It’s time to unveil the top 10 self-promoters in UFC history!
Unlike team sports, in MMA, every athlete is completely responsible for their own success. Sure, fighters have gyms, coaches, and managers. But at the end of the day, the buck stops at the athlete’s execution, including the marketing side of their careers.
There are plenty of huge draws who are not on this list of the best self-promoters in UFC history, such as Brock Lesnar, Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre (GSP), and Ronda Rousey among others. But while the two are obviously not mutually exclusive, there is a difference between being a big draw and being an active self-promoter.
This list is looking at fighters whose popularity is largely, if not mostly, due to self-promotion as opposed to in-cage criteria like fighting style and highlights (i.e. Chuck Liddell, Jorge Masvidal), career achievements (i.e. Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey, and GSP) or unique circumstance (i.e. crossover superstar Brock Lesnar).
The following is not the 10 most popular fighters in UFC history, nor is it the 10 biggest draws in UFC history. It’s the 10 fighters who are the most directly responsible for building their brand through efforts outside of the cage.
Without any further ado, here are the top 10 best self-promoters in UFC history!
#10: “Sugar” Sean O’Malley
Regardless of what the future may hold for the 27-year-old Sean O’Malley, he’s already left a unique, rainbow-colored footprint on the sport with his fast-tracked self-promoting.
While it’s true O’Malley has heavily benefitted from the UFC’s backing, he has taken efforts to keep his name circulating in the minds of fans by having a highly active YouTube channel, interacting with fans regularly via Twitch, and selling creative merchandise.
As a result, he already has 2.3 million Instagram followers and is arguably one of the biggest draws in the UFC years before hitting 30.
#9: “The Chosen One” Tyron Woodley
There are surely dozens of fighters in UFC history who were considered more “popular” than Tyron Woodley, but only a handful have promoted themselves more actively.
Despite not receiving heavy promotion from the UFC and frequently being at odds with former boss Dana White, Woodley has been able to amass 2 million followers on Instagram, more than widely recognized names like Michael Bisping and Stipe Miocic. While it’s true that Woodley’s success in the Octagon played a role in him building this following, you must give him credit for his hard work as a self-promoter.
Once Woodley won the UFC championship in 2016, he never took his foot off the pedal as a promoter. Music, film, merchandise, media work, and his “Champ Camp” series are all examples of a true hustler in the noblest sense of the word.
And while Woodley may be a polarizing figure in the MMA community, his wide social media following demonstrates that “The Chosen One” must have done something right during his self-promoting campaigns.
#8: Colby “Chaos” Covington
Much like his nemesis Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington has been able to build a wide following with a minimal helping hand from the UFC machine. Granted, he may have been shameless in his self-promoting efforts, with many believing his entire persona is counterfeit, but it cannot be denied that his hard work has paid off.
Covington has 1 million Instagram followers, significantly less than Woodley and O’Malley, but Covington has done a better job of crossing over into a niche, yet wider mainstream audience.
Covington was able to become the first UFC fighter invited to the White House and has established a relationship with famous conservative figures like Candace Owens, Donald Trump Jr., and “The Donald” himself, mostly due to his MAGA advocacy. In fact, a case can be made that Covington is the MAGA MMA fighter.
But more than anything, Covington is worthy of this #8 spot over Woodley and O’Malley because he had neither championships nor company backing but has become widely known almost entirely due to a self-promoting commitment that is arguably unmatched by seemingly staying “in character” 24/7.
#7: “El Cucuy” Tony Ferguson
Tony Ferguson is the type to guy to self-promote around the clock and you ain’t even know it.
Between his emoji-laden and cap-centric tweets, his trademark shades, custom-made memes, one-of-a-kind training videos, and Fergusonisms, El Cucuy has become something of a mythical character in MMA lore.
Sure, his exciting and fan-friendly style of fighting no doubt played a large role in his following as well, but whenever a non-champion has as many Instagram followers as Ferguson does (2.5 million), it’s either due to heavy promotion from the company or the successful execution of self-promoting. In Ferguson’s case, it’s hard to argue that a major cause for his strong following is the latter.
#6: “The Last Stylebender” Israel Adesanya
Israel Adesanya’s massive popularity is unquestionably in large part due to his success inside the Octagon and relatively strong promotion from the UFC. However, it also can’t be denied that his self-promotion has played a significant role in “The Last Stylebender” accumulating 6.7 million Instagram followers.
Part of Adesanya’s appeal is his effortless charisma, a knack to turn a phrase at any moment, and a noticeable fearlessness to be himself unapologetically.
In addition to that, he has also consciously self-promoted himself through his creative Octagon entrances, unique fashion sense, and hyperactivity on social media. He also has a fast-growing YouTube channel that has become known for his live fight reactions.
All in all, if you’re able to amass an Instagram following of 6.7 million, you can be sure that it isn’t by accident and that many ingredients contributed to the final recipe. And Adesanya’s unique self-promoting flavor is strong enough to earn him the #6 spot.
#5: Nick Diaz
Whether it’s intentional self-promoting or an army of MMA fans taking to the elder Diaz brother for simply being himself, there’s no doubt that Diaz’s personality is a major reason for his wide fanbase.
Diaz’s fighting style, in-cage antics, and classic bouts have all helped make him the star that he is. But he is also seen as a pioneer for the anti-establishment by being outspoken on industry-wide issues like fighter pay. Additionally, if there’s one thing that has helped promote celebrities throughout generations it’s the public embrace of marijuana.
All in all, it’s difficult to tell where the self-promoting begins and the natural appeal ends, but Diaz having 1.7 million Instagram followers despite much of his career predating the social media explosion shows that he has closed the generational gap for a plethora of reasons, with subtle, yet lasting self-promoting being one of them.
#4: Chael Sonnen
Chael Sonnen is a self-promoting pioneer worthy of being #1 on this list due to whom he’s influenced in the fight game. In fact, the primary reason he isn’t higher is because he currently has under 1 million followers on Instagram, which signifies a lack of mainstream stability relative to the other names on this list.
Additionally, although Sonnen has proven to be a great draw, he did not participate in a PPV headliner of over 1 million buys, which would have compensated for the lack of social media followers, a criterion that could hinder many of the pre-social-media fighters.
Still, Sonnen is responsible for laying out the blueprint of masking a fighting style that isn’t fan friendly with a personality that overshadows anything that happens inside the Octagon, win or lose. But of course, as we all know, Chael Sonnen is undefeated.
After retirement, Sonnen is arguably the most omnipresent figure in the entire sport, working as a broadcast personality in multiple promotions and also releasing videos daily on his YouTube channel.
During his career, he showed wrestling-heavy fighters like Colby Covington and Ben Askren that you can build a name for yourself in the sport with the gift of gab and strong self-promotion. If you do that, you can keep the audience’s attention whenever you are on camera because the fans are already invested in your career.
There’s no telling just how many people had a light-bulb moment while listening to Sonnen’s border-pushing trash talk. In that respect, he is MMA’s answer to Muhammad Ali. While he may not be “The Greatest” like Ali, he’s had a similar influence on the trash talk in his respective sport. And that’s pretty damn great.
#3: Nate Diaz
For the most part, Nate Diaz’s spot at #3 is mostly due to the same reasons Nick Diaz is on the list: an anti-establishment reputation, association with Mary Jane, and knowing how to rally his own private army in an “Us Against The World” war.
And just how big is this army? Try 5.6 million soldiers on The Gram.
Diaz also is very adept at getting everyone talking with his Twitter activity. Not many fighters have tweet engagement as strong as Diaz, which is a sign of a self-promoting wizard.
Sure, Nate Diaz is an exciting fighter, and his two battles with Conor McGregor definitely went a long way in growing his fame. But any longtime MMA fan can attest to the fact that Diaz has had a massive cult following long before McGregor, and his self-promoting has played a major part in that.
#2: Paige VanZant
No one on our list has proven more than Paige VanZant that with the right self-promoting, winning and losing could literally mean absolutely nothing.
To state the obvious, VanZant’s…shall we say “appeal” to the male audience is a major reason for her popularity. But it’s one thing to have an asset, and it’s quite another to know how to use it.
A case could be made that VanZant’s UFC run was a failure, at the very least relative to the other names on this list. Yet, she still has 3.2 million followers on Instagram. Is that only because she’s “hot?”
No, it’s because she’s gone out of her way to be one of the best self-promoters this business has ever seen, seizing opportunities like Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition, Dancing With The Stars, Chopped, and also growing her brand by writing an autobiography and having a social media presence that knows just how to effectively market herself.
Maybe VanZant does have an unfair advantage over everyone else on this list because of her looks. Or maybe, just maybe, she knows what she’s doing as a self-promoter more than any female in the history of the sport and more than any male aside from the obvious #1 selection.
#1: Conor McGregor
This choice feels like a no-brainer, but there was actually quite a bit of deliberation that went into it.
Because while anyone with eyes and ears knows that McGregor is a once-in-a-lifetime self-promoter, it’s also obvious that his unmatched popularity is due to plenty of other factors as well:
- Heavy promotion from the company since his UFC debut
- Impressive highlight catalogue
- Making history as a double-champion
Still, every step of the way, McGregor wasn’t just knocking out opponents; he was also knocking out every self-promoting opportunity out of the park on the microphone, with his fashion sense, and with his social media activity. When it comes to knowing how to set the MMA world abuzz with a single tweet, no one does it better than Conor McGregor.
Finally, McGregor’s work promoting his Proper No. Twelve whiskey company is what cemented his spot at #1. It is because of his business dealings with this company that he was once named the highest-paid athlete in the world by Forbes magazine.
McGregor is also notorious for being arguably the best trash talker in MMA history. And even if that is attributable to natural wit and comedic timing, these attributes are still a part of self-promoting when you know how to employ these gifts.
Love him or hate him, McGregor is the undisputed biggest superstar in MMA history and is a household name. And if you think his self-promoting ability isn’t a major reason for that, then I kindly suggest laying off the Proper No. Twelve.
What do you think? Are there any other brilliant self-promoters that we missed?