UFC champions’ declining star power

On July 3, 2010, Brock Lesnar defeated Shane Carwin to unify the UFC heavyweight belt, completing Lesnar’s comeback from diverticulitis. As compiled by Dave Meltzer, the authority on such matters, the pay-per-view buyrate for that event was more than 1 million — the sixth time that had happened in UFC history, the third involving Lesnar.

That has happened only once since then.

The champions as of that date:

  • Heavyweight: Lesnar
  • Light heavyweight: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
  • Middleweight: Anderson Silva
  • Welterweight: Georges St. Pierre
  • Lightweight: Frankie Edgar

Edgar had recently upset BJ Penn for the lightweight belt, then showed later in the year that it wasn’t such a shock, defending the belt in a rematch. Rua had beaten Lyoto Machida — ending the much-hyped “Machida era” after less than a year — but would soon give way to Jon Jones, who held the belt until … Tuesday, when the UFC stripped him in the wake of a hit-and-run investigation in Albuquerque.

Today’s champions:

  • Heavyweight: Nominally Cain Velasquez, who beat Lesnar and traded it back and forth with Junior dos Santos in an engaging trilogy. But he hasn’t fought since October 2013. The interim champion is Fabricio Werdum.
  • Light heavyweight: Vacant until Anthony Johnson fights Daniel Cormier next month.
  • Middleweight: Chris Weidman, who pulled a Frankie Edgar by shocking a longtime champion (Anderson Silva) and doing it again.
  • Welterweight: Robbie Lawler
  • Lightweight: Rafael dos Anjos
  • Featherweight: Jose Aldo
  • Bantamweight: TJ Dillashaw
  • Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
  • Women’s bantamweight: Ronda Rousey. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.
  • Women’s strawweight: Joanna Jedrzejczyk

Rousey is easily the champion with the biggest media exposure, gaining a Mike Tyson-style rep for fast finishes while appearing in action filns and making the talk show and magazine rounds like Jennifer Aniston. She has just recently established herself as a pay-per-view draw.

The lighter weight classes have been difficult sells. Aldo needs a compelling opponent. Dillashaw knocked off Renan Barao, someone the UFC had been trying to push without much success. “Mighty Mouse” Johnson has attracted a legion of hardcore bloggers trying to point out his brilliant technique, and his literal last-second armbar win in his last bout should give the UFC a highlight to tout, but casual buyers just aren’t biting. Jedrzejczyk didn’t do UFC marketing any favors — the company held an entire season of The Ultimate Fighter with the alleged 16 best women’s strawweights and crowned tournament winner Carla Esparza its first champion in the weight class, only to see the little-known Polish fighter dismantle Esparza in her first defense.

But the real problems are in those higher weight classes, where the UFC has to market people it pushed away not too long ago:

– Werdum was let go after a disappointing run in the UFC. While beating the invincible Fedor Emelianenko outside the UFC is a nice calling card, he then lost to Alistair Overeem. Since he first joined the UFC in 2007, he is 2-3 against other heavyweights in the UFC’s top 10.

– Anthony Johnson, until recently, was best known as a welterweight and a middleweight who could neither make weight nor beat top guys. His first UFC stint included losses to Rich Clementi, Josh Koscheck and Vitor Belfort. (We’re not counting the “loss” to Kevin Burns, a referee’s error that Johnson remedied in the rematch.) The UFC cast him out, and he pulled a stunning win at heavyweight over Andrei Arlovski before returning to the UFC as a light heavyweight. He fought off Phil Davis, pounded the ancient Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and shocked Alexander Gustafsson to earn a title fight against Jones.

– Lawler spent years in the MMA wilderness, getting cut from the UFC after a loss at UFC 50 in 2004. He fought what might have been the two best bouts in EliteXC’s brief history, both against Scott Smith. Then he compiled a 3-5 record in Strikeforce. In his return to the UFC, he moved to welterweight, with the only loss in seven fights being a narrow decision loss to Johny Hendricks that he avenged in December.

Cormier, an Olympic wrestler and a World Championship medalist, has long-term star potential. Weidman might — he did draw more than 1M PPV buys for his rematch against Silva, and no one who saw that can doubt his legitimacy.

Perhaps the lesson to take from this is that the UFC shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss fighters outside its own ranks. Fans can be excused for thinking, “Wait, was Werdum part of that tournament you said was crap?”

But outside of that, I don’t see many lessons here for the UFC. They’ve done what they can to build up Weidman, Cormier and company. They’ve been unlucky with injuries to Velasquez and former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who had an entertaining rivalry with icon Urijah Faber. Then several of their best fighters and biggest stars have either been beaten (Silva, Benson Henderson, Anthony Pettis, Barao) or drifted into limbo (St. Pierre, Jones).

So these years are a test of the UFC’s staying power, and for the most part, they’re passing. Just don’t expect any Lesnar numbers any time soon.

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