Ilia Topouria

Ilia Topuria’s Rare Star Potential

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I’ve been a fan of MMA for about 20 years now, and seeing a fighter ascend to superstardom has become a rare occasion. As the sport, primarily the UFC, has grown in popularity over the past two decades, it hasn’t necessarily translated into creating stars crossing over into the mainstream. There are many reasons for that; from the promotion’s stranglehold on the industry to the massively restrictive contracts they force on fighters, it’s extremely difficult for athletes in MMA to become fixtures in the public eye.

That’s not to say we’ve never seen the sport create stars before. Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, and Israel Adesanya, all were able to burst through the MMA bubble to reach that superstar status in the public eye. However, it has become more of a phenomenon than a normality in the current age of the sport. Newly crowned undefeated UFC Featherweight Champion, Ilia Topuria, has a chance to be the outlier of this trend.

More often than not, changing of the guard moments in combat sports produce seismic shifts within the balance of power. GSP dethroning Matt Hughes, Frankie Edgar’s two decisive victories over B.J. Penn, Jon Jones destroying Shogun Rua, Chris Weidman finishing Anderson Silva, and Conor McGregor’s emphatic KO over Jose Aldo, are all great examples of this. Topuria added his name to that list by creating a ripple in the MMA space when he knocked out pound-for-pound great, Alexander Volkanovski, back at UFC 298 in February. Ilia effectively ended the Aussie’s title reign at 1,526 days, becoming the new featherweight king.

The Aftermath

It has been the aftermath of the win though, that has been much more fascinating to me than the victory itself. While many eternally online and mostly American fans have given Topuria somewhat of an icy reception, the polar opposite has happened from an international perspective. New champions receiving a hero’s welcome upon return to their home nation isn’t anything new in this sport. However, the reception Topuria received, not only in his native country Georgia, but also his adopted home in Spain, is unlike anything I’ve seen before. During his victory tour over the past few months, Ilia has been embraced in a way no fighter has, frankly.

  • Ilia was featured on the cover of Marca, the biggest sports publication in Spain.
  • Presented his belt and completed the honorary kick-off before Real Madrid’s game against Sevilla on February 25, at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in front of 85,000 fans.
  • Met Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest and most popular soccer player on the planet before one of Inter Miami’s games in April.
  • Linked up with Spanish tennis star, Carlos Alcaraz, during this year’s Mutua Madrid Open.
  • Was introduced before Georgia’s soccer match against Luxembourg in March at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in front of 51,000 fans.
  • Met with the President of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, and the Mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida.

Burgeoning Star Power

Ilia Topuria’s burgeoning star power is palpable, especially overseas. This is a man who is clearly revered by not one, but two different nations. The magnitude of that cannot be understated. Naturally, some fans will try to compare this to Conor McGregor’s meteoric rise to superstardom in 2015-2016. Sure there are similarities between the two, primarily with how they opened new markets for the sport and UFC specifically, to break ground in.

Although, I think there are vast differences in how both fighters got to this point, and were received by their home countries. As gigantic of a star as Conor was and is, his relationship with the Irish people has always seemed a bit strained for one reason or another. Ilia simply doesn’t have the baggage outside of the cage, that Conor does. I even asked MMA analyst/personality, Luke Thomas, in one of his live chat episodes back in March about the differences between the two. His description of the distinction between them, is better than I could ever put it.

With Conor, there was this roiling boil that was already happening. He also was antagonizing half the roster, and there was people sent out to beat him. Then he was mowing through them. That one just kept getting bigger, and bigger. Whereas, Topuria was kind of ascending, then exploded in an instance. The difference is, Topuria was meeting with the fucking Head of State. He met with the Prime Minister of Spain, and the mayor of Madrid, like right after getting the belt. This Cinderella at the ball kind of thing, that I’ve never exactly seen.

—Luke Thomas

He’s also the face of a potential market in Spain, that’s simply much bigger than Ireland’s. Outside of the UK, Ireland, and France recently, the UFC really has failed to break into the European market overall. But now with Topuria as champion, the promotion has a chance to change that. Spain currently has the sixth-largest economy in Europe and 15th largest in the world. There’s a wealth of untapped potential for the sport in that country. Ilia’s win over Volkanovski has served up this tremendous opportunity for the UFC on a silver platter. Having a 27-year-old, undefeated champion, who’s full of charisma at the forefront to break into such a fertile, massive market, could be astronomical for a variety of reasons.

Embracing The Villain Role

While he’s been showered with support abroad, Ilia Topuria has received his fair share of hate, predominantly from online fans. Whether it was his brashness in the buildup to the Volaknovski fight or his dismissal of the division afterward, Ilia rubbed some people the wrong way. The trash talk he and former featherweight kingpin, Max Holloway, have engaged in on social media has only added fuel to the fire.

Going after one of the most beloved fighters in the sport has turned Topuria into a villain for some. Especially after Holloway’s viral KO win over Justin Gaethje at last month’s historic UFC 300 event to become the new BMF Champion. Max’s popularity is at an all-time high following that performance and victory. Which makes Ilia the perfect foil for him in my eyes. The contrast between the two is the ideal ingredient to buildup a huge title fight. The stylistic matchup and diversity of both men’s skillsets only adds to the intrigue.

Additionally, it’s another chance for Topuria to grow his brand exponentially. Capitalizing on the star power Max has garnered and adding another legendary scalp to his resume, would make Ilia undeniable. If he were to defeat Holloway, possibly even becoming the first person to stop him via strikes, that could take Ilia to another stratosphere in the pantheon of superstardom. His willingness to embrace the villain role in this particular matchup will just increase the interest in his profile. The fans in Georgia and Spain will adore him more, whereas his detractors will revile Ilia further, but have no choice but to finally respect him. Nevertheless, the added emotion is a benefit for Topuria’s universal reach as a star.

Scratching The Surface

In a time where clickbait headlines have become the new norm in combat sports, I’ve found what’s going on with Ilia Topuria to be super refreshing. As people obsess over sideshow acts like the Mike Tyson-Jake Paul fight, and Sean Strickland, Conor McGregor, or Ryan Garcia’s latest rants on social media, Topuria’s star potential is far more interesting to me. It’s also something that is way more impactful from a long-term viewpoint. The uniqueness of the way he’s been received by Spain and Georgia, truly is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in MMA. I can’t reiterate that enough and hope this piece captured how unusually special this moment is.

The path has been paved for Topuria to become a superstar. He’s already an anomaly in this sport, with a rocket of support attached to him. I can only imagine what kind of stardom he can create with a few successful title defenses. Especially, if one of them happens in Spain at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in front of 85,000 raucous fans. It would be cinematic to say the least and differ from any event we’ve seen in UFC history.

Ilia is just scratching the surface of the magnitude of what his star potential could evolve into. A tri-lingual champion, with devastating KO power, and well-rounded grappling skills, doesn’t grow on trees in MMA. Some of you reading this might be one of those fans who have been bothered by his personality. Despite that, I implore you to soak up this moment in time for how truly rare it is. Jump on the bandwagon while you still can. I’ve got a hunch he’ll be finishing many of your favorite fighters over the course of the next few years. El Matador has arrived, and his star ascension has only just begun.

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