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Thoughts From Across The Pond. 01.22.14. Star Power
Posted by Alex Watt on 01.22.2014

The UFC's Brave New World Without Silva & St. Pierre

As the calendar rapidly approaches the first major UFC event of 2014, the world's premier Mixed Martial Arts organisation finds itself in an unfamiliar position.

For the first time in many years, the promotion will not have its two biggest box office attractions to rely on for its PPV revenue. Within a matter of weeks in the final stages of 2013 the UFC lost both Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva, with no guarantee that either will ever step foot in the Octagon again.

First, on December 13 2013, the UFC's old reliable, the biggest PPV draw in the sport Georges St. Pierre called it quits, citing burnout and personal reasons. Although "Rush" left the door open for a future return, that prospect is looking ever less likely given the former company man's public questioning of the UFC's drug testing policy, their lack of commitment to fighting PED use and the way they operate behind the scenes.

Two weeks later, Anderson Silva – the UFC's second biggest money spinner – was unsuccessful in his bid to reclaim the UFC Middleweight Championship he held for almost seven years and suffered a quite gruesome injury in the process, leaving his fighting future in serious doubt.

With the company set to run so many events in 2014 (a whopping 40+ are planned), the UFC will certainly not find itself in financial danger any time soon. Nevertheless, the lack of a sure-fire star who can guarantee selling close to one million Pay-Per-Views in North America will be a concern for Dana White and the Fertittas.

The UFC has unquestionably suffered by not preparing itself for this inevitable eventuality. Their reliance on St. Pierre and Silva, without putting all of their energy into creating the same level of mystique and interest around some of its other borderline stars leaves the company in an awkward position at the start of the new year; one largely of its own making.

Even so, the UFC has been here before. The same questions were asked when Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture called it a day in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Brock Lesnar was the biggest PPV purchase generator the UFC had ever seen, combining his history in WWE and divisively brash personality, to frequently crack the one million buys barrier and when he stepped away following his loss to Alistair Overeem in 2011, the UFC took a big financial hit.

Amid all the uncertainty, there are signs that Anderson Silva may return to the Octagon in 2014. The surgery on Silva's broken left fibula and tibula proved successful and various sources have confirmed that the Brazilian is determined to get back to training as soon as possible and return to the Octagon. Despite this, at 38-years-old and with nothing left to prove inside the cage, a permanent return would be ill-advised for "The Spider". A one-shot deal for a retirement fight could prove one last big payday for Silva and the UFC but his days as a world champion and one of the UFC's biggest stars are surely over.

Also doing the rounds in the rumour columns courtesy of certain Dana White comments, is the notion that Brock Lesnar is considering a UFC return due to "regrets with MMA because he wasn't healthy" in his first run. If such a scenario came to pass, it would be a huge money spinner for the UFC and a Lesnar Octagon return would practically be guaranteed to crack the one million buys barrier.

Still, it seems unlikely that this scenario will come to pass. Lesnar is under an exclusive contract to WWE until 2015, is one of the highest earners in the company, works a limited schedule and seems almost certain to capture the WWE Championship in 2014.

As for its current roster, the UFC's biggest star is UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and new undisputed pound-for-pound king Jon Jones. "Bones" has brought stability to the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship scene following the end of the Liddell-era, with a record six title defences. His youth, impressive skillset, crowd pleasing fight style and crossover potential (Jones was the first UFC athlete to sign a sponsorship deal with Nike) should make him one of the biggest stars in the history of the company.

His headline fight against Chael Sonnen, promoted off the back of the seventeenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, was the fifth most purchased UFC show of the year. However, the numbers for Jones' title defence against Alexander Gustafsson in August were alarming. Drawing a disappointing 310,000 buys, it seems as though many fans simply did not buy the less than stellar promotional work from the UFC in the lead up to the event, which failed to truly sell the Swede as a dangerous challenger to Jones' throne. That especially came back to haunt the UFC when Gustafsson gave Jones the toughest test of his career in what the 411mania MMA staff - among many others - voted the best fight of 2013. Surely, their almost inevitable rematch in 2014 (provided Jones defeats his next challenger Glover Teixeira and Gustafsson gets past prospect Jimi Manuwa in the UK) will be one of the most purchased events of the year, given that the UFC can sell it based on the competitiveness and controversial outcome of their UFC 166 bout.

Even so, the fact that so few were convinced to open their wallets in order to watch one of the most exciting fighters in the sport is a concern.

Funnily enough, there are significant similarities here to how Anderson Silva fared early on in his UFC career. It took years before fans recognised the "it" factor of "The Spider" off the back of his numerous otherworldly performances against top contenders. Jon Jones also has a penchant for the flashy offence and highlight reel finish and it seems only a matter of time until "Bones" makes the breakthrough to being a substantial PPV revenue generator.

After Teixeira and Gustafsson, Jones also faces another problem similar to Anderson Silva, one "The Spider" began to encounter in 2008. Having convincingly disposed of all the immediate top contenders in the division, buy rates may start to fall as the UFC begins to run out of quality challengers for the dominant champ. An oft discussed move to heavyweight could alleviate this issue for Jones, plus the likes of Daniel Cormier moving to light heavyweight will hopefully keep Jones busy at 205lbs for the immediate future.

Behind Jones, Ronda Rousey could be set for a massive 2014. Already in possession of the skills, the talent, the looks, the attitude and huge crossover potential (not to mention the most perfect walkout music since Matt Hughes), Rousey added a fierce heel persona to her locker off the back of her TUF 18 coaching stint. Falling into the clear love-her-or-hate-her bracket, "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey is someone who fully understands how the fight business operates. Embracing the fan backlash, amplified by her refusal to shake arch-nemesis Miesha Tate's hand after defeating her in December, she pointed out recently; "cheers don't pay for my gas." The hope will be that her anti-hero persona will result in extensive PPV buys from fans passionately supporting her and those willing her to lose, much like a certain Floyd Mayweather Jr. in boxing.

The early indications for Rousey's future as a UFC draw are promising.

Rousey's Octagon debut at UFC 157 against Liz Carmouche, which was the first women's fight in company history and heavily pushed as such, drew a highly respectable 450,000 buys on PPV. That made it the sixth most purchased UFC event of the year, behind only the four events which were headlined by Silva and St. Pierre, plus the aforementioned Jon Jones' title defence against Chael Sonnen.

UFC 168 is said to be the second highest grossing PPV event in the UFC's history – early estimates indicate around 1.1 million buys – an event which Rousey was a significant part of. Indeed, although the lion's share of the credit for those impressive numbers will go to the highly anticipated main event rematch between Silva and Weidman, it should not be discounted that Rousey and Tate's rematch in the co-main event was heavily hyped on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter.

It will be interesting to see how Rousey's next fight fares on PPV. Once again, it will be the female bantamweight division which takes the headline slot as Ronda Rousey defends her title against Sara McMann at UFC 170. This time, with the lack of reality TV show-style drama and simmering hatred between Rousey and her counterpart, the UFC will be promoting the fight on the basis of competition and athletic achievement. Rousey and McMann are both Olympic medallists (Rousey won bronze in judo in 2008, McMann a silver in freestyle wrestling in 2004) and it will be interesting to see whether the public buy into that story more than they did with the feud between Tate and Rousey.

Also worthy of consideration is "The Spider" slayer himself, Chris Weidman. Although both of his fights against Anderson Silva ended in bizarre fashion, the second of which robbed Weidman of that defining victory over the best of all time, it doesn't change the fact that Weidman achieved the once-unthinkable not once, but twice in 2013. He recorded the knockout of the year when his left fist brought a crushing end to Silva's showboating and reign of dominance in July and the American dominated the first round in each fight against the former champ and pound-for-pound king, looking especially impressive in dropping Silva in their UFC 168 rematch.

Despite those two TKO wins over "The Spider", however, there will still be some who question the legitimacy of the new champion. While there is little doubt that Weidman is a supreme talent, his next defence against Vitor Belfort will be extremely important in proving to the casual fans that he is more than a one hit wonder. It will also be significant in seeing how Weidman performs in terms of numbers on PPV without Anderson Silva standing on the opposite side of the Octagon.

If the UFC properly promote his wins over Silva and hammer home the significance of defeating the greatest of all time on two occasions, then Weidman could be catapulted into the upper echelons of UFC stars. As an American who isn't overly shy in speaking his mind, not to mention his great skills in the cage, Weidman certainly has the tools. And as a New Yorker, Weidman could also prove vital in finally pushing the sport into the Big Apple over the coming years.

It is clear too that the UFC are expecting big things from UFC Lightweight champ Anthony Pettis. "Showtime" has all the tools required to make himself the company's next big star; the looks, the skills, the personality and a highlight reel to die for.

Pettis is surely the best example of how the UFC have mishandled some of the fighters on their roster and failed to exploit their star potential. In 2011, Pettis entered the UFC off the back of the final WEC show in which he won the now-defunct company's lightweight belt before it was absorbed into the UFC. The manner in which he won that title from Benson Henderson – the now infamous "Showtime kick" – was one of the greatest moments in MMA history and the strike quickly went viral, making Pettis an immediately recognisable athlete whom the UFC could throw their full promotional weight behind.

Instead, Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard's UFC Lightweight Championship bout ended in a classic split draw, a rematch was made, Pettis didn't get his unification bout and instead lost to Clay Guida. All his momentum was gone and the UFC was left to ponder what might have been.

Fortunately for the UFC, Pettis worked his way back into title contention and in August he defeated his old foe Benson Henderson to capture the UFC belt. Hopefully, this time the UFC will be smart enough to capitalise on the star potential of "Showtime". If Pettis can stave off the injury troubles which are becoming all too frequent for him in recent years, then he could end up as the UFC's biggest star in the not-so-distant future.

The other UFC champions – namely Cain Velasquez, José Aldo, Renan Barão and Demetrious Johnson – are all supremely talented but haven't made the connection with the audience that the UFC might have hoped, something the company themselves has to take some of the blame for due to their sometimes baffling lack of effective promotion for these fighters.

Velasquez, the humble hard working champion, could prove to be as popular with the Mexican market as GSP was with the Canadian contingent, given time.

Similarly, Aldo and Barão will continue to be draws in their native Brazil but, like Silva, it may take longer yet for the American audience to accept them as must-see stars.

Johnson was probably the UFC's star performer in 2013, defending his flyweight strap three times inside the Octagon. His exciting hard fought decision win over John Dodson, late armbar finish over John Moraga and, most impressively of all, his decisive 2:08 knockout win over Joseph Benavidez last month, all demonstrated that "Mighty Mouse" pound-for-pound is up there with the best in the sport.

However, all three of those title defences were the main events of the UFC's television shows on FOX. On the one hand, these moves were a good idea for promoting the qualities of the oft-derided flyweight division to the general public but, on the other, it brings into question the UFC's belief in Johnson's headlining capabilities.

Outside of their champions, the UFC may be secretly hoping that Urijah Faber is able to upset the odds and defeat Barão for the UFC Bantamweight Championship next month, given "The California Kid" is often seen as the face of the lighter weight classes and continues to be highly popular with fans.

Also, the UFC may up their negotiations with the divisive Nick Diaz in 2014. Although the enigmatic Diaz is claiming to be retired and has turned down the offer of a rematch with Carlos Condit, the company may be persuaded to offer the Stockton native more money to persuade him to step back inside the Octagon. After all, the fact that UFC 158 in March was the second most successful show of 2013 - with an estimated 950,000 buys - can be attributed to Diaz as well as money maker Georges St. Pierre. Diaz's all action style inside the cage and his love-him-or-hate-him persona outside it, shifts tickets.

And don't forget too that BJ Penn will return to the Octagon in 2014, off the back of coaching against Frankie Edgar on The Ultimate Fighter 19. The UFC will hope that "The Prodigy" will spike ratings on the reality show and PPV buys for the fight itself in the summer.

There are plenty of options for the UFC to look to in 2014 but they will have to realise that it won't be a quick fix.

The UFC may have to accept that they will have to take a hit in the PPV market as the company continues its international expansion and aims to create new talent. In addition, a new weight division will be introduced later in the year when the female strawweight division debuts on The Ultimate Fighter's twentieth season, while numerous series of TUF are pushed into new markets across the world, and the UFC has a new "network" to promote too.

It could be that the UFC will be forced away from making match-ups designed to capitalise on drama and personalities – such as the Jones vs. Sonnen title bout which failed to draw the great business the company had hoped – and instead push fights based on the merits of Mixed Martial Arts as a sport.

The likes of Aldo, Barão, Johnson and Velasquez may not be the biggest or most compelling characters on the roster but what they are is supremely talented athletes and exceptionally skilled martial arts practitioners.

The first quarter of 2014 features some fantastic match-ups. José Aldo vs. Ricardo Lamas, Renan Barão vs. Urijah Faber, Ronda Rousey vs. Sara McMann, Rashad Evans vs. Daniel Cormier and Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler (for the 170lbs belt recently vacated by GSP) are all on the imminent horizon. These shows, headlined by genuinely compelling contests of skill rather than larger than life personalities alone, will be an early indication of what life without Silva and St. Pierre could spell for the UFC's financial future.

UFC PPV Estimates 2013

1. December 28, 2013 – UFC 168: Weidman vs. Silva 2 – 1,000,000-1,100,000 buys
2. March 16, 2013 – UFC 158: St-Pierre vs. Diaz – 950,000 buys
3. November 16, 2013 – UFC 167: St-Pierre vs. Hendricks – 630,000 buys
4. July 6, 2013 – UFC 162: Silva vs. Weidman – 550,000 buys
5. April 27, 2013 – UFC 159: Jones vs. Sonnen – 530,000 buys
6. February 23, 2013 – UFC 157: Rousey vs. Carmouche – 450,000 buys
7. May 25, 2013 – UFC 160: Velasquez vs. Bigfoot 2 – 380,000 buys
=8. February 2, 2013 – UFC 156: Aldo vs. Edgar – 330,000 buys
=8. October 19, 2013 – UFC 166: Velasquez vs. Dos Santos III – 330,000 buys
10. September 21, 2013 – UFC 165: Jones vs. Gustafsson – 310,000 buys
11. August 31, 2013 – UFC 164: Henderson vs. Pettis 2 – 270,000 buys
12. August 3, 2013 – UFC 163: Aldo vs. Korean Zombie – 180,000 buys
13. June 15, 2013 – UFC 161: Evans vs. Henderson – 140,000 buys

All figures are courtesy of Dan Plunkett's Greatest MMA News Column and Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

What do you think? Who will prove to be the UFC's biggest draw in 2014? Is there anyone I've missed? Let me know in the comments.

And that'll do it for another week.

If you enjoy the column please do follow me on twitter at @AlexWattMMA.

Thanks for reading and if you have any comments or feedback please leave them below or message me on twitter. Cheers.


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