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In Search of the Next MMA Superstar: Assessing UFC's Quest for a New Icon

In Search of the Next MMA Superstar: Assessing UFC's Quest for a New Icon

In the evolving landscape of mixed martial arts, the UFC continually seeks the next figure to captivate audiences worldwide, and amid this quest emerges the compelling rise of Ilia Topuria as a beacon of promise and potential in the realm of combat sports

by Sededin Dedovic
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In Search of the Next MMA Superstar: Assessing UFC's Quest for a New Icon
© Antony Jones / Getty Images

The UFC is definitely missing a new megastar, and that has been evident for some time. They are looking for a successor to Conor McGregor, someone who will be able to reach his fame and attract the attention of those who are not fans of MMA fights.

One such megastar has a huge impact on the popularity of the UFC, and let's just remember the golden period of Conor McGregor when he attracted a record number of viewers on PPV. However, it will be difficult to find a guy so controversial and at the same time loved by fans who could start a new era in the UFC.

Sean O'Malley was the UFC's project, but obviously he didn't turn out to be the right successor. His charisma is not enough, he will hardly ever reach the status like Conor. As for skills in the octagon, he is behind McGregor, who had a much better start and immediately drew attention to himself with his recognizable behavior and statements.

O'Malley's weird hairdo and threadbare Trash Talk weren't enough to draw a large crowd even in his title fight against Aljamain Sterling. Alex Pereira stands out as a potential star, but his inability to speak English automatically puts him out of reach for the highest circles of popularity.

Pereira is simply not in the mood to draw attention to his name like McGregor, although he is a very good fighter and one of the best kickboxers to appear in the UFC in the last few years. Jon Jones rarely appears in the octagon and is approaching the end of his career, he holds the status of the Goat, but simply the audience has gotten used to him, he needs fresh blood that will intrigue people who are not hardcore UFC fans.

Khamzat Chimaev's career has not taken the expected direction, he has defeated several top fighters, but he simply does not have the capacity to draw crowds. Although "Borz" is still undefeated, his performances have become a real rarity, and the chance for a title match will never come.

Conor McGregor© Antony Jones / Getty Images

But the UFC may have unexpectedly found a new successor in Georgian-born Spaniard Ilija Topuria (15-0, 7-0 UFC), the fantastic UFC featherweight champion. Topuria entered the UFC in October 2020 as a relatively unknown name.

Youseff Zalal, the Moroccan who was building a lot of hype at the time, was supposed to fight Seung Woo Choi at a smaller UFC event in Abu Dhabi. However, Choi canceled the fight nine days before the event, and Topuria bravely stepped in as a replacement.

The then unknown young man earned the respect of both UFC management and his senior colleagues for his brave acceptance of the fight. Zalal was of course the favorite before the match, but Topuria showed that he deserves a place in the UFC by winning by unanimous decision.

His victory surprised many, although there were rumors that he was undeservedly awarded points. But Ilia wanted to prove his skill and his next performances were even more impressive, and Topurija grew from match to match. Jai Herbert challenged him, but it was only a short-lived lightweight excursion for Topuria, with one more appearance as a substitute.

Although he was knocked down during the first round, Topurija recovered and knocked out Herbert in the second round. At that time, it was already clear that we were witnessing the creation of a new big name in the UFC, and the critics fell silent.

Knocking out Herbert was the event that cemented Topuria as a strong name in the UFC. His crowning moment so far came at the UFC 298 event. Ilia fought for the belt against the undisputed champion, Alexander Volkanovski. He entered the match as an underdog, although this time he entered the match as a proven UFC fighter.

Just as Conor exuded incredible confidence in his pursuit of Aldo's title, Topuria exuded confidence and composure. And while many called him "arrogant", Ilia lived up to his words, knocking out Volkanovski in the second round and taking the featherweight belt.

Ilia may not swear at his opponents or call his opponents' family names, his attitude and great self-confidence have brought him great popularity. His popularity will further grow as he enjoys champion status. How popular he is in Spain is shown by a recent event at a La Liga match, the highest level of Spanish football.

Namely, Ilia Topuria was given the honor of taking the honorary kick in the match between Real Madrid and Sevilla. Real Madrid is known as one of the biggest football clubs in the world. The UFC champion walked onto the Santiago Bernabeu pitch, showed the crowd his belt and delivered the opening punch.

There was a great noise on the field as if someone had scored a goal, which speaks volumes for how much respect he deserves from his crowd. We rarely see situations where UFC fighters receive such great honor in other sports, especially not in football, the most popular sport in the world.

Still, Ilia Topuria clearly has "that something," and the UFC has a real gem on its hands. Conor McGregor definitely changed MMA as a sport and started a new era, the end of which we are already witnessing. Conor is still perhaps the biggest star, but inactivity and little desire to compete are slowly sending him into the shadows.

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