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It's Super Bowl week. In the past, that meant the Ultimate Fighting Championship would be rolling out some of its biggest stars this weekend. In the present, the UFC's biggest stars on Super Bowl weekend are ghosts, just memories in pronouncements from Dana White.
This Saturday, in Super Bowl 51's host city of Houston, the UFC will indeed have an event, but even with the return of “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung and how truly exciting that is, his headliner against Dennis Bermudez and the card below it is not in the mold of the UFC pay-per-views from Super Bowl weekends gone by. This is not a surprise, as even under Zuffa ownership, the weekend of the “Big Game” was de-emphasized over the last few years; a contingent of fans thought UFC 183, headlined by the ill-fated Anderson Silva-Nick Diaz clash, was generally a step down based on years gone by.
Super Bowl weekend and the UFC's relationship is not what I'm really on about here, though.
UFC boss Dana White has been surprisingly present and available in the media lately. Sure, the “UFC Unfiltered” podcast with Matt Serra and comedian Jim Norton is a company property and TMZ are essentially a UFC content partner, but it's bigger than that. White was surprisingly present and talkative throughout UFC promotion in Denver, including after the fights. He was inspired enough to go on a predictive tangent about Francis Ngannou being a long-reigning heavyweight champion. Considering how increasingly absent White has been as the UFC's schedule has accelerated over the past few years, it felt like a throwback.
No matter how engaged White may seem in the media, it's not some rediscovered passion, it's a necessity. This is not a throwback, it's really 2017. Right now, with Conor McGregor antagonizing the promotion, Jon Jones suspended and Ronda Rousey unlikely to fight any time soon if ever again, White is once again in the position of being one of the UFC's biggest stars and that's not a good thing. If he does have a renaissance in him as a promoter, right now might be the time.
The UFC has four cards, two of them PPV events, in the next four weeks; it makes sense to have White in public, speaking candidly, but doing his carnival barker routine. Yet, White isn't talking about “The Korean Zombie's” return or Holly Holm's opportunity to become the first woman to hold UFC titles in two different weight classes. No, he's fielding questions about the UFC's biggest stars, even if they're presently out of the promotion's orbit.
In Denver, he told the media that McGregor would face an “epic fall” if he insisted that his next fight would be in a boxing ring. In the days since, he's talked on several occasions about why he thinks Rousey is done with fighting and on “UFC Unfiltered,” he opined that Jones would get a title shot immediately upon his return.
“Jon Jones is supposed to return around July so the timing is perfect,” White told Norton and Serra. “Depending on where Jon’s head is and where he thinks he is, I would assume he would come right back and try to get his title back.”
The timing is perfect? You don't say. The UFC needs anything resembling bankable draws, immediately.
The difficulty facing a single MMA fighter who may only fight two or three times a year if they're lucky, or an MMA promotion staging a wide compliment of international events, is keeping the hype up all the time. At this point as WME-IMG settles into its ownership role, the most effective way the UFC can stay in the mainstream and feed the native MMA media cycle is to have Dana White talk about fighters who may not fight for six months, 12 months, or ever again.
In 2016, the UFC did record PPV business, racking up an estimated 8.37 million buys over 13 events. However, almost three quarters of those buys came from just five shows: UFC 196, 202 and 205, headlined by McGregor; UFC 200, which featured Brock Lesnar and UFC 207, which main evented with Rousey's return. The acceptable basement for a UFC pay-per-view 10 years ago was around 300,000; last year, five UFC PPV cards drew less than 250,000 buys.
Superstardom can be a monstrous force and you can't always necessarily control it. As I said, the problem that faces any prizefighter in their quest to be a legitimate celebrity is staying in the mainstream when you're not competing. McGregor has already found a million ways to do it on the media, branding and advertising side, but at this point in time, he is always the hottest topic of discussion in the UFC at any point and unfortunately for WME-IMG, keeping his name in the press is the best way to keep the UFC in mainstream sports conversation.
UFC 209's Tyron Woodley-Stephen Thompson rematch and the long-awaited Tony Ferguson-Khabib Nurmagomedov showdown are both outstanding fights. UFC 210's Daniel Cormier-Anthony Johnson 2 is a fight that has to happen, and Gegard Mousasi-Chris Weidman is a great fight to boot. If Stipe Miocic-Junior dos Santos 2 comes together for UFC 211 on May 13 in Dallas, that would be wonderful. But, how well do any of those cards draw?
In the first half of 2017, the UFC can also potentially promote a Joanna Jedrzejczyk title defense, Jose Aldo-Max Holloway, Demetrious Johnson-Joseph Benavidez 3, maybe Amanda Nunes-Valentina Shevchenko 2 and if his knee heals quickly from surgery, perhaps even Michael Bisping's next title defense against Yoel Romero. With the fight being based around “The Ultimate Fighter 25” which debuts on April 19, Cody Garbrandt's bantamweight title fight against T.J. Dillashaw likely won't be teed up until the summer.
Again, it's the economy of drawing power. The UFC can't load up title double and tripleheaders because they can't leave other PPV cards barren, yet, it has no individual fights on the immediate horizon that can stand on their own and do above-average business. Maybe WME-IMG gets desperate and bends over backwards to facilitate a Georges St. Pierre fight, but otherwise, it's an extreme, uphill battle over the first six months for the UFC's new owners.
The UFC has had trying periods and dry spells before, moments where injuries ravage its plans. However, there's never been a time where the entire promotion's ability to generate attention, coverage and revenue was bound up in so few people, and that the company had so little control over those sacred few. Absent the miraculous GSP return, WME-IMG can only play the hand its dealt and try to show off whatever unique, creative opportunities for promotion that come with a company of its reputation.
While last week I noted the sorts of promotional details that can slip through the cracks with new ownership, notably a horrible UFC on Fox 23 teaser video and an artistically bankrupt UFC 209 poster. However, WME-IMG has quickly found clever promotional opportunities for some of its hopeful stars, from getting Nunes on “Live with Kelly” and “Desus and Mero,” to getting the early jump on UFC 209 promotion with Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson's compelling “SportsCenter” segment, to lining up Khabib Nurmagomedov to do a Q&A session in Brighton Beach during UFC 208 week to mobilize the Russian audience.
These are all sharp, shrewd ideas, but the best laid plans of a promoter alone can't make a superstar. WME-IMG needs repeated media exposure for its new crop of champions, it needs to hope those fighters can sustain some level of dominance and more than anything, that its would-be stars have whatever necessary charisma or spark is necessary to magnetize a mainstream audience. It's an uneasy alchemy and that should ensure Dana White will be telling ghost stories about Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey for some time still.