Last year, I had the good fortune to have a current affairs seminar with Dr. Cornell West. Throughout the semester, I had twelve three-hour roundtable discussions with the man who may be the brightest luminary of current African-American intellectualism. Dr. West, quite the eccentric, encouraged a very free-form dialogue that ranged from politics and the economy to sports and pop culture.
His specialty being African-American studies, West impressed upon us the significance that "Urban-sense" held in the acknowledgement of Black Icons by the Black Public. Not being black myself, I still think I have a fair notion of this "Urban-sense" of which my professor spoke. I grew up in a school system more than 50% black, many of them impoverished and disaffected. What can't be understated about this demographic is the importance of hip-hop and the "street" mentality.
This "Urban-sense" catapulted Jay-Z, son of Marcy Projects, to pop culture ubiquity whereas a Lupe Fiasco-type will never be so embraced by the African-American community. A lot of black people will never watch a Clint Eastwood film, but will come out in droves for Tyler Perry's latest offering. These same reasons are why UFC 114 on Saturday is likely the most important offering by Zuffa since UFC 100 last July.
The headlining fight between two former light heavyweight champions, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Rashad Evans, offers more than enough enticement for the average MMA fan. The average MMA fan, however, is far removed from the modern black community. That isn’t to say there are no fans within that demographic, but instead that MMA has yet to truly make a dent in the area. It simply hasn’t been feasible. Before Rampage defeated Chuck Liddell for the UFC light heavyweight championship in 2007 the only previous black UFC champions were Maurice Smith, Kevin Randleman, and Carlos Newton, all of whom were brief titlists before the North American MMA boom. The year after Rampage won the title, Evans took it from the man who defeated Jackson—Forrest Griffin. In the span of two years, an African-American championed the glamour division of America’s hottest sport twice.
What was so special about these two fighters was the potential they carried for inroads with the black community. They were two sides of the same coin: Rampage was rap and Evans was R&B; one came from the streets of Memphis and wore a chain around his neck, the other from Detroit with smooth style (I know he’s really from Niagara Falls, but he reps MSU and perception is everything). And they are still perhaps the only currency the UFC has to cash in with the black community.
Anderson Silva is an outsider and not African-American. Jon Jones is too clean-cut. Anthony Johnson has potential, but George St. Pierre and a litany of elite welterweight fighters stand atop the mountain he must climb. So for now, Rampage and Rashad hold a monopoly on "Urban-sense" in the UFC. Coupled with their talent and charisma, they might just be the two most valuable assets on the UFC roster. And their collision this weekend represents the high-water mark for African-Americans in Mixed Martial Arts’ brief history. No matter the victor, both men should be proud of how far they’ve come.