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Over the past few years, a wide chasm has developed between Ultimate Fighting Championship’s superstar drawing cards -- Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre -- and everyone else on the roster. Jon Jones is really the only fighter somewhere in the middle. Pay-per-views with a superstar draw very well, and all the other pay-per-views don’t do well at all. Given all those superstars’ futures present significant question marks, this puts UFC in a real predicament. It needs to create some new stars.
There has been significant debate about why exactly the UFC has struggled to create additional superstars in recent years. The UFC has faced criticism from some for not promoting its fighters properly. Others argue that the fighters themselves either haven’t done enough to capture the public imagination or they intrinsically lack star qualities. It’s a minority of great fighters in every sport that become true drawing cards. Personality matters, as does fighting style and having the right alignment of opponents. Beyond the nature of the UFC’s promotion and the star qualities of the fighters involved, there’s also the lingering issue of the volume of UFC shows and divisions. It was much easier to create stars when you had a large base of fans that watch all the shows and know all the champions.
After a pair of tremendous shows, UFC 217 and UFC 218, set up a whole host of compelling future matchups, the excuses just aren’t there if the UFC is unable to elevate the stature of a number of key fighters over the course of the next six months. The UFC has a marketable slate of upcoming fights, and it’s time to sell them to the larger public. None of them are guaranteed hits based on pay-per-view history but all of them have the potential to be, and at some point superstars have to make that jump.
In combat sports, the image of the powerful heavyweight knockout artist has frequently captured the public imagination. The UFC has just that on its hands with the emergence of Francis Ngannou, who looks like he is chiseled out of granite and produces devastation with his hands. His knockout of Alistair Overeem on Saturday in Detroit was one of the scariest in UFC history, the sort of shot that has to spark some level of fear in even the most battle-tested opponents. Now, Ngannou is in line for a title shot against Stipe Miocic, the everyman firefighter. It has the potential to be the most anticipated heavyweight title fight in quite some time.
Champion-versus-champion fights are another tried and true promotional selling point, and the UFC could have one of those on the horizon, as well. UFC President Dana White and bantamweight titleholder T.J. Dillashaw have made no secret of their interest in a fight between Dillashaw and flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. The latter’s willingness to take the fight is the only obstacle, and ironically, it represents Johnson’s best opportunity to move to a different level of star power. Dillashaw’s title win at UFC 217 adds additional juice to the matchup. It feels like a legacy fight for both men, which fans often pick up on.
That wasn’t the only fight set up well by UFC 217, as a rematch between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Rose Namajunas is a very interesting one. Jedrzejczyk has always exhibited strong marketability with her personality and fighting style, but the UFC for whatever reason has never tested how she would do as a pay-per-view headliner. The biggest problem for Jedrzejczyk on that front was she was so dominant that it was hard to convince fans that her opponents had a good shot at winning. That concern evaporated with Namajunas’ dominant performance. The outcome would be in doubt and fans will pick sides: Jedrzejczyk gunning for revenge or Namajunas standing up for herself again.
There’s also the matter of Max Holloway, whose stature in the sport continues to grow. His performance on Saturday spoke to Holloway’s character as a fighter. Holloway had already defeated Jose Aldo once and was winning the first and second rounds at UFC 218. In spite of that, Holloway fought like a fighter who still had something to prove. He turned up the pressure to a significant degree and drowned Aldo in his offense. It wasn’t that Aldo was fading; Aldo landed more significant strikes in the third round than he did in the first or second. Rather, Holloway made a conscious effort to take out Aldo, and he did it at risk to himself in the process.
Holloway has a lot going for him. His quirky, endearing interviews add to his status. With each fight, he’s turning into a genuine successor to the Hawaiian legacy of B.J. Penn. That base of support can help carry Holloway, just like boxing star Miguel Cotto was able to build on the legacy of past Puerto Rican greats like Felix Trinidad. This is a fighter to build around and market on his own, hoping he clicks with the general public and it elevates the stature of all of his fights.
There’s no guarantee any of these individual promotional efforts are going to succeed. Marketing isn’t one size fits all. Different fights appeal to different groups for different reasons. However, there is plenty to sell, and it is imperative UFC capitalize on at least some of those opportunities. The UFC is long overdue when it comes to creating new icons and the present possibilities are strong.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.