Sometime around the middle of the last decade, the hand-wringing over the UFC’s future commenced. Sure, the company was on a hot streak, but how would it survive without its big pay-per-view draws? After all, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz couldn’t fight forever.
At the time, Georges St-Pierre was just another name on the card and Anderson Silva was accepting fights in promotions from Tokyo to London to Honolulu.
That’s something to keep in mind as you hear the latest round of questions over the UFC’s PPV plight heading into 2014.
In a mere matter of weeks last month, the company lost its two biggest PPV sellers, Silva and St-Pierre, with no guarantee either will ever return. A burned-out St-Pierre vacated his welterweight title after five-and-a-half years in order to go find himself. Silva’s future as a fighter is in question after suffering a gruesome broken leg in his UFC 168 rematch against the man who took his title, Chris Weidman.
There’s no set formula for creating a monster pay-per-view draw. Talent, of course, is part of the equation, but it’s not the only factor. If it was a simple matter of in-cage skills, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr. would already have GSP and Silva’s drawing power.
Silva’s case is instructive. Contrary to the revisionist history being passed around in some circles over recent weeks, Silva was not an instant superstar. Several of his early title defenses were double bills with another title fight, which indicates the company wasn’t fully convinced of his drawing power. As late as 2010, Silva was paired with a B.J. Penn lightweight title defense at UFC 112.
Eventually, Silva’s “it” factor shone through and overcame his language barrier. The Brazilian's ability to do remarkable things in the Octagon – like his counter-jab knockout of Forrest Griffin and his face-kick KO of Vitor Belfort – made his fights must-watch events. A heated rivalry with Chael Sonnen finally put him over the top as a draw.
Silva’s not the only combat sports star of recent vintage to take time building into a top-tier draw. Floyd Mayweather’s first three PPV headline bouts failed to crack 375,000 buys. Manny Pacquiao didn’t hit 400,000 buys until his seventh time as a headliner. Neither were born million-sellers. These things can’t be fast-tracked.
And it wasn’t like the UFC didn’t try to hotshot matters in 2013. Nick Diaz was coming off both a drug suspension and a loss to Carlos Condit when he was handed a shot at St-Pierre’s welterweight title for business reasons in March. Sonnen was handed a light heavyweight title shot at Jones despite having not fought in the weight class since 2006. And Miesha Tate got a crack at Ronda Rousey’s women bantamweight title shot on Dec. 28 because she made for good television on The Ultimate Fighter, not because she was the most qualified for a title shot.
Whether you consider it karma or simply confluence of circumstances, there are no more quick fixes on the horizon. Not without Silva or GSP, not with Diaz in self-imposed exile, heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez on the shelf with a shoulder injury and lightweight champ Anthony Pettis out with a knee injury.
That leaves Weidman, Rousey and Jones as the fighters the company will look to in the short term to keep the PPV numbers afloat.
Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort, which is expected to go down on either the Memorial Day or Fourth of July Las Vegas shows, is the biggest planned fight on the radar. Weidman has the potential to build into a GSP-type star – a humble, hard worker who earns his fan following based on his performance in the Octagon and the way he conducts himself. The fact he’s based in New York, the East Coast media capital, helps as well.
Two victories over Silva have Weidman well on his way to stardom. A victory over another former champion in Belfort followed by a potential title defense against former light heavyweight champion in Lyoto Machida if things break right is the clearest path the UFC has to creating the next big PPV seller soon.
Rousey, of course, is an established star capable of generating media attention like no one else in the sport. Rousey’s first UFC fight against Liz Carmouche last February sold out Anaheim’s Honda Center and drew solid PPV numbers. Her UFC 168 bout against Tate had main-event heat from the audience. Rousey was drowned out in boos for her post-fight interview after refusing to shake Tate’s hand following her win.
If the cards are played right, Rousey can become a top-shelf draw, the sort half want to root for and half want to root against. That theory will be tested at UFC 171 next month when she meets talented but unheralded Sara McMann in the main event in a battle of Olympic medalists.
Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson in a rematch of 2013’s Fight of the Year could happen later in the year if Jones happens to defeat Glover Teixeira at UFC 172 and Gustafsson disposes of Jimi Manuwa on March 8 in London.
Of all the fighters on the list, Jones is the closest to breaking through. Like Silva right before he took off as a draw, Jones’ talents are respected, but he’s not beloved. Will the heart he displayed in fending off Gustafsson during the championship rounds to retain his title at UFC 165 finally win over fans who have called him a phony?
That brings us back where we started. Back when the subset of internet MMA fans who are always looking for proof the sky is falling wereproclaiming that the UFC would be finished once the likes of Couture and Liddell moved on, Jones was a high school wrestler in upstate New York. The idea some kid no one ever heard of would be in position to carry the mantle a decade later would have been dismissed as ludicrous.
There’s no disputing the UFC will take a pay-per-view hit in 2014 as it concentrates on international expansion and building new stars on the home front.
But as a silver lining, with no more quick PPV fixes, the company will have to drop the Jones-Sonnen sort of fights and return to simply pushing the sport of mixed martial arts on its merits. There are a handful of intriguing fights on 2014’s early docket, including a Feb. 1 double bill with Aldo defending his featherweight title against Ricardo Lamas and a unification bout between bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and interim champ Renan Barao. The Rousey-McMann and Rashad Evans vs. Daniel Cormier card follows on Feb. 22; and March 14 has what promises to be the biggest bout of the first quarter, as Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler vie for St-Pierre’s vacant belt.
None of those fighters are million-selling pay-per-view draws. But they’ll have their chance to earn that spot in the Octagon. Just like Silva and GSP did.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA