The surge in the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the early 2000s was a result of a combination of several factors. If one particular reason was more important than another is a matter of perspective. However, arguably, marketing of the product to a main stream audience through The Ultimate Fighter reality show and the live fight cards on Spike TV was the key to the exponential growth of the sport. Even combat sports fans had to search several platforms to be able to follow the genre. Credit the Fertitta’s for rescuing the sport from obscurity and the risk they took to develop the UFC into a global brand that they sold for over $4 billion two years ago. Through the countdown shows and the bundle of UFC programming on Spike, fans could get insight into who each fighter was and the specific story of their career.
Chuck Liddell was marketed as the technical brawler that KO’ed his opponents. Randy Couture was the aging grappler that had enough heart to continue to compete. Lyoto Machida was intended to be the karate kid. Brock Lesnar was sold as a monster inside the cage. Through a series of suspensions, retirements, and other events, the Ultimate Fighting Championship doesn’t have quite the buzz it did previously. Is that a reason to scramble? No, because any long-term business will have peaks and valleys. In fact, WME, the group that bought that organization for that hefty sum a few years ago, is scheduled to negotiate a new TV deal within the next few months, and that is reported as a major revenue source.
But, the fact remains that the UFC is currently very low on star power and there aren’t many names on the roster that will generate major buy rates.
The argument could be made that in an attempt for a short-term fix, the UFC opted to cash in at the expense of long-range plans. For example, when the former UFC Welterweight champion, Georges St. Pierre returned to the cage after a four-year hiatus, he was immediately given a shot at the Middleweight title last November. GSP, who already obtained legendary status for his prior accomplishments, won the belt via submission and promptly vacated it, making the entire bout pointless. After an interim title debacle, Robert Whitaker was named the undisputed MW champion without fighting either of the previous champions. Essentially, this disrupts the continuity of the division and the credibility of the championship.
Jon Jones, the former 205 lbs titleholder, was stripped of the title more than once and tested positive for PEDs more than once, which is why he’s currently not eligible to compete. The totality of the suspension has yet to be determined. Aside from that, he was arrested several times, and has made more headlines outside of the cage than he has in competition. Quite frankly, “Bones” Jones has wasted much of his incredible talent and instead his shenanigans outside the octagon have overshadowed his career.
I wrote an article last month about Conor McGregor’s arrest after he threw a loading dolly through the window of a UFC bus that transported the fighters booked for that pay-per-view that weekend. As I explained, UFC shoehorned McGregor into a scenario where they could promote a double champion, but he took that star power and went to boxing to get a rumored $100 million payday to fight Floyd Mayweather. With that type of cash, McGregor didn’t necessarily need to return to mixed martial arts and had much more leverage at the negotiating table with the UFC.
Just last month, Conor was stripped of the titles he won in the octagon without ever defending either championship. Basically, that halted both the lightweight and featherweight divisions for an extended period of time. When McGregor was arrested for the UFC 223 incident, he was charged with a felon because of the injuries that occurred. Management made McGregor the face of the company, but he might be a convicted felon at the conclusion of the court case, which could prevent him from fighting in the United States.
Before McGregor was dumb enough to get himself arrested, Ronda Rousey was the top star of the organization, but she was KO’ed into retirement so what exactly does the company promote on pay-per-view?
Right now, Daniel Cormier, the LHW champion will fight Stipe Miocic, the HW champion, on PPV in July. Again, this is a short-term situation because each grappler will compete in their respective divisions again. The solution to the UFC’s star power predicament could be the current Universal champion, Brock Lesnar. When Brock was tired of the road schedule of professional wrestling, he eventually earned major cash in the UFC based on his name value from sports entertainment. After he won the UFC heavyweight title, a carefully marketed plan by Zuffa management at the time, he realized he didn’t like to get punched in the face so he used his MMA exposure to sign a part-time deal as one of the highest paid performers on the roster when he returned to the WWE in 2012. Three years later, when Brock had the chance to return to the cage, he used the UFC option as a negotiating tactic to sign an even more lucrative deal with the WWE.
If you enjoy Brock’s part-time status or not, you must give him credit, he works the negotiating angle better than anyone in the modern era. I wrote before that I think WWE brass almost invested too much into the Lesnar monster push because it indirectly limits the opportunities to make other legitimate money-drawing stars. The opportunity cost of Brock as champion and the Roman Reigns super push is that it creates a glass ceiling for everyone else on the roster. Finn Balor or Samoa Joe could become the most over athletes on the roster, but they will still be kept at a level below Reigns.
At WM 34, most assumed that the WWE’s year of planning would be another Roman Reigns title win at the biggest event of the year. Brock beat Braun Strowman and Samoa Joe with one F-5 so that Reigns could kick out of the move. However, Reigns didn’t win and a fluke finish in Saudi Arabia, one of the few places where Reigns wouldn’t get booed, still has Lesnar the champion. Obviously, Brock signed a new deal, but it remains unclear how many bouts are included in the contract. In many ways, Lesnar is in the best possible position to make as much money as possible from the WWE because management invested in Brock’s monster push as a way to present Reigns as the successor. The problem is, Reigns still isn’t over and won’t get over in his current role so Brock is still the biggest star on the roster. The WWE hasn’t done anything in several months to push anyone else as a main event star so the best option they have is to pay Lesnar more major paychecks until they can find another plan.
At the same time, Brock’s recent matches were less than stellar, and it seems like he’s mailing in the performances. Lesnar’s bouts that were dynamic became stable and repetitive within the past year. In many ways, there’s a “been there, done that” atmosphere to his matches. This is where the UFC could use Lesnar’s return to the cage and his exposure on WWE TV to sell pay-per-views again, which is exactly what they did during his original run in mixed martial arts. The difference is, the UFC could use Brock’s appearance in the octagon to make one of the current champions a bigger star.
For example, if Stipe Miocic KOs Lesnar, it will take him to an entirely different level of notoriety in the general public. It should be noted that since Lesnar tested positive for PEDs after his last fight with Mark Hunt in 2016, he must join the USADA testing pool for at least six months before he could be eligible to fight again. That being said, different from the WWE’s botched push, there could be a major payoff for the UFC if they make a bigger star at the expense of Lesnar so it would definitely be worth the investment for his to return to the octagon. Keep in mind, Brock is a business man and it wouldn’t be surprising if he cashes in again before he retires from competition.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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