The conclusion of the UFC's loaded 20th anniversary card between MMA legend Georges St. Pierre and contender Johny Hendricks was one that was polarizing, controversial, and certainly newsworthy. Amidst the controversy surrounding the hotly debated decision, GSP's post fight hints at retirement and admittance of personal issues have left sports fans wondering if that was the last we have seen of Rush inside the octagon. the answer to that question, for now, has yet to be answered. If indeed GSP does retire, the MMA would certainly take a hit, losing its number one PPV star and face of the sport. The hardcore fan would likely consider such a decision a closing chapter in the sport, but it could be (and should be) recognized that this is one step closer to the inevitable death of MMA among a mainstream audience.
The "UFC Boom" as I like to refer to was a period of prosperity and excitment for the UFC. It was a time when a relatively underground sport blossomed into a popular form of entertainment. This was a period when stars like Chuck Liddell, Rampage Jackson, Tito Oritz, and others were hot topics. Dana White was appearing on Bill O'Reilly, defending his sport as a legitimate form of competition, the debate between boxing and MMA took center stage on ESPN, and Bob Arum was calling MMA fighters skinheads (among other politically correct terms). MMA had made it onto the mainstream, UFC 66 made over a million PPV buys, Chuck Liddell and his patented mohawk existed as the sports biggest star; this was no longer an underground sport, this was the new thing in combat sports.
It slightly after this period where two MMA stars emerged, cementing themselves in UFC history. One was French Canadian superstar Georges St. Pierre; a dynamic young talent with a body sculpted out of granite. The other, Anderson Silva; a soft spoken ninja like figure, who could end the fight with one shot while keeping his hands below his waist, toying with competition like they did not deserve to be there. These two stars would build a tremendous fanbase and would cement themselves as the two biggest stars in the sport. GSP was named two time Canadian athlete of the year (in a country where hockey takes over all other sports), and Anderson Silva would captivate audiences around the world and soon earn the title of P4P King. He was the Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods of MMA.
Fast forward to late 2013, about 7 years after Silva became middleweight champion, the UFC has seen a tremendous amount of change and growth. Women are now fighting in the UFC, we have 9 different championship belts, and the UFC has made its way onto FOX. However one thing hasn't changed, and thats that the sport is represented by two of its most popular stars: GSP and Anderson Silva. Sure, we have seen a handful of other stars emerge between then and now. Brock Lesnar busted onto the scene after leaving WWE and found immediate success in the octagon, becoming the UFC Heavyweight champion and one of the sports biggest draws. However he has retired, and the days of the 6'3 265 pound monster slobbering into the camera and bashing his sponsors after winning a fight has come and gone. Another star we have seen is Light Heavyweight phenom Jon Jones, who has shown dominance in his division similar to that of GSP and Silva. Finally, Chael Sonnen, who has a knack of staying relevant, has made himself into a star due to his brilliant marketing skills and epic battles with Anderson Silva. But make no mistake GSP and the Spider remain king of the castle in the UFC.
We are now in a period of this fast growing sport where this constant is coming to a close. Anderson Silva had his clock cleaned by up and coming phenom Chris Weidman, and while some may call the win a fluke, oddsmakers have made it clear the chances are pretty good Weidman comes out once again with the belt. GSP narrowly scraped by Johny Hendricks, and his retirement party may already be in the planning stages. It is conceivable, if not unlikely, that by mid 2014 the UFC may be a sport where these two men no longer compete. And this,although not what MMA fans would like to admit, is the first stage of death of MMA as a mainstream sport. Take away GSP and Silva, and the sports biggest star would be Jon Jones. But does Jon Jones have the starpower to gather a mass audience? His PPV numbers wouldn't necessarily say so. Heres a list of recent Jones PPV numbers:
UFC 135 - 520,000 UFC 140 - 480,000 UFC 145 - 700,000 UFC 152 - 450,000 UFC 159 - 550,000 UFC 165 - 325,000
For the most part, these are respectable numbers. However, these are not numbers that would suggest Jon has the star power to carry an entire sport. His last fight drew a very average 325k buys, and with the thinning of the LHW division, there does not seem to be much potential for any blockbuster cards with Jones as the headliner. To put this into perspective, lets compare his numbers with recent PPV buys of with GSP and Silva. Starting with Silva:
UFC 117 - 600,000 UFC 126 - 725,000 UFC 134 - 335,000 UFC 148 - 925,000 UFC 153 - 410,000 UFC 162 - 550,000
GSP: UFC 111 - 770,000 UFC 124 - 785,000 UFC 129 - 800,000 UFC 154 - 700,000 UFC 158 - 950,000
With the exception of two Silva cards (which were both in Brazil), all of these cards eclipsed the half million mark. Jones has done this only twice, both with the help of already cemented stars in Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen. Once Jon is put against an opponent with little to no star power, we see average PPV numbers. GSP can reach at least 700,000 views fighting against anyone, Silva reached half a million views fighting a relatively unknown (among the mainstream audience) Chris Weidman.
Cain Velasquez puts up decent numbers, but only managed to rake in 330,000 views in what was one of supposed to be the most anticipated trilogy final of all time. Lightweight champ Anthony Pettis fought rival Ben Henderson in a highly anticipated fight, but only managed 270,000 views. Jose Aldo is an exciting champion in the featherweight division, but in his biggest fight of his career against former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar, he only drew 330,000 viewers.
Perhaps it is an inability on the UFC's part to build new stars. Perhaps the stars that came with the "UFC Boom" came naturally with the rise of the sport itself. It is not that other fighters aren't exciting, Anthony Pettis is a treat to watch, Cain Velasquez is a murderer. In fact, the UFC's biggest draw in GSP has been labelled as one of the more boring fighters in the sport. Whatever it is, it is clear that there is a problem in creating new stars that can help carry the sport, and it is debatable whether or not this will ever change. GSP and Anderson Silva carried the sport for years with great success, but with their careers nearing an end, it cannot be a dead thought that the UFC may be in a bit of trouble. Will 800,000+ PPV buys be possible without these two stars? At this rate, will the UFC ever have a fighter who can reach the same sort of star power? These are the sub-questions that raise the major question: Is MMA on the verge of death, at least among the mainstream audience? I would have to say yes.
- All PPV numbers provided by www.mmapayout.com