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The Dillon Danis Phenomenon: A Modern Approach To Playing The Heel

Dillon Danis managed to record the second victory of his mixed martial arts career on the Bellator 222 main-card last weekend. 

And chances are you wouldn’t be aware of that fact if it weren’t for Danis’ unique position within the MMA world.

Hell, I wouldn’t have written this article if that weren’t the case and even if for some reason I had, you’d likely never be reading it. In fact, there is virtually no chance any of us would be talking about the 2-0 fighter if it weren’t for two simple truths.

#1. He holds a close link to the sport’s biggest superstar Conor McGregor.

#2. He has managed to play us all like a violin.

Now, do not get me wrong, Dillon Danis is a high-level BJJ practitioner who could well have forced your attention through his accomplishments inside the cage but the route that this young man has taken into the public’s collective eye is far more interesting and in many ways, more ingenious than most realise.

The Conor McGregor connection is a stamp, nay, a branding, that Danis took onboard as soon as he agreed to act as a jiu-jitsu coach to the Irishman following his UFC 196 submission loss to Nate Diaz.

At that point, he had a choice to make.

He could have sat and worked in relative peace and quiet as some of the other members of Team McGregor have understandably chosen to do. It would have been easy.

Perhaps you would have found out about his MMA debut last year through some random news website who managed to figure out that a close friend and sparring partner of the sport’s biggest star was sitting on the prelims of a local show under some obscure promotional banner.

But once Danis aligned himself with Conor McGregor, as I said before, there was a choice for him to make and a path that had already been paved.

The term ‘heel’ is one that is taken from the world of professional wrestling, a word used to describe an antagonistic figure, one who, in full knowledge of the response he is going to get, often sets out with the aim of pissing you off so much that he/she becomes a constant annoyance and presence in your mind.

The prime example of a heel in mixed martial arts today is the former UFC interim-welterweight champion, Colby Covington.

I remember seeing the very first stray tweets that signalled Covington’s descent into heel-hood back before he was a ranked fighter. Just prior to Rafael dos Anjos’ divisional debut, Colby relentlessly attacked him without provocation via Twitter in the hopes of earning the chance to welcome him to 170lbs.

And while he didn’t get the opportunity at that point (although it did happen organically later in his career), the seed was planted in the mind of the future star, a lesson that taught him how to take advantage of the rapidly-changing focus of modern mixed martial arts.

To those who genuinely believe that Colby is just a pr**k and not playing a character, take a look at a selection of pre-heel tweets of his I gathered for a fun little piece I put together earlier this year (including some lovely words for his one-time bro, Tyron Woodley).

Danis saw his path to stardom in front of him. All he needed to do was play his character and piss off as many people as he could in as little time as possible and hope that the MMA media and you, the fans, did their job in spreading his name.

And boy, did it work!

At the time of writing, Danis’ Instagram account has a whopping 790k followers and the video of his successful MMA debut last year that Bellator’s official YouTube account uploaded two weeks ago has garnered close to 1.1 million views.

Trust me, he didn’t bring those numbers over from his run on the grappling circuit.

Love him or hate him, Dillon Danis has succeeded in every sense of the word and stands as a near-perfect example of how to take advantage of the incredible power of the internet in today’s MMA world.

In the days of Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, and Tito Ortiz, those guys weren’t sending out challenges via Twitter or racking up Instagram likes by their tens of thousands.

It was simpler and in many ways, the promotional engine was far more linear.

There’s a certain contradiction to be found between the Danis who utilises social media for his aims and the one who takes to the mic for his interviews.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d nearly assume that Dillon was just a relatively soft-spoken guy who had a sort of quiet confidence in his abilities for the most part.

Playing this role has boiled down to things as simple as posting a picture with a bravado-laced caption or challenging an unbeaten UFC light-heavyweight champion to a grappling matchup, fully aware that he is never, ever going to accept.

He’s out there to elicit a response and he nails it every time.

Look at Henry Cejudo.

He may well be receiving all the respect in the world after his UFC 238 heroics but he too has decided that his best route to a greater level of exposure is to own his role in this world.

‘Cringe is the new cool’? Debatable, but you all sure love to hate that Olympic gold-medal-wearing dual-weight champion don’t you?

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Cringe is the new cool! #embracethecringe #cringejudo

A post shared by Henry Cejudo (@henry_cejudo) on

Every time you leave a comment bashing Cejudo for his constant references to his Olympic triumphs, his point is proven further and in the case of Dillon Danis, your compliance is doing nothing but adding zeroes to his paycheque and pushing his name higher up on that fight-card billing.

Look, we love the sport for the fights themselves, we’re not tuning in for the rest of this.

With that being said, I find it very, very interesting to see how these athletes are figuring out exactly how much they can manipulate those who fill the seats – or in this case – produce the clicks.

Dillon Danis’ fighting-career is secondary at this point. Who knows how well he will be able to adapt his overall game to the more multi-faceted requirements of mixed martial arts.

If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll do just fine.

But the real story so far in the rise of this Brazilian jiu-jitsu black-belt has been the ease at which he has been able to force you to submit to his approach.

And to be honest, I’m looking forward to seeing just how far he can take it.

Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena


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Author: Cillian Cunningham

Lead mixed martial arts writer who can be contacted at