The YouTube effect: Celebrities and combat sports.


Celebrities trying to make an impact in combat sport is nothing new. Over the years we've had pro wrestlers, NFL players, baseball stars, and even YouTube personalities stand in the squared circle or the cage. Just a couple of weeks ago we had YouTube sensations Logan Paul and KSI take on each other in a 6 round boxing match, which after all the hype on social media, ended in a draw.



Boxing is one thing, but with MMA being one of the fastest growing sports on the planet, are we going to see a rise in celebrity participation in the toughest sport around? There is a new mainstream audience for MMA, so the sport wants to become more mainstream.

It's not a completely new concept, celebrities fighting in a cage goes way back to the early nineties. But with the rise of the UFC, the lure for trading leather has grown in the world of celebrities. There has been the more natural transition from WWE to the UFC, Brock Lesnar won the UFC heavyweight strap of course, but his former pro wrestling colleague CM Punk hasn't fared so well, going 0-2 in the Octagon so far. Punk's two defeats thus far in the Octagon are unlikely to help his odds on Paddy Power for future bouts, although the fact that his most recent fight was lost by unanimous decision should give him some hope of future success.

Kickboxing and MMA organisation K-1 were the frontrunners in matching celebrities with professional fighters, the fights usually taking place in Japan where rules on fighter safety and fair match-ups were, shall we say, lax. These contests did not go well for the celebrities or former pro wrestlers involved.

One of the first of these fights was between the late pro wrestler Bam Bam Bigelow and Kimo Leopoldo in 1996. Bigelow was a big draw in what was then WWF and weighing over 400 pounds with a head covered in red flame tattoos, he looked like a legitimate hard man.

But in those days anyone hoping to survive in the cage needed even a basic grasp of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Bigelow didn't. But his opponent, Kimo Leopoldo, was an experienced veteran, famous for being the first man to beat Royce Gracie on the mats. Kimo quickly took the bigger man down and after raining down strike after strike on the hapless Bigelow, he secured a rear naked choke to chalk up an easy win.



A few years later another former wrestling star, Dr Death, faced off against ISKA world champion and multiple K-1 Grand Prix Champion Alexey Ignashov. The fight was a one sided demolition job with Ignashov ruthlessly finishing Dr Death in 21 seconds with a brutal barrage of kicks and knees. Nowadays a match up like this would simply not be allowed to happen, but unfortunately for Dr Death and his nose, it did back then. Other failures inside the cage include the former heavyweight world champion boxer James Toney and baseball star Jose Canseco.

There has been some success among the ranks of celebrity crossovers into MMA. Former NFL star Herschel Walker signed with Strikeforce in 2009 and made his MMA debut at the ripe old age of 48. He went on to win two in a row but when the UFC bought out Strikeforce, Walker was one of many casualties of the cull.

Then there was WBO heavyweight boxing champ Ray Mercer who knocked out former UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia with one punch in under ten seconds. And former football player and pro wrestler Bobby Lashley has chalked up a decent record fighting under the Strikeforce and Bellator banners. More recently, NFL superstar Greg Hardy debuted on Dana White's contender series and is currently 3-0 as a professional mixed martial artist.



So will we see a celebrity who hasn't come from a combat sports background face off against a fledged UFC fighter in the future? The UFC banked a lot of PPV money off the back of Brock Lesnar and CM Punk so it's a distinct possibility. Most fighters on the roster wouldn't agree with that materialising, but former two weight champion Georges St-Pierre has spoken about the promotion hosting these types of fights before.

"Nowadays, you can be the elite, but it's like a reality show, too," St-Pierre said when asked the question at a press conference in Australia a couple of years ago, for local station Submission Radio. "The world has changed, and I think we need to evolve with it.

"The UFC has become more mainstream, and to attract more mainstream fans, you need to have more mainstream athletes. I think it's a good thing. But let's not confuse who's who."

Of course there are going to be some that will not agree with St-Pierre, but the celebrity draw certainly makes sense financially if you're Dana White and the UFC. With PPV buys fluctuating over the last few months, maybe a fresh injection of well-known faces could be the answer moving forward. While it's extremely unlikely that the UFC would sign someone who has zero background in combat sports to a fight against a veteran, you can never say never. The possibilities are endless, the outcomes, usually predictable.
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