Rumors regarding the potential return of Brock Lesnar persist. | Photo: Sherdog.com
During the last few days leading up to UFC 168, the MMA community was abuzz with delicious gossip. The talk began with former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight titleholder Brock Lesnar, who was rumored to be interested in returning to the Octagon on a part-time basis. When asked about the possibility during his customary media scrum, UFC President Dana White played just coy enough to fuel the frenzy.
“I honestly have no idea,” he said with a smirk.
By Saturday afternoon, business had picked up. According to forums and message boards, not only was Lesnar making a potential return to the cage, but he would be squaring off with longtime pound-for-pound legend Fedor Emelianenko. The fact that the promotion had scheduled a press conference just one hour before what was arguably its most anticipated event of the year sealed it. The biggest fantasy fight of 2010 was finally going to become a reality.
A number of MMA sites devoted stories hinting at this very notion, despite knowing all too well that said presser was meant to unveil the UFC Fight Pass, a digital network that, at best, would offer fans the opportunity to view archived footage of Lesnar and Emelianenko. Of course, when Lorenzo Fertitta, White and Marshall Zelaznik hit the stage at the MGM Grand, it became obvious -- although it should have been already -- that neither Lesnar nor Emelianeko would be walking through the door behind them.
In the end, who can blame anyone for dreaming? Even before the grisly conclusion to the UFC 168 headliner, it was quite apparent that a new era was about to begin for the Las Vegas-based organization. Anderson Silva told MMAFighting.com there was a “big chance” that his second bout with Chris Weidman would be his last. If you heard his post-fight interview following his loss to Weidman at UFC 162 in July, the claim came as no great surprise. However, there was always the possibility that the mysterious “Spider” was simply playing around, because sometimes he seemed dead set on playing out the string of a recently inked 10-bout contract.
Today, after a checked kick broke his leg and left him with a metal rod in his tibia, it is nearly impossible to imagine the onetime pound-for-pound king returning to the Octagon, with age 40 on the not-too-distant horizon.
Within a month’s time, the UFC has lost both Silva and Georges St. Pierre. There is no guarantee that they will come back, but until farewells are set in stone, there is also no guarantee they will not. It is not unlike the whole Lesnar-Emelianenko pipe dream, which might not completely go away until both men are eating discount dinner buffets on a regular basis. There is a reason why such speculation dies a slow death. For all the talk of MMA’s prosperity and the epic year that was, the sport is now sorely lacking when it comes to genuine star power, especially with St. Pierre and Silva off the grid.
True star power is not simply achieved through long winning streaks or even extraordinary talent. Those who possess it have that ever-elusive “it” factor that makes soccer moms and science teachers tune in to MMA. Lesnar had it. So did St. Pierre. Silva sometimes had it, depending on the circumstances. UFC 168 was an “it” event, thanks to the intrigue of the Weidman-Silva rematch and the rivalry between “Ultimate Fighter 18” coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate.
At the moment, there is no clear answer as to who will assume the role of company figurehead. Based on talent and accomplishment alone, it should be Jon Jones, but fans have been slow to warm to the light heavyweight champion. Even the overall dislike for “Bones” has not been passionate enough to drive buy rates yet. People do not turn out in droves even to cheer for Jones to lose.
The lack of a proven big-ticket draw leads to some uncertainty heading into 2014. With more and more cards filling out the calendar, it will be difficult for viewers to truly invest in all the talent on the roster.
At the press conference announcing the UFC Fight Pass, White grew defensive when asked if the mediocre Jan. 4 card that marks the digital network’s debut would be the norm as the promotion attempts to broaden its global reach. In all fairness, the UFC’s next international event in London looks significantly better on paper.
“That’s weird; one of cards is taking heat? I don’t care about that. Judge the card when it’s over,” White said. “It’s so crazy that we’re still having these questions. 2013 was probably the best year we’ve ever had. If you know anything about fighting, the fight [card on Jan. 4] is awesome. If you don’t, then blab away.”
UFC Fight Night 34 is headlined by Tarec Saffiedine, the final Strikeforce welterweight champion, and Hyun Gyu Lim, a promising 170-pound Korean Top Team product with a pair of triumphs on UFC preliminary broadcasts. The rest of the card features a number of promotional debutantes, as evidenced by the anonymous profile pictures that appear with the event on UFC.com.
“Nobody knew who Jon Jones was a few years ago; nobody knew who Anderson Silva was,” White said. “Where do you think these guys came from? You think every card is going to be headlined with huge superstars? Guys have to fight to become huge superstars. That whole thing makes no sense to me.”
Contrary to what White believes, fighting consistently well, whether under the UFC banner or elsewhere, is not a surefire ticket to superstardom. Sometimes it takes a particular rival or just the right promotional push to put someone over the top. Before Rousey found Tate, no one could have predicted the Olympic judoka would experience the meteoric rise she has enjoyed. Sure, the potential was there, but Rousey needed Tate as her ideal foil. One year from now, it will be interesting to see if Rousey-Tate 2 was the peak of women’s MMA or just the tip of the iceberg. For now, it appears that Rousey’s drawing power is legitimate, even as her approval rating declines. Rousey’s rematch with Tate had an electric feel, despite the challenger’s status as a huge underdog.
Booking Rousey against Sara McMann on Feb. 22 is an acknowledgment that the women’s bantamweight queen is one of the best things the promotion has going for it. A quick turnaround keeps Rousey occupied, gives her less time to pursue other extracurricular activities -- read: Hollywood -- and attempts to capitalize on the momentum of her most recent victory. Additionally, with a number of the UFC’s other stars sidelined due to injury, it only makes sense to put Rousey back on the marquee as soon as possible. Will a bout against McMann, who has an Olympic pedigree but is largely unknown, generate a comparable interest to Rousey-Tate 2? If it does, it will speak volumes about Rousey’s drawing power.
If not Rousey or Jones, someone else will have to fill the void left by St. Pierre and Silva. Maybe someone will emerge from the promotion’s ambitious itinerary of international events to spite the naysayers who so often irk White. Just don’t count on Brock and Fedor showing up to save the day.