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 411mania » MMA » Columns

The Rear Naked Column 01.17.14: Life After GSP and Silva
Posted by Samer Kadi on 01.17.2014

A little under fourteen months ago, as Georges St-Pierre had made his triumphant return to the Octagon following knee surgery, UFC president Dana White spent most of the post-fight press conference answering questions regarding the long anticipated super-fight pitting the welterweight champion against UFC's middleweight and pound-for-pound kingpin, Anderson "The Spider" Silva. For years, the pair dominated the sport like no other, dispatching elite fighters in routine fashion, and cementing their place as MMA's undisputed crème de la crème.

A year later, their careers have taken unexpected turns. St-Pierre shocked the world by announcing a leave of absence, which when read between the lines, sounded like a carefully concealed synonym for retirement. Meanwhile, having flirted with that dreaded "R" word for years, Silva had already made implications of walking away following his stunning upset at the hands of Chris Weidman last July, before a gruesome leg break in the rematch potentially hastened those plans (even should the Brazilian return, it won't be any time soon, nor is he likely to stay for long).

Now, with 2013 in the books, the UFC find themselves without their two most prized assets. For the longest time, Silva and St-Pierre were the two constants in an ever volatile sport, filled with variables. Fighters came and left, champions were dethroned, a new generation rose...but Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre remained the best fighters on the planet.

The inevitable fall from grace was bound to happen at some point, but the manner in which it unfolded was particularly unforeseen, further deepening the UFC's misery. St-Pierre, "only" 32 years of age, was the UFC's golden boy, and its ultimate cash cow. Having almost single-handedly established them in his native country of Canada, St-Pierre became the biggest PPV star in the company since Brock Lesnar went back to professional wrestling. Fighting two times per year (when healthy), a worst case scenario buy-rate for the former welterweight champion was good for 700k's, while some of his more marquee title defenses flirted with seven figure buys.

For his part, Anderson Silva was initially not as well-received. Due to cultural differences, fans weren't immediately willing to accept "The Spider" as a PPV powerhouse, despite his status as a walking highlight reel and being heavily – and rightly – marketed as the world's premier mixed martial artist. After capturing the middleweight title in 2006, following a rearrangement of Rich Franklin's face, Silva's PPV numbers generally underwhelmed until his much anticipated bout with Forrest Griffin. Silva's bizarre back-to-back title defenses against Patrick Cote and Thales Leites "earned" him a light heavyweight bout with former champion Griffin, where Silva would put on a career defining performance of pure genius. The PPV, headlined by BJ Penn's title defense against Kenny Florian produced a whopping 900,000 buys.

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The Brazilian's popularity would ascend even further following his heated feud with Chael Sonnen (despite coming off another odd performance against Demian Maia), where his status as one of the company's leading PPV draws was firmly cemented.

Through all this time however, the UFC was guilty of taking things for granted. Despite ominous signs in 2011 in which Zuffa's average PPV buy-rate took a considerable hit, the UFC did not take immediate action. The "UFC" letters that once guaranteed a 300,000-buy baseline based on brand value alone lost some of their magic. In fact, a 2011 UFC 136 card featuring two title fights (and Chael Sonnen) fell quite short of that number. Lesnar's departure, coupled with a long term St-Pierre injury made 2012 another disappointing PPV calendar, despite the rise of one Jon Jones the previous year.

In 2013, the UFC took shortsighted measures to rectify the situation with "easy money" fights that would only have a short term effect. Dubious title shots to Nick Diaz and Chael Sonnen against St-Pierre and Jones respectively, guaranteed big PPV revenue (despite the Jones/Sonnen numbers failing to meet the expectations), but they only delayed the inevitable, and partially masked the UFC's biggest problem: the company was failing to produce stars that would carry the torch.

"Creating stars" is an admittedly abstract concept that sounds much easier than it really is. There isn't exactly a blueprint, nor is there a magic button. It is clear that simply being extremely skilled at MMA is not enough if not accompanied by the right marketing and exposure, and this is where the UFC is failing. To borrow a direct quote from my colleague Dan Plunkett, "the UFC has always struggled to figure out how to promote fighters when his or her skill set doesn't translate nicely into a highlight backed by ‘Face the Pain.'"

Simply put, the UFC are extremely one-dimensional in their promotional approach. The same generic promos accompany every event, with little to no creativity. Moreover, there is very little emphasis on the fighters themselves. Instead, for most events, the UFC spends its promotional campaign lazily promising that a fight will deliver, instead of giving its audience a reason to care about the participants.

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Georges St-Pierre's nationality played a major factor in his popularity, while Brock Lesnar's nuclear popularity was of the WWE's doing, and simply carried over to MMA. Meanwhile, after being destined for stardom, Jon Jones' rise was not quite as exponential as many predicted. That of course, was not helped by the fact that he was completely thrown under the bus by his employer following his perceived role in the cancellation of the dreaded UFC 151 card.

To their credit, the UFC were persistent in their marketing of Anderson Silva. Repeatedly labeling him"the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet," despite its simplicity, is extremely effective marketing. When someone is the best, there is no need to look hard for an angle to sell.

Ultimately, the UFC's most glaring shortcoming is their baffling disregard for many of their current champions. After initially showing faith in Cain Velasquez in the build-up to the Lesnar fight, and understandably catering him to the Hispanic audience, they seemed to have put their push on hold. A year-long injury sustained following the aforementioned fight didn't help, neither did his loss to Dos Santos (in which Dana White completely buried him in front of one of their largest ever audiences on FOX, for not "following the gameplan"). However, the now two-time heavyweight champion has since rebounded by recapturing the title and decimating his arch nemesis to complete the trilogy, but the casual viewer would be forgiven for not knowing and/or caring.

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Meanwhile, in Jose Aldo and Anthony Pettis, the UFC may just possess the two most thrilling talents in the sport. Unfortunately, Aldo is treated like any other fighter on the roster, while Pettis' UFC run has been botched since the get-go. Having won the last ever WEC fight in the most spectacular of fashions, Anthony Pettis came to the UFC with near unprecedented momentum. The "Showtime Kick" was a true sensation when it happened. The UFC never really capitalized, and the momentum all but died. When Pettis finally earned a lightweight title shot, which as luck would have it, was against the very man he leaped off the cage to kick square in the face, there was a ready-made story begging to be exploited. Instead of treating the rematch like the monumental fight it really was, the UFC took the generic approach, which robbed Pettis of an audience worthy of yet another star-making performance.

Elsewhere, Demetrious Johnson may just have it the worst. Having graduated from UFC on FX shows, Johnson is now a UFC on FOX regular, which would be as impressive as it sounds had the UFC or FOX bothered to promote him for the elite fighter that he is. The platform is only as big as the level of interest, and randomly throwing Johnson on FOX does not a PPV star make. The disconnect between UFC and FOX (Zuffa wants to use FOX to provide exposure for relatively unknown fighters, while FOX wants PPV caliber fights) means that neither the two parties nor the fighters are benefitting as much as they potentially could.

In fairness, not everything is of the UFC's making. After all, they have encountered some terrible misfortunes with injuries. Worse yet, an absolute nightmare of a scenario unfolded with their top two stars, St-Pierre and Silva. A dubious decision robbed Johny Hendricks from a potentially career-defining win, while Chris Weidman's highly anticipated rematch with Anderson Silva ended in, quite literally, the worst way imaginable. As a result, for a man who twice defeated the greatest fighter to ever live, Weidman's momentum is virtually non-existent, while Hendricks' efforts somehow earned him a loss...and a subsequent fight with Robbie Lawler.

In 2014, the UFC risks having its worst PPV showing in years. Jon Jones is unlikely to produce substantial buy-rates due to relatively uninteresting challengers, while Ronda Rousey alone (who remains somewhat unproven as a sole PPV headliner) cannot be expected to carry the company. Vitor Belfort's bout with Chris Weidman could do good business if it takes place in Brazil (but the real money will not be made off of PPV revenue), while a Cain Velasquez bout in Mexico could generate real interest. And yet, quite ironically, it is the US market that will hurt the most. That alone should ring alarm bells, and force Dana White and company to take the necessary course of action.

That will do it for another week of "The Rear Naked Column". You can send in your comments, e-mails, or you can follow me on twitter right here for all things MMA, video games, sports, and other nonsense.


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