How times have changed! The number of social media followers and the length of one's Wikipedia page are the measuring sticks of popularity in the digital age that has consumed us to the gills.
It's relatively easy to become famous in the age of virality; case in point, the incredibly vexing Paul brothers, the catch me outside girl – the list of celebrities who got famous for virtual stupidity is endless. However, why am I unleashing my vitriol against the digital facade on a sports website?
Coming straight to the point, MMA may be an extremely entertaining sport to watch, but the rise of it has to be attributed partly to the social media boom. A large chunk of the UFC fanbase gravitated towards the unhinged spectacle of art and destruction through highlight reel knockouts and montages that circulated on Facebook, Twitter, and other social websites. The larger than life personalities of MMA also saw an augmented fan following as the emphasis shifted to online branding. MMA was always destined to blow up but social media channels were the required catalysts in the process.
From being brandished as a sport too brutal for the masses, MMA is now viewed as the most exciting demonstration of athletic excellence. However, without the fighters themselves, none of it would have been possible irrespective of social media or the countless marketing strategies.
This slider takes a lot at those select few mixed martial artists who are synonymous with the success of UFC. These fighters are responsible for turning casuals into hardcore fans and continue to do so, owing to their reputation. Even if someone is not an all-out MMA fan, he or she may have surely heard of at least one name on this list, if not some.
#5 Chuck Liddell
Beginning the list with the Iceman himself, Chuck Liddell was one of the earliest, if not the first mainstream star in UFC history. The former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion was the epitome of a badass with unsurmountable ruthlessness and equal amounts of coolness.
Liddell is credited for increasing the stock of the UFC in the early 2000s and had the knack of producing the one-punch knockouts regarded as the staple requirement for every new MMA fan. He was a perennial fan favorite who has the most finishes (14) and wins (16) in UFC's Light Heavyweight division from a total of 23 fights. His overall marketability was instrumental in the UFC's rise and acceptance on a larger scale in the United States and other combat-crazy countries. The Mohawk aka Icehawk and his hammer of a right hand are iconic entities in MMA folklore.
Liddell may not be in the best of times currently, but his contribution to the UFC as well as his popularity can't be ignored. But, it takes two hands to clap and Liddell needed a worthy dance partner to take UFC to next pedestal.
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#4 Randy Couture
If there was one man who aged like fine wine in MMA, it has to be Randy Couture. The first multi-divisional UFC Champion is as legendary as they come. His accomplishments may never be replicated inside the Octagon as he was a 'Natural' as his nickname suggests.
The UFC Hall of Famer reached his peak in his 40s! He is the oldest champion in UFC history, has the most title fights (15) and title reigns (6), and was the most recognizable face in the UFC when MMA was rapidly growing to be the next big thing.
His trilogy against Liddell took the sport to new heights and inspired many aspiring fighters to take MMA seriously as a profession. These young prospects, as we know, ushered in the next lucrative generation of the UFC.
Couture, though, capitalized on the fame gained through his exploits inside the Octagon and transitioned to acting. He is best remembered for his roles in the Expendables series and continues to be revered fan-favorite in the world of MMA and entertainment.
Talking about entertainment, moving on to the man who beat Couture and is quite familiar with the term 'sports entertainment'.
#3 Brock Lesnar
Now, we know that Lesnar's inclusion on this list may draw some criticism as he was already famous before he came to the UFC. Well, Lesnar multiplied the numbers UFC were generating with his arrival as the former WWE Champion got hordes of clueless pro wrestling fans along with him to the Octagon.
Unlike CM Punk, Lesnar came into unfamiliar territory and conquered it in record time. Despite having just 9 MMA fights, Lesnar is a former UFC Heavyweight Champion and holds victories over Frank Mir, Shane Carwin and of course, Couture.
Lesnar may have been destroyed by Cain Valesquez and Alistair Overeem, but he proved that he is a legitimate beast of a human being during his sporadic appearances. Lesnar was the UFC's biggest draw before a certain Conor McGregor changed the game as we know it.
He may have his haters but Lesnar's universality is undisputed. UFC's success would have been a notch lower had it not been for the Beast Incarnate and thankfully for the promotion, he lived up to the hype by having a briefly dominant run.
He isn't done though and we're sure to see him back inside the Octagon soon to possibly reclaim the highest PPV figures record from the Notorious One. Hope he doesn't get juiced this time around though and finishes his WWE commitments for one final stint with the UFC.
Ahh yes, the WWE has reminded us about the next entrant on this list.
#2 Ronda Rousey
Rousey has taken to pro wrestling really well, hasn't she? The highly embarrassing twin losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes inarguably laid a dent to the aura of the former UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion. But, Rousey's fame is unparalleled which explains her success in WWE.
Her much-hyped title reign which had six successful title reigns is a principle reason as to why women are a major feature in the UFC. As stated in one of my previous articles, Rousey is the biggest marketing gimmick of the UFC which peaked to unimaginable levels, yet, horribly tanked after her striking weaknesses became the talk of the town.
Many may dismiss Rowdy as a coward for leaving UFC for the 'fake' world of WWE, but even her most staunch critics can't overshadow her impact on MMA. Rousey wasn't the most well-rounded fighters but she was the most marketable one during a phase when there were resounding calls for women to get equal status and rights as the men.
Rousey is undoubtedly one of the most influential athletes of this century and has managed to uphold her mass appeal in various showbiz avenues that include movies, TV and not to forget, the WWE.
The UFC Hall of Famer has her detractors in the hardcore MMA fanbase but her popularity continues to soar with each passing day.
#1 Conor McGregor
It's not just the UFC, but MMA, in general, needed someone like Conor McGregor to step up and transform some of the aspects of the sport. The loud-mouthed Irishman just doesn't just like to fight but also relishes selling those fights.
He was a nobody in 2013. Fast forward to 2018 and the man is worth more than $110 Million He is the most searched UFC fighter on google and ranks 18th amongst other sporting personalities for 2018. The staggering rise isn't all about the trash talk though, as the Notorious One has walked the talk for a majority of his career. He was exposed in his first fight against Nate Diaz and most recently against Khabib Nurmagomedov, but look at were his aforementioned rivals are at this moment. Both Khabib and Diaz are richer and more famous than they've ever been.
McGregor is a proven draw who has improved on his PPV figures and gate figures each time he fights in the UFC.
Heck, Mcgregor even managed to get Floyd Mayweather out of retirement for one of the biggest and most profitable boxing matches in history. The former multi-divisional UFC Champion has the unrivaled charisma and the gift of gab which are also coincidently the notable traits of the legendary Muhammad Ali. And yes, McGregor is nowhere close to Ali's level but the Mystic Mac has that 'something' no one else has in MMA.
McGregor is not a just a fighter. He is a businessman. A brand. A billionaire in the making and a future UFC Hall of Famer. You can hate the man but you can't doubt the fact that McGregor is the most popular MMA fighter on the planet.