UFC: As Star Building Struggles Continue, How Will the MMA Powerhouse Correct Course?

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UFC jose aldo ronda rousey
Ronda Rousey and Jose Aldo Credit: Shutterstock.com

It’s 2018, and the UFC lacks a single active, bankable superstar. So where have all the draws gone, and why has the promotion failed to create new ones?

Welcome to the UFC’s 2018 quagmire: Not a single UFC Pay-Per-View has hit 1 million buys for the promotion since UFC 207 in 2016. Only two cards even came close in 2017: UFC 214, featuring Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones 2, and UFC 217, where Georges St. Pierre returned to finish off Michael Bisping and become a two division champion.

This isn’t a case of a rash of sudden injuries clearing out the cupboards in one fell swoop. The shocking reality is that nearly anyone could see the UFC’s current dearth of marketable headliners coming from miles, or better yet years, away. For the better part of a decade, media and fans have questioned the promotion’s reliance on three initials — a U, an F, and a C — over creating bonafide stars. Dana White has long been the face of the company, over the very athletes competing in the cage. He’s ‘Looking for a Fight’ and has his very own Contender Series. The most dominant welterweight of all time, Georges St. Pierre? He gets thrown under the bus when he doesn’t kowtow to the company.

Don’t even get us started on Mighty Mouse.

You can’t even give credit to the UFC for building stars like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, because they didn’t build them. McGregor came ready-made, walking into the UFC with his brash, cocky persona already developed. All the UFC had to do was train a camera on him — though in hindsight, given how badly they have managed the star building process, it’s a miracle they even managed to do that. Ronda Rousey? You’re welcome, Scott Coker. Even Paige VanZant, who receives far more grief than she deserves, was built up outside the promotion thanks to Dancing with the Stars (her parents owned a dancing studio, and she practiced several styles growing up).

When the UFC has got behind a certain horse, as with the case of Francis Ngannou recently, it seems to focus on the most one-dimensional attributes of fighters. Ngannou’s big and scary, he’s a monster. Look at Michelle Waterson, isn’t she pretty. Despite the fact that these fighters have compelling stories — Ngannou’s rags to riches story, and his status as an immigrant in the current climate in America, not to mention Waterson juggling motherhood and a career in fighting — despite that, the chosen few are watered down to stereotypes.

It’s bad marketing, plain and simple. That, coupled with the fact that the UFC more often than not treats a fighter coming off a loss like a pariah, and you have a major problem. Welcome to 2018.

And the solution thus far? Bank on the past. Hope that the few remaining draws can bridge the gap until someone, anyone, takes off. Hope that the stars of yesteryear will return. Or just book two mid-level stars opposite one another. This is exactly why Dana White is pushing Cormier vs. Miocic. It’s not a fight he wants to happen so much as a fight he wants to sell, because he (or at least WME-IMG), knows he can. Cyborg vs. Nunes is likely next; this despite the UFC President long being adverse to tying up divisions.

Inept star-building in the UFC is why he was talking about Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre, Ronda Rousey, Jone Jones, and the Diaz brothers returning this year. Of course, he was asked about the bunch as part of a ridiculous hypothetical by TSN’s Aaron Bronsteter, who has been known to frequently lob softballs to the UFC President (TSN happens to be Canada’s home of the UFC, for those curious). Still, he played along, and it made the rounds with media outlets silly enough, or clickbait-y enough, to circulate what was absolute non-news.

White’s even willing to give CM Punk a second fight in the UFC. Because Punk will draw eyeballs, and the UFC need that more than anything right now.

Watching Ronda Rousey turn up in the WWE earlier this week just underscored the problem the UFC is having at the moment. And the WWE is an apt comparison. They’re in the star building business. What ever you think of their choreographed action, they have produced superstar after superstar, from Hulk Hogan to Stone Cold Steve Austin, to The Rock, to John Cena. Brock Lesnar got his start there. Rousey now joins the club. Every time their biggest star left, they had a plethora willing and able to step up and fill the void.

The UFC lacks this because they’ve neglected to put fighters before the promotion. That’s problem number one. Problem number two is actually fighter pay: good luck selling an up-and-comer as a superstar when he or she holds down a part-time job on the side just to make ends meet. Problem number three? At the moment, the UFC seems to suffer from a complete lack of creativity, and a resistance to change. The UFC format hasn’t changed much over the years. Fancy entrances? Forget it, even though ONE, RIZIN, and Bellator have all been given kudos for sprucing up theirs. Post-fight interviews? The same generic questions.

With the entertainment powerhouse that is Endeavor behind them, what’s changed for the UFC? So far, it seems UFC fighters have seen a few extra media appearances, and the odd movie role (generally bit parts). Which still won’t build stars of the caliber the promotion needs. Changes to in-house production will be necessary. From entrances, to giving fighters time show their personality. Not every fighter will be a star, but given the right opportunities, some will be. Nor do they all need to be brash, cocky McGregor clones. Remember, Georges St. Pierre was one of the biggest draws in MMA history, and he did it with class. He still started out being, lets say, less than impressed. That moment, one of the most quoted in MMA for years, is part of the reason GSP became, well, GSP.

There are other considerations as well. In pro wrestling, even losers can be stars. Outside the odd fighter, like Nate Diaz, who has his fair share of losses, the UFC seems to cast aside fighters who lose more than one or two key bouts. That shortens the lifespan of potential main eventers, and could easily be mitigated by both smart matchmaking, and marketing the fact that because MMA is a multi-discipline sport, losses aren’t just a maybe, but almost a given.

The sport of MMA has lots of life left in it. The UFC, however, needs to address its shortcomings if it wants to remain the premiere player in the sport. Otherwise, five years from now, it won’t matter what network the promotion is on; we could very well be tuning in elsewhere.

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