Junior dos Santos, the current UFC heavyweight champion, is reportedly in talks with Nike about an endorsement deal. If those talks turn into contracts, the sports-apparel giant will likely be sponsoring the Brazilian in time for his December rematch with former champion Cain Velasquez. During their first fight, Velasquez, a brilliant grappler, forgot himself and tried to box a boxer. Sixty-four seconds and one giant overhand right later, the short-lived Cain Velasquez Era came to an end, and the more durable dos Santos Era began.
The Nike deal would be great for dos Santos for any number of reasons, and not all of them monetary. For one, it would finally confirm his status as a pound-for-pound great, status which has so far eluded him despite a 9-0 record in the UFC, and a long history of pounding everyone he fights into applesauce. So far, Anderson Silva and Jon Jones (the consensus numbers 1 and 2 fighters in the world, though that order is negotiable) are the only MMA fighters with Nike endorsement deals. A blessing from Portland would raise dos Santos to their level.
It would also allow the heavyweight champion to enter the Octagon free of the “patchwork-sponsorship” burden that plagues nearly every other MMA fighter, who, with their shirts and shorts covered in ads for beef jerky and hand soap, look less like professional athletes than coupon mailers. That kind of aesthetic clarity would lift dos Santos out of the muck of the everyday MMA world, where scrambling for sponsorships is a cruel reality. He would be on a different plane, one of the few MMA fighters blessed by Madison Avenue and, by association, mainstream America.
Still, I wonder how these MMA endorsement deals are going to work out for Nike. MMA is a fickle mistress, with careers and reputations often hinging on single moments. Just ask Velasquez: One minute he was an undefeated pioneer, the first Mexican-American heavyweight champion in combat sports history—both a hero and a goldmine; then, 64 seconds later, a single punch to the ear sent him crashing to the canvas and his career tumbling back to Earth—he wasn't out, but he was definitely down. If one punch can do that to a cultural force like Velasquez, it can do it to anyone, especially fighters like Anderson Silva, Jones, and dos Santos, who have built their reputations on airs of invincibility. MMA isn’t baseball, where failure makes up two-thirds of even the best players’ careers, or basketball, where a bad shooting night can be erased (and forgiven) the next day. One bad night can send a fighter spiraling: first out of his championship belt, then out of the UFC, then off fans’ radars, and, finally, off the roster of the marketable.
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