UFC: Time to promote its new stars
Brock Lesnar is long gone, welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre is sidelined thanks to a knee injury, and Alistair Overeem is on the shelf because he’s, well, because he’s “Ubereem”, to be quite honest.
With those three stars out of play, and light heavyweight champion Jon Jones incapable of competing every month (as well as dealing with some outside-the-cage issues of his own), the timing has never been better for the UFC to turn the spotlight on some of the lesser known elite athletes on the UFC roster and give them a chance to develop into stars.
Heading that list should be Carlos Condit.
“The Natural Born Killer” became a recognisable commodity as the third wheel in the Nick Diaz-Georges St-Pierre sage that started last September, and carried into this year, and now sits on the sidelines with the interim UFC welterweight title on his coffee table.
Seeing as there is a backlog of contenders in the 170-pound ranks, and a dearth of big name fights available to the organisation at the present time, I think it would make a great deal of sense for Condit to end his wait for St-Pierre, return to the cage and headline the August FOX card that currently lacks a marquee main event opposite Johny Hendricks.
Both fighters have never been more popular or in-demand, and with Brian Stann falling out of his bout with Hector Lombard due to injury, Condit and the bearded “Bigg Rigg” for the interim title and the chance to face St-Pierre later this year seems like the right fight to make in its place.
Instead of keeping the division focused on the ailing St-Pierre, who is recovering from knee surgery, move forward, and give healthy, hungry fighters like Condit, Hendrick, and Martin Kampmann the chance to build their names in the French-Canadian champion’s absence.
Not only does it give fans a fight or two that they want to see right now, but it also makes whoever ends up welcoming GSP back into the fold a better draw opposite the organisation’s golden boy.
Unfortunately, that isn’t how the UFC tends to approach these things. Case in point: Renan Barao.
While you might be thinking, “What do you mean? He’s fighting for the interim bantamweight title in a month,” until Dominick Cruz went down with a blown ACL, his Brazilian replacement was slated for the preliminary portion of UFC 148.
Even worse, he was initially scheduled to meet Jeff “Hellbound” Hougland, who ended up getting steamrolled by Yves Jabouin instead, while Barao was re-booked with veteran Ivan Menjivar.
The top challenger in the bantamweight division was buried behind a meaningless welterweight bout between Dong Hyun Kim and Demian Maia, and the proposed Cung Le-Rich Franklin bout until Cruz’s injury forced the UFC to give him a day in the spotlight.
You would think that with Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall each holding a 25 percent chance of becoming the first flyweight champion in UFC history, the organisation would have been pushing this weekend’s event headlined by the two 125-pound contenders to the hilt. You’d be wrong.
Anderson Silva’s rematch with Chael Sonnen a month from now got the lion’s share of the promotional push during last week’s Ultimate Fighter Finale, while “Mighty Mouse” and “Uncle Creepy” remain in the background, vying for a chance to face Joseph Benavidez, a fighter the UFC had stuck in preliminary card purgatory all last year.
Erik Koch is going to be facing Jose Aldo for the featherweight title in six weeks, but few casual fans would be able to pick Erik Koch out of a line-up, and the fighters who are all battling to be “next in line” in the 145-pound ranks – Ross Pearson, Cub Swanson, Hatsu Hioki, Ricardo Lamas – are all slotted behind less meaningful match-ups later this month on the next FX card.
Same goes with potential bantamweight contender Mike Easton as well. “The Hulk” stepped into Barao’s place opposite Menjivar, and will be on a short list of contenders should he come away from UFC 148 with a win, but his placement on the preliminary portion of the card, and lack of a, “Hey! Look at this guy!” push from the promotion will make it hard to slot him into the upper echelon of the division next time around.
The UFC has benefitted from having dominant champions and consistent draws across their core divisions over the last few years.
When GSP can be counted on for 800,000 pay-per-view buys, and Anderson Silva maintains a stranglehold on the middleweight title, you don’t have to worry too much about cultivating new stars in those two divisions.
Lesnar always brought huge numbers, but he’s gone now, and so too are guys like Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, two popular veterans who could always be counted on to draw a crowd as well.
But the landscape has changed.
The lightweight division is the most talent-rich division in the organization, but none of the top names in the weight class – including champion Benson Henderson – can be considered big stars right now.
Though few fighters ever reach GSP level stardom, Henderson, Frankie Edgar, and last year’s two-time title challenger Gray Maynard aren’t guys who are drawing huge audiences to see them fight.
While what I like to call the “lighter weight class bias” has something to do with that, the other factor is that the UFC just hasn’t done enough to sell these elite 155-pound competitors as must-see stars.
Jose Aldo is probably the closest things we have to an Anderson Silva clone right now, and people are still ho-hum on whether or not they want to pay to see him defend his title.
The rash of injuries plaguing the top of the food chain in the UFC right now is a perfect opportunity for the organization to look at their roster, identify the up-and-coming talent in each division, and start marketing the hell out of them, so that when the time comes for them to headline events and fight for championships a year or two from now, people aren’t left asking, “Who the hell is Erik Koch?”