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The 10 Most Polarizing People in MMA

By on March 20, 2013

jon jonesFighters like Nick Diaz, Michael Bisping, and even Georges St. Pierre have a strange effect on fans, inspiring undying loyalty in some and almost irrational disdain in others. After Diaz and GSP fought last weekend, it got me thinking who the most polarizing individuals in the sport really are. Here’s my shot at listing them…agree? Disagree? Shoot me an e-mail, send me a message on Twitter or leave a comment below and join the debate.

10. Greg Jackson

I almost gave this spot to Anderson Silva, who a few years ago would have been in the top five after some inexplicably strange performances against overmatched challengers Patrick Cote, Thales Leites, and Demian Maia. Since then, five straight finishes and two memorable feuds with Chael Sonnen have made those disappointing fights a distant memory, and he is widely regarded by fans as the all-time great that he is.

Taking his place is trainer extraordinaire Greg Jackson, who for quite some time was granted a huge amount of respect for training many successful fighters in his New Mexico gym. However, over the years, that respect has turned to criticism, as Jackson has somehow earned the reputation for employing too much strategy in his fighters’ gameplans (yes, too much strategy…in a sport). He’s also come under fire as the poster boy for trainers who don’t want their fighters to face one another, as well as for encouraging Jon Jones to turn down a late-notice fight with Chael Sonnen at UFC 151.

9. Chael Sonnen

Sonnen is hard to rank here. Is he really polarizing anymore? It seems like the people who used to hate him are now wise to his promotional antics, and how many really loyal fans does he actually have?

Sonnen still earns a spot because he always seems to be in the middle of major MMA controversies, including testosterone replacement therapy and the now-popular practice of trash-talking one’s way into big fights, which he may not have originated, but definitely mastered. The debate over whether he earned his title shot against Jon Jones alone shows that Sonnen still gets people’s blood pumping, one way or another.

8. BJ Penn

Penn is another fighter who would have been top five for much of his career on a list like this, but his inactivity in recent years and irrelevance to any divisional title picture has dropped him a few spots.

Penn still has many loyal fans, but he doesn’t get the hate that he used to back when he was telling Georges St. Pierre that he’d fight him “to the death”. Still, Penn’s a polarizing individual if only because of the debate over his place in the sport’s history, as well as because of his sometimes strange behavior (licking blood off his gloves post-fight, running out of the cage without giving an interview, alternately being bored of the sport and deciding he wants to be seen as “the greatest of all time”).

7. Michael Bisping

Bisping would be higher on this list if only he had more fans. At this point, even Bisping’s fan base in England doesn’t seem as strong as it used to be, with British fans having many more choices regarding whom to root for than they did when Bisping was the UFC’s only top-notch representative of British MMA.

Furthermore, while Bisping inspires as much fan hatred as anyone, there’s nothing like a couple of losses in a three-fight period to take a little of the fun out of rooting against someone. Still, Bisping enjoys riling up the fans and his opponents, so it’s hard to imagine this list ever not having him on it.

6. The Diaz brothers

I suppose the inclusion of both Diaz brothers makes this a top eleven, but that’s how it’s gotta be. The Diaz brothers are a duo til the end, and with younger brother Nate reaching elite status as a lightweight in recent years, he’s stopped being outshined by his big brother inside the cage, if not outside of it.

Even then, it’s closer than most people think. Nick may be more prone to unpredictable rants in interviews, but Nate is debatably more of a loose cannon at this point in his life. Of course, both of them still have quick tempers and brash fighting styles that inspire nearly equal amounts of admiration and disapproval from MMA fans.

5. Brock Lesnar

I thought for awhile about whether to include Lesnar (as well as my number four pick below) due to his being retired from the sport, but as recently as last year, there was talk about the former WWE champion returning to the Octagon to face (of all people) Fedor Emelianenko, so I think he’s fair game.

During his active career, Brock was often the most polarizing figure in the sport, period. He inspired many different reactions, from begrudging respect to outright dismissal and everything in between, but it was the emotional reactions of both his fans and detractors that made it clear how many buttons his participation in the sport pushed. It wasn’t just that he symbolized the ongoing discomfort of MMA fans with the sport’s association with pro wrestling (however tenuous), but also Lesnar’s antics (see: UFC 100), fighting style, fighting ability, and just about everything else about him, from his outdoorsman/hermit lifestyle to his tattoos that kept fans from having a neutral stance on him.

Now that his career’s over, his legacy in the sport and to what extent he mattered as both a mainstream draw and an actual competitor are big debate topics among MMA fans.

4. Fedor Emelianenko

Like Brock, Fedor is still debated about to this day, and will be for years to come. Fedor, who is a conservative, religious man with a fighting style that can only be described as very entertaining, would not seem to be a polarizing individual. However, Fedor is symbolic of a struggle between two groups of fans: those who were around before “The Ultimate Fighter” and put fighters from that era on a pedestal, and those who have been around since and have little respect for fighters whose careers they simply don’t understand.

When Dana White decided to make his failed negotiations with Fedor’s management team quite public, it only fueled the debate over Fedor’s place in the sport’s ranks. Rather ignorant fans decided that because Fedor was “afraid” to fight in the UFC, he clearly was completely overrated and his accomplishments in Pride and elsewhere were invalid. Meanwhile, Fedor’s amazingly loyal fans continued to trumpet him as the undisputed greatest fighter of all time, even as he piled up three straight losses in his disappointing Strikeforce run.

3. Jon Jones

Jon Jones has somehow become a lightning rod for controversy, as it seems that every move he makes inspires criticism from detractors. Early in his career, his “goody two-shoes” image rubbed people the wrong way, and those people openly celebrated when a DWI charge proved that he wasn’t perfect.

Meanwhile, despite his outstanding performances in the cage that made him perhaps the most phenomenal young athlete the sport has ever seen, a good many people refused to give him credit, saying that he was only successful because of his reach and athleticism, as if those traits somehow take away from the impressiveness of his accomplishments.

When Jones decided not to take a fight with Chael Sonnen on eight days’ notice for UFC 151, it put him in the middle of a huge firestorm as UFC president Dana White decided to cancel the event outright for the first time in the promotion’s history, scapegoating Jones all the while. Furthermore, Jones has been at the center of other controversies, including allegedly pushing Rashad Evans (who is a polarizing fellow, himself) out of his own camp. His affiliation with Greg Jackson, who inspires both respect and plenty of criticism from fans, only makes him that much more polarizing to fans.

2. Georges St. Pierre

Like Jones, you’d think St. Pierre would be far, far away from this list. However, St. Pierre has become the avatar for what many see as what could be the downfall of the sport- an emphasis on competition and strategy over pure combat.

Now, part of the hate GSP gets is simply the “Yankee effect”. Fans get bored with dominant athletes and teams and simply want to see them lose after awhile. However, St. Pierre has also now won six straight fights by decision, spending 150 minutes in the cage without finishing an opponent. Fans have taken him to task for being a “boring” fighter who plays it too safe, with the narrative being that his upset loss to Matt Serra in 2007 fundamentally changed St. Pierre and made him a cautious fighter who is obsessed with limiting his opponent’s opportunities rather than aggressively looking to finish fights.

St. Pierre isn’t the most hated fighter on this list- not even close. However, he is perhaps the one who inspires the most equal number of fans and detractors, with both groups being quite vocal. St. Pierre may seem to be a fan favorite, but criticism of his performances, even though they have been one-sided victories, has increased with each passing fight. Furthermore, he hasn’t fought outside of Canada in three years, and there’s no telling how a crowd that isn’t allied with him for patriotic purposes would respond to him now that he’s become a rather methodical fighter. There’s a good chance that he’d inspire quite a few boos to go along with all of the cheers if he fought in Las Vegas next time around.

1. Dana White

I had to think pretty hard about putting White at the top spot, because he has such a massive legion of rather mindless followers that it sometimes seems that only a relative few actually bother to question the things that he does.

However, within the sports world at large, there are plenty who have taken notice of Dana White’s offbeat behavior, and not in a good way. White is the only figurehead in major sports who openly curses out fans on Twitter, feuds with athletes he employs through the media, and is as comfortable dropping f-bombs at a press conference as he is stating attendance figures.

While there are many who take everything White says as gospel, there are also many who question whether White’s particular way of doing business is always the best thing for the fans or the fighters. While White claims that he never lets his personal feelings get in the way of business, media members who have been black-listed from UFC events and fighters who have found themselves on the outside of the Octagon looking in not because of a deficiency of talent, but because of a refusal to toe the line, may beg to differ.

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1 comment
  1. Mick says:

    I really only have one comment about these picks and it is about Bisping “The No-count”. When his fighting record is reviewed closely it is obvious that he has never knocked out anyone, of any skill level in his time in the UFC. In fact his record outside the UFC and mostly in England and Europe are all he has to bolster his career. When he won by sttoppage against Jorge Rivera it was following the controversial illegal knee to Rivera’s head and face. Spitting, talking garbage, disrespecting each and every one of his opponents and conducting himself as an underserving ass have become his trademark and legacy in the sport. He spewed all kinds of smack about Hendo until he was knocked stiff and literally ran out of the cage when he came to. I think the UFC has to take some responsibility in Bispings reputation by coddeling him in the interest of the European market and virtually ignoring his repetitive in cage fouls and otheerwise DQ’ing potential behaviors.

    To hear him speak of knocking anyone out in my opinion is laughable. He has dodged Silva for a very long time and has demonstrated his “weak spine” when considering that contest. He is a cetified, bonofied, card carrying and iconic ass.

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