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UFC Star Potential: Analyzing the UFC’s inability to prepare for the future

Overreliance on one or two big stars has hurt the UFC's ratings this year, but is it the fighters or the company itself to blame?

As stated in my previous article, the UFC’s summer ratings have been hurt by the lack of big name fights going on this summer. As a sport built on larger-than-life personalities and a need for good conflict, these star attractions are required to bring in the casual, mainstream audience to bolster these flagging numbers. With Rousey all but retired and McGregor is seemingly doing whatever he damn well pleases, not to mention the disaster that is Jon Jones; who is left? There are always more potential breakout stars but the UFC seems to be increasingly unwilling to plan for the future. With such massive debts to recoup, WME-IMG is obviously hesitant about investing in fighters where there might not be a return, but there are other factors holding back the development of future stars.

Dependence on established stars to sell cards

As much as people can make fun of Bellator for bringing us “legends” fights, it is obvious these fighters from times gone by do bring in lapsed and casual fans. However, the UFC could be considered just as guilty of this for a cash grab. Why else is Georges St-Pierre getting a title shot against current middleweight champion Michael Bisping over interim champ Robert Whittaker? Not to mention booking Andrei Arlovski, who has been knocked out in a quarter of all his fights, Shogun Rua and Anderson Silva on cards purely to boost viewership.

Much like World Championship Wrestling in the 1990’s and 2000’s in focusing on already established names, this does little to elevate the other fighters on the card. Other examples of this can be seen in McGregor & Rousey’s fight cards such as UFC 202 and UFC 190, which were not exactly what could be described as “stacked” for mainstream appeal.

Attempting to “create” stars

All of the biggest UFC stars, much like the greatest stars in boxing and pro wrestling, developed organically. Fans can spot a fake, just ask Jones, so when a fighter displays genuine personality they tend to flock towards him/her. You can’t force a star, despite how outwardly marketable they appear to be, otherwise Sage Northcutt would have been boxing Floyd Mayweather. The world runs on reality, not on the perception of reality that the UFC marketing team wishes to display.

Dana White’s Verbal Burials

This fact may shock you but; Dana White is somewhat outspoken in his criticism. I’m sure this is a sore point for many fighters, referees, journalists and just about anyone who catches his ire. If you irritate the boss man, prepare for vitriol. The two biggest names to receive a verbal blast this year? Only the flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. Mighty Mouse is arguably the most skilled fighter in the UFC yet he can’t draw huge numbers. The UFC’s inability to promote the flyweight division aside, Dana was outraged that Johnson wanted Ray Borg, an actual flyweight contender, instead of a man from a different division in T.J. Dillashaw.

I think a fight between him and T.J. Dillashaw would be something that people would actually be interested in and could sell Pay-Per-Views and could make money. But he absolutely refuses to fight the guy. It’s ridiculous.

As for Nunes, she made the mistake of withdrawing from her UFC 213 bout literally hours before the show. This time the boss in less acerbic fashion said:

“She said, ‘I don’t feel right, I don’t feel good.’ I think that it was 90 percent mental and maybe 10 percent physical; I think a lot of fighters have had times where they don’t feel right.”

These issues could have been settled behind closed doors; instead by making them public White has hurt two of his champions drawing power. Marketed right, Mighty Mouse is the best fighter on the planet, if his division could be built properly. As for Nunes, she has beaten the two biggest women’s bantamweight names, is a proven finisher and to add to her marketability, she is openly gay. She is a promoter’s dream waiting to happen if the WME marketing team get behind her.

Unwillingness to compromise for “needle movers”

Now for the man who inspired this article pictured above: Nate Diaz. Despite being in one of the most action packed and busiest divisions in MMA, he has not fought since his second bout with McGregor. The current rumour is a trilogy bout with “The Notorious” for an undeserved shot at the lightweight title, all the while Tony Ferguson will fight Kevin Lee for yet another interim title. After proving himself a draw, it is strange that Diaz and Ferguson didn’t fight, purely through Diaz knowing his worth and wanting to be paid accordingly. That fight would legitimise Diaz’s title shot if he won, and bring Ferguson to the main stage by getting casual eyes on him if Diaz lost, either way setting up the next feud for McGregor. Despite a desperation for new stars, the UFC brass won’t renegotiate a deal with Diaz or any fighter.

Other examples of this are top-level fighters who have since left for Bellator MMA. Among them are former top light heavyweight contenders Ryan Bader and Phil Davis, rising middleweight Gegard Mousasi, who was on a five-fight win streak, as well as top welterweights Lorenz Larkin and Rory Macdonald. All of the above left the UFC highly-ranked, with the aim of fighting top contenders or champions and could be insanely marketable with the right push. However, rather than negotiate, the UFC let them go. Without the backing of a company, they would have just been wasted potential.

If the UFC could identify and address these issues, instead of focusing on their one remaining superstar in McGregor or courting the likes of Brock Lesnar, there is the potential to build a crop of stars unlike before in MMA history. The talent is there, as are the characters. McGregor won’t be around forever, he has previously stated that his gameplan is to get in, get rich and get out. It’s time to start looking for the next big thing.

What do you think the UFC can do to help build the next generation of stars? Let me know in the comments below.

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Ian Holland

Martial artist, trainee pro wrestler and occasional writer. Can be found occasionally blogging at medium.com/@martial_facts

UFC Star Potential: Analyzing the UFC’s inability to prepare for the future

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