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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
Craig: With MMA, or more concisely the UFC, becoming more mainstream and gaining momentum, how long before we see our first major sportswear sponsor jumping on board? I'm thinking Jon Jones lands a Nike deal.
A: First of all, there are a number of MMA fighters who already have mainstream sponsorships; it just so happens that once the deals are announced, the MMA community changes the definition of mainstream.
When Georges St-Pierre signed deals with Gatorade and Under Armour, all anyone could talk about was how big it was for MMA. When Anderson Silva signed deals with Burger King and Nike (and he wasn't even the first MMA fighter to do so), it was a big deal for a couple of weeks as well. However, ultimately because these sponsorships don't really impact the sport's standing in the United States, people write them off.
Anderson Silva was just on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in Brazil and all anyone could talk about in American MMA circles is what kind of japes Chael Sonnen might send his way.
More to your point though, it's only a matter of time before a major American sportswear company sponsors an American mixed martial artist. It sounds shocking, but the fact is there just haven't been many great American MMA fighters. Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Dan Henderson are the far and away the most accomplished American MMA fighters we've seen and none of them really has the kind of appeal that transcends the sport.
I'm sure Jon Jones will eventually put his legal issues behind him and score the big mainstream sponsorship that MMA "needs" to be classified as mainstream. However, I'm also sure that as soon as that happens, we'll all decide on a new imaginary brass ring for MMA athletes to capture.
Clay: What athletes outside of MMA would make great fighters? Who is the best pure athlete in MMA?
A: Whenever someone broaches the subject of potential non combat sports athletes crossing over into mixed martial arts, I usually find myself thinking about the tenth season of the Ultimate Fighter. You know, the season where the pleasantly plump Roy Nelson pretty much tore through a cast of ex-professional football players.
Obviously Nelson was and is still leagues more skilled than anyone from that season and that's why he won, but I feel like that season proved what it would look like if you took a bunch of professional athletes and threw them into the Octagon.
Marcus Jones, while somewhat skilled, couldn't take a punch to save his life and retired to save himself from serious injury. Brendan Schaub, while obviously a better athlete than most heavyweights, has been knocked unconscious every time he's taken a step towards the deeper end of the heavyweight talent pool.
In terms of athletic ability and fighting skill, Matt Mitrione is pretty much what people imagine when they think of professional athletes entering MMA; he's explosive, coordinated and he picks up on techniques quickly. However, as successful as he's been in his professional career, he still doesn't have great defensive wrestling or the experience to handle more savvy mixed martial artists (as we saw in his fight against Cheick Kongo).
You can never really know who will be a good mixed martial arts fighter until they actually compete. There is no way of knowing whether or not someone can take a punch until they get hit. There is no way of telling how an athlete will conceptualize grappling until they wind up on the mat. So really, I don't feel like I can answer the first part of your question.
As far as the second part of your question goes, I feel like I'm supposed to say Georges St-Pierre is the best athlete in MMA, but I'm going to go ahead and say B.J. Penn anyway.
We all know about Penn's conditioning troubles, but the fact is this is a guy who was pretty much born with all the physical gifts to be a successful professional athlete. He's coordinated, incredibly flexible, has shown great dexterity, his reflexes are uncanny and his aptitude for this particular sport is almost unheard of.
B.J. Penn earned his BJJ black belt and won the world championships in less time than it takes people to graduate high school.
Penn's look, attitude and physique may not scream "elite athlete" but he is; and as far as I can tell, that's without even trying too hard.
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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