Hype is a funny thing. It can hurt you. It can help you. It can build you up at breakneck speeds only to tear you down when it sees fit. It’s wild. It’s unpredictable.
Sometimes it arrives precisely when you think it will, and sometimes it sidles up on you and smiles. Some ask for it, others don’t. But no matter how you slice it, hype is what sustains a fighter.
This list consists of the 10 fighters who have suffered through a spectacular whirlwind of hype. A few were consumed by it, others thrived, and some’s fates are still at its whimsy. Here is hype’s most wanted list.
10.) Phil Baroni
Some fighters on this list are innocent victims of their hype, but in Phil Baroni’s case it was entirely his fault.
The bombastic Baroni treated former middleweight champion Dave Menne’s head like a fleshy speed bag for about 10 seconds then vaulted onto the top of the cage and, notoriously, screamed “I’m the best evaaaa!”
This is something not totally inappropriate to yell when you pummel a former champ in such an impressive and vicious manner, unless it was your sixth career fight and that former champ was Dave Menne.
But at the time, people bought it. Seeing Baroni as a future champion wasn’t a tough sell. Among other things, he was loud, egotistical, pompous, mean-spirited, flashy and could throw bombs. He’s like if Apollo Creed stumbled onto the set of “The Jersey Shore.”
So we had a guy who looked every bit like a budding superstar, sounded like every east coast stereotype ever, only more annoying, and called himself “The New York Bad Ass.” How did Baroni possibly screw this up?
Well, he lost his next four fights, which sort of damages your reputation as the best fighter ever. When it was all said and done, Big Phil’s record was 14-15 and his chances of being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame are probably pretty small.
And though he’s one of the most overhyped fighters ever, he remains one of the most underrated underwear models in recent memory.
9.) Ronda Rousey
At this point in her career, Ronda Rousey seems like some bizarrely successful cross between Cody McKenize and Brock Lesnar; her entire skill set is built around a novelty, her public persona magnified infinitely by her appearance and personality. Yet, even after only six professional fights and one title defense, many are heralding her as, potentially, the biggest star in MMA history.
Let’s start with her fighting, which is obviously the most important factor. Clearly, she’s good. You don’t beat solid opponents like Miesha Tate and Sarah Kaufman by being otherwise. Yet, even in her dominance, we know almost nothing about what she can do in the ring.
Can she take a punch? Can she maintain her aggression past the first round? Can she do literally anything besides slap on an armbar?
We do know that, athletically, she’s been far superior to her opponents thus far, and her grappling is world class. That’s it. Sound like a certain male fighter with a blond flat-top and a giant sword scrawled across his chest?
While she’s good in the ring and great outside of it, the chance of her maintaining her level of success as a fighter is slim (especially with Cris Cyborg looming) and the odds of her maintaining her success as a celebrity are even slimmer. She’s exciting and fun, for now. Can’t we leave it at that?
8.) Royce Gracie
Some people collect stamps or baseball cards or rare birds, Gracie collected limbs.
Through the first four UFC tournaments Gracie not only had amassed a rather impressive collection of appendages, he was also unbeaten and quickly gaining mythic status. People, for the life of them, couldn’t figure out how this little man in a gi was beating brutes twice his size, and when he returned from retirement to face welterweight champ Matt Hughes, everyone just assumed that Hughes would be walking out of the ring missing an arm.
Hughes himself admitted that he figured he’d go in there and Gracie would throw on some magical submission he had never heard of and that would be that. Ironically, the opposite happened.
Gracie looked slow and clueless for most of the short fight, and when the action hit the mat it was Hughes who locked in a tight armlock. After Gracie refused to tap, Hughes, ever the gentleman, released the hold and defeated Gracie a few seconds later via strikes.
Now, every legend who has ever fought in MMA has lost at least one fight, so Gracie’s fate wasn’t condemned after one blemish on his record. It’s how he lost that tarnished him.
Leading up to the Hughes fight, Gracie’s mythos was spun out on a continuous loop. His introduction by Bruce Buffer was so long-winded that it took nearly a minute, which was about twice as long as he was actually in the fight. The hype was so significantly greater than his actual performance that many people, including Hughes, simply looked puzzled after how easily he was dismantled.
Gracie is obviously still a mythic figure in the sport of MMA and will always have his place in the annals of history for being its first champion. But at UFC 60, he was exposed as one-dimensional (which, granted, all early-era fighters were) and when you stack him up against today’s UFC fighters, even at his absolute pinnacle, he probably couldn’t hang with the bottom of the promotion’s barrel.
7.) Brandon Vera
There has been exactly one person to become both UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, and the fact that we actually thought Brandon Vera could become the second is borderline psychotic.
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time back in 2006 when we really thought “The Truth” could deliver on both his promise and his promises. Vera was slick on both his feet and on the mat, knocking out anyone who dared stand with him and finishing off the leftovers whenever the fights went to ground.
He started his career 8-0 with seven finishes. It looked like he was going to be the next Jon Jones before we even knew who that was. Vera was that impressive.
But over the next six years, Vera went 4-6 and has generally had a miserable time in the octagon. He got outpointed by old man Randy Couture, got his face reduced to dust and skull fragments by a Jones elbow, was given his walking papers after a beatdown to Thiago Silva, only to be welcomed back begrudgingly after Silva’s urine turned out to be radioactive, and at his ultimate low point, barely won a decision over Elliot Marshall.
In retrospect, Vera’s torrid start in the UFC might have been smoke and mirrors. He was, by and large, fighting medium to slightly above average heavyweights during a time when the heavyweight division might as well have been a thumb tack and belly button lint.
Oh, he did beat Frank Mir, who was still recovering from a horrific motorcycle accident, which is like saying you crossed over Derrick Rose the day after his ACL exploded.
Vera recently made somewhat of a career resurgence when he looked game and eager, albeit slow and sluggish, against Shogun Rua. But he still lost, and his career record is now 12-6, which seems so pedestrian for someone who once looked like MMA’s next big thing.
6.) Hector Lombard
For years, Hector Lombard was MMA’s biggest “what if.” What if he fought better competition? What if he fought in the UFC? The questions were valid and the answers unclear, though a lot of fans speculated that no matter who you placed in front of Lombard, the results would remain the same.
Heck, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney told me personally in an interview that he would bet his house that Lombard would defeat Anderson Silva if they ever fought. A few weeks ago that didn’t seem that outlandish. Now? Well, it’s rather amazing that Rebney can run a successful company with such poor judgment.
When Lombard made his highly, extremely, magnificently anticipated UFC debut against a game but unspectacular fighter in Tim Boetsch, pretty much everyone expected Lombard to fight like a wild man to prove a point. Instead, Lombard fought with all the urgency of a heavily sedated manatee.
He stumbled around the octagon like he was intoxicated from eating too much raw meat (which he probably was) while Boetsch did literally the bare minimum to beat him on points. As far as let downs go, this ranks slightly above The Sopranos ending and just below finding out that Santa isn’t real.
Now there’s claims being made that Lombard was hurt, but really, the damage is done. He’s become the unwanted poster child for the overhyped non-UFC fighter, the guys who steamroll nobodies in smaller organizations, inflate their records to absurd proportions, then promptly lose or emphatically disappoint in their first fight in the octagon. Jorge Santiago, Jake Shields, bow down to Lombard. This guy should be your idol.
5.) Fedor Emelianenko
Depending on if you want to be right or wrong, you probably think Fedor is either the first or second greatest fighter of all-time. The Last Emperor truly is a legend; he is to MMA what Babe Ruth is to baseball and Jack the Ripper is to disembowelment.
For nearly a decade he ruled over MMA with a nonchalant aura of dominance and a winning column the length of an unabridged dictionary. The guy was like cold steel, an eerily calm and destructive Russian warrior who ate democracy for breakfast. His image was that of a god, an immortal. But in reality, Fedor was very, very human, with flaws and failings just like anyone else.
After starting his career with pristine 31-1 record, the great Fedor was finished three consecutive times. He flew into Fabricio Werdum’s eager guard like an ADCC world championship can be picked up at a pawn shop, either ignoring or foolishly dismissing the submission prowess of one of the best jiu-jitsu practitioners on the planet.
He engaged Dan Henderson, a man who has fought the majority of his career at middleweight mind you, in a slugfest, which he promptly and emphatically lost. And just like that, a man who for years soared so high above the rest of the MMA world came crashing back to earth like the fleshy, doughy plebian that he is.
For a decade he was proclaimed the Baddest Man on the Planet, an unstoppable and unbeatable machine without imperfections or deficiencies. Then he lost for the first time, the winning streak that defined him lost to history, and it became apparent that Fedor was very beatable, and he always had been.
He was never the biggest or strongest or most skilled of heavyweights, but he always found a way to win and we loved him for it. It’s not Fedor’s fault that at the end of his career he couldn’t live up to the heavy burden of expectations that were placed upon him. He never wanted any of it. He ever claimed to be anything but a family man from Stary Oskol who loved God.
We made him into something he wasn’t and could never be, and in that regard, Fedor is one of the most egregious victims of the hype machine.
4.) Bob Sapp
Most people’s hype rapidly fades after losses start to pile up. Bob Sapp is not one of these people.
A bona fide celebrity in Japan after just two professional fights, Sapp had a big body and bigger personality and was able to sustain his stardom long after it was apparent he would never be more than a novelty inside the ring. Japanese fans didn’t care. And for that matter, neither did Sapp.
Things did start out well enough for the former NFL lineman, winning nine of his first 12 fights and delivering one of MMA’s first “holy crap did you see that?” moments when he pile drove Minotauro Nogueira into the ground like he was trying to dig a hole to China with the poor man’s cranium.
Sapp would go on to lose the fight, and in fact, would lose 15 fights over the next six years, but something as silly and trivial as a loss could never derail something as powerful and momentous as the Bob Sapp hype train.
Part of the reason he was so popular (OK, all of the reason) was that he was the largest, scariest thing to hit Japan since that last time a giant monster attacked Tokyo not too long ago. The fans ate it up from the get go, and Sapp gladly played into it. Which was a good idea, really, because he was never much of a fighter.
Sapp has, and I can’t believe I’m about to type this, four submission losses via punches. He gives up easier than a 90-pound Star Trek fan trying to lose his virginity.
Still, Sapp was a popular attraction until he mercifully retired earlier this year, in lieu of an absurd nine-fight losing streak. He is, and probably always will be, the most famous and hyped terrible fighter of all time.
3.) Mark Kerr
Mark Kerr is the precursor to every so-called “unbeatable fighter” ever. He was the first Brock Lesnar, the second King Kong, the biggest, baddest dude you’ve ever seen and figured could never be defeated by anything less than an automatic weapon.
The guy’s resume is so impressive it looks like a bad forge job. He was a high school state champion wrestler, a NCAA Division 1 champ and the USA Senior Freestyle Champion in 1994. He won the first three MMA tournaments he entered, two of which were UFC’s, and started his career 11-0 with 10 finishes.
No joke, one of his fights were won when his opponent, clearly scared to death at the prospect of getting his bones grinded into the canvas, crawled out of the freaking ring. That’s how scary this guy was.
They called him “The Smashing Machine,” “The Titan” and “The Specimen.” Many thought he was going to ruin the sport of MMA because he was simply too good. Of course, everyone was wrong.
Kerr’s problem was that he was a front runner, always had been. When he was the bully, he literally was unbeatable. But at the slightest hint of adversity, Kerr would fold like a bad hand.
After his first loss to Igor Vovachanchyn (which was later ruled a NC) Kerr was wracked with fear and insecurity every time he set foot in a ring. He would finish his career on a 4-11 streak and form a well documented addiction to painkillers.
More so than any other person on this list, Kerr’s monumental fall from grace was the saddest and hardest to watch. He was billed as an infallible titan. He lived the life of a troubled and tormented soul whose worst enemy was always himself.
2.) Brock Lesnar
The first thing they teach you in journalism classes is not to start stories with a question, but seriously, could defining Brock Lesnar’s career be any more complicated?
He is such an enigma that forming a coherent sentence about him is nearly impossible. When he was on, which was about twice, he looked like an unbeatable force of God’s unquenchable wrath. When he was off, which was also about twice, it looked like a noogie would force him to crumble to the floor.
He had the sport’s quickest ascension to superstardom, and it’s most rapid plummet to irrelevance. He came and conquered in four MMA fights and was retired by his eighth. So, again, how do you define Brock Lesnar?
Well, for starters, he was incredibly overhyped. That much is obvious. We looked at Lesnar and saw everything you could want in a heavyweight champion. His body, simply put, was designed for crushing things; his mouth constructed to piss people off.
He had the tattoos, those skulls and swords and dripping blood, that made him look like fighting was what he did to warm up for the killing sprees he went on. Everything he did was a spectacle, everything he said was a controversy. And we ate it up. If anyone can deliver on all the hype, we thought, it would be this monster.
But he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t, nobody could have. We built him up too much too fast. His limited skills and infantile fighting experience couldn’t catch up to the massive persona we had built for him.
Getting deathly sick from diverticulitis derailed his training twice, and if he had been able to stay in the gym and add on to his incredible wrestling base, maybe things could have been different.
Maybe he would still be ruling over MMA with those massive paws of his. Most likely, though, Brock Lesnar would have failed no matter what. The hype was simply too much to bear, even for a man of his dimensions.
1.) Chael Sonnen
Chael Sonnen’s mouth should be given the Pulitzer Prize, because never before have sequences of words achieved such spectacular results.
Three years ago, Sonnen was just some guy you had seen fight that one time against that other guy. He was good, but very unspectacular and extremely forgettable. Then he went on a nice little run, beating Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami, and he started opening his big mouth. He hasn’t closed it since.
Sonnen has lost 12 times, including three to journeyman extraordinaire Jeremy Horn, and has never won a major title of any kind. Yet, incredibly, he has a large legion of groupies believing he is one of the best fighters of all time.
The guy is such a remarkably gifted talker that when he said he once saw the Nogueira brothers trying to feed a bus a carrot, you sort of believed him. You have to consciously remind yourself that practically nothing that comes out of his mouth is true.
Amongst other things, Sonnen has said he is the best fighter in the world (not true), Anderson Silva dodged him for three years (not true), receiving a black belt from the Nogueira brothers is like getting a toy in a Happy Meal (not true), and most recently, after the UFC 151/Jon Jones debacle, that he was the greatest icon this sport has ever seen and its highest paid star (um, really?).
He even blatantly, yet still very convincingly, lied to Dan LeBatard on ESPN about never saying that after he beat Silva he was going to waltz into his house, smack his wife on the butt and tell her to make him a steak.
That being said, Sonnen’s standing as a very solid fighter in this sport is cemented, and his willingness to step in and fight Jones on eight days notice is so ballsy even Superman blushed when he heard it. This guy would fight a lightning bolt on a rainy day.
But the fact that a 27-12 middleweight was even asked to step in and fight against, inarguably, the most talented fighter in the world who should be fighting at heavyweight, is even more testament to how insanely over-hyped he is.
In three years he went from just some guy to an ESPN regular who gets the call when pound for pound stalwarts need a fight. Actually, with a mouth like his, it’s amazing it even took that long.
About the Author
Written by Erik Schmidt
I was born into a rich sports tradition in Chicago and graduated with a degree in super fandom from Marquette University. As the sports editor and columnist for the award-winning student newspaper the Marquette Tribune, I interviewed current NBA players Wes Matthews, Lazar Hayward, Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, and talked LeBron and the lockout with ESPN's Chris Broussard during a televised roundtable discussion. I firmly believe that Derrick Rose is the best player in the NBA, the Cubs are honest to God cursed and that Jay Cutler has never smiled. The world's greatest sport is MMA, and though I don't have any real fighting experience, I once received 10 stitches in a bar fight. Enjoy my work, and best wishes.