The Ultimate Fighting Championship has its shot Saturday – a watershed moment for the relatively new sport to firmly cement an international Latino fan base through one of its most popular fighters.
Its golden ticket comes in the form of Cain Velásquez. The 28-year-old wrestler was raised in Arizona, is the son an immigrant father who crossed the Mexican border for a better life, and fights in the toughest and most popular heavyweight division.
And when Velásquez – a proud, bilingual fighter with “Brown Pride” tattooed across this chest – takes on Brock Lesnar, I’ll be all in. A mixed martial arts fan for five years, the UFC’s main event will have my full attention.
Still, I had mixed feelings because of Lesnar, whom I supported in his previous fights. That was until this week when, while hyping the fight in a UFC promo, the 300-pound veteran took a shot at Velásquez’s Mexican roots.
“Listen, when I get done whooping your ass, I’m gonna go drink a Corona and eat a burrito just for your Hispanic heritage,” he said. “How ‘bout that?”
I suddenly lost my appetite for the tacos I was eating. I still grabbed a beer, but made it a Tecate instead.
But seriously, how could he say that knowing it would insult Latino fans? Allow me to play devil's advocate here.
Was it a dumb thing to say? Yes. Was it demeaning? Another yes. Did he really mean it? Maybe.
But was it racist? I wouldn’t say that based on this single comment. He’s a fighter, and a notorious trash-talker to boot. A former pro-wrestling villain, he likes the attention and wants to get in Velásquez’s head. And trash-talking is a tried-and-true strategy (lest we forget Floyd Mayweather dressing as a Mariachi when he fought Mexican-American Oscar de la Hoya).
The UFC declined to comment on Lesnar’s remarks.
My interpretation as a fan is that if the UFC really thought it had a problem with his comments, it would have edited them from the promotional piece. Lesnar is being pushed as the villain to Velásquez's hero.
MMA fans still haven’t embraced Lesnar fully, and it helps the UFC brand if he plays that role while the white hat – or sombrero – is conveniently placed on Velásquez’s head.
Hype is the UFC’s friend here, folks. It sells, and whether it's the “good guy” or the “bad guy,” if a fight is sold the right way, everybody goes home happy.
So was Lesnar wrong to inject a racially-charged, offensive comment into the fight? Sure, but his comments are a rallying cry for Velásquez fans and Lesnar haters alike.
Either way, expect people to watch. Remember, viewers tune in as much to watch the villain as they do their hero.
I'll sure be watching. And I may even have a burrito and Corona to celebrate at the end of the night.