and not African-American. Jon Jones is too clean-cut. Anthony Johnson has potential, but George St. Pierre and a litany of elite welterweight fighters stand atop the mountain he must climb. So for now, Rampage and Rashad hold a monopoly on "Urban-sense" in the UFC. Coupled with their talent and charisma, they might just be the two most valuable assets on the UFC roster. And their collision this weekend represents the high-water mark for African-Americans in Mixed Martial Arts’ brief history.

If you think the UFC doesn't realize the importance of using this fight to make inroads compare the promo for this fight:


To the last time Jackson fought:

Or the last time Evans fought:

There is a clear difference in the way they're promoting this fight compared to every other event in the history of the UFC.  And this is likely a very good thing for the future of the sport.

Finally, race and behavioral expectations have played a very large role in the hype done by Jackson and Evans to this point.  From a piece by Ben Fowlkes of MMA Fighting:

...the "Rampage" Jackson-Rashad Evans fight is a delicate matter for the UFC and its fans, and the clip of Jackson promising "black-on-black crime" after Evans confronted him in the UFC-sanctioned face-off a year ago is a prime example of it.

On one hand, it's an indelible moment that provides valuable marketing material for the UFC. On the other, it probably appeals primarily to a certain segment of the white UFC audience that the rest of us should be embarrassed by.

If you don't believe me, just ask Evans. On last week's UFC 114 media call he called Jackson out for perpetuating negative stereotypes with his public persona. Jackson's response? He accused Evans of being gay.

Not exactly the highest level of discourse at work.

But it's not just Evans, who has every reason to be ungenerous to Jackson after all the animosity that's brewed between them. In a recent conversation with "King" Mo Lawal he repeatedly singled Jackson out for playing to the prejudices of white MMA fans, saying, "All that 'black-on-black crime' stuff, acting like a dog, who do you think that's for? It's not for [African-American fans], and you know it."

The main idea coming from Evans (and Lawal) is that Jackson is "playing a character" to appeal to the white audience (which makes up the majority of the fanbase) with the chain wearing, howling and his willingness to spew catchphrases.  There is an uncomfortable tone here where Evans and Lawal almost bringing up old school Muhammad Ali tactics where he accused men like Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrel of being "Uncle Toms" for perceived attempts to appeal to the white fanbase.  Clearly Evans isn't being as outright insulting to Jackson as a person as Ali often was when saying things such as "I'm gonna put him flat on his back, so that he will start acting Black; because when he was champ he didn't do as he should, he tried to force himself into an all-White neighborhood."

From the hype around racial expectations to the new tone of the marketing efforts, this is probably the most central that race has ever been in the build-up to a UFC main event.  And while this may be uncomfortable and even unwelcome to some fans, this is an important event in the history of the sport and may be something we eventually look back on as a time when there was a shift in the appeal of the game.

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