- George Willis
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Rashad Evans was walking around Brooklyn, N.Y., earlier this year, spending a couple of weeks hanging out with friends. He spent much of his time in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and although Evans is one of the best-known fighters in the UFC, he was hardly recognized by people of color.
"I can count everybody on one hand that recognized I was a fighter," Evans told ESPN.com. "It's not that I was looking for that. But if I was somewhere where there were a lot more white people, it would have been a lot more people that recognized me."
The UFC has a huge fan base, as evidenced by its impressive pay-per-view numbers in a year when the nation's economy hasn't exactly soared. Yet, the number of African-American faces in the sellout crowds across the country is minimal, as the core audience remains predominantly white men and white women.
It's a dynamic the UFC is starting to address. Having more fans, regardless of the color or nationality, means more revenue, and UFC president Dana White is all about making more green.
Two of UFC's highest-profile African-American fighters will be on display and plying their trade at UFC 92 on Saturday. Evans will challenge Forrest Griffin for the light heavyweight championship in the main event, and former light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson will face Brazilian Wanderlei Silva.
Evans and Jackson are to their sport what a Shane Mosley or Antonio Tarver is to boxing. But the UFC has yet to establish the types of ethnic followings that boxing has cultivated. To speed up the process, White is connecting the UFC with the hip-hop industry.
UFC helped promote 50 Cent's new single "Get Up" during UFC 91 with a music video featuring Brock Lesnar and Randy Couture. And earlier this month, Evans, Griffin and other UFC fighters, including Frank Mir, had a side-by-side presence with 50 Cent and LL Cool J at the 2008 Video Game Awards.
These are subtle marketing tools that fit in line with what Evans thinks is a good away to attract African-Americans to the UFC. "I don't know what [the UFC] can do besides going after that demographic in areas that the demographic would be into," Evans said. "It's the hip-hop world or things like that."
White says aligning with hip-hop artists such as 50 Cent and LL Cool J is a natural fit that could open many doors. "Originally, when the sports [media] wouldn't cover us, Hollywood did," White said. "Entertainers always want to be athletes, and athletes want to be entertainers. All the stuff we're doing with 50 Cent is giving us exposure because he's reaching out to his fans and letting them know what he's doing."
Speaking specifically about attracting the African-American market, White said: "It's going to take time. But we're going to end up with the urban market and we're going to end up with the Hispanic market, too. Mixed martial arts is the future. They're eventually going to gravitate to it. They already are."
Attracting more of the African-American market is just part of White's global strategy to increase the UFC's popularity across the planet. The organization's stable of fighters comes from all countries and nationalities, and White plans to capitalize on that diversity.
"The reality is nothing in this country is bigger than the NFL," White said. "I don't care if you just watch one football game all season, everybody watches the Super Bowl. It's huge. The NFL is spending billions of dollars to break into other countries, but it's never going to happen. Nobody cares about the NFL in other countries. They don't understand the rules, and they don't get it. But I can get two guys, I put them in the Octagon and they can use any martial art they want it transcends all cultural barriers, all language barriers because it's fighting. At the end of the day, I don't care what color you are or what language you speak, we're all human beings and fighting is in our DNA."
The diversity among fighters and fans is something Griffin appreciates. "That's one of the cool things about the UFC is that you have every nationality and every country involved," he said. "You've got people from all over the world, from every race and mixture and religion. It only seems to me that the fan base would be a makeup of the fighters themselves."
Jackson has fought all over the world and is convinced economics will push the UFC to market not only to African-Americans but to all ethnicities.
"If the UFC is out to make more money, which most businesses are, I think to get more fans of any nationality is a good idea," Jackson said. "All the European-Americans know about MMA because they do martial arts and stuff like that. But most African-Americans are mostly into football or basketball."
It's not a stretch to suggest that fighters such as Evans and Jackson are pioneers of sorts. As the UFC and MMA become more mainstream, these men are among the first group of African-American stars, fighters who can serve as role models to others.
"That doesn't really cross my mind when I'm fighting," Jackson said. "What crosses my mind is being focused on knocking out my opponent. I'm cool with any nationality watching me. I'd be happy if I had some alien fans as long as they buy the pay-per-view and put some more money in my pocket."
George Willis is the boxing columnist for the New York Post.
7hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com
21hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler