With many of its star fighters aging and on the back end of their careers, the UFC must decide what, or more importantly, who, is next. Unlike most major sports, UFC and MMA in general must work harder to build their individual stars. Sure baseball or football players can sign endorsement deals and be put front and center by their respective leagues or teams. But if the player is consistently putting up gaudy individual statistics such as 40 homers or 30 touchdowns, they will most likely become a star on their own. The nature of MMA makes this very difficult for a few reasons.
Aside from putting together an impressive win streak or win/loss record, it is very difficult to distinguish oneself in MMA based on numbers. Fightmetrics are not widely accepted enough yet to have an impact on a casual fan’s opinion about how good a fighter is or may be. Also, the unpredictable nature of an MMA bout makes moving prospects along that much more difficult. Legitimate undefeated records are unheard of in the UFC. Fighters lose in the sport, it happens to all of them. The UFC could attempt to latch onto a hot young prospect and have major plans for them in the future. But one flash knockout could put an end to those plans rather abruptly.
MMA Promotions do not have the luxury of being able to bring along its athletes with the intention of building them as stars, unlike its distant sport cousins in Boxing and the WWE. Talented boxers are fed tomato cans for much of their younger careers so that when more lucrative fights near, they can be propped up on their bloated 40-0 records. Professional Wrestlers are practically selected by the WWE as the next big thing, given title belts and headlining pay-per-views. While a very different sport, the UFC holds similar power. The promotion also chooses who will headline big shows and who gets the right to fight for world championships. They can choose to promote who they feel will make them the most money, regardless of numbers. As we have seen in recent years with fighters such as Chael Sonnen or Nick Diaz, you can become a star by being a talented fighter who is even more skilled at drawing fan interest with what they say over the microphone. They were rewarded for those skills when the promotion chose to invest in their stardom.
The UFC is a large enough brand at this point that fighters don’t need to be true stars in order for fans to still tune in. However, in order to continue to grow as a company and as a sport, the cultivation of these potential stars still needs to take place. The UFC is cognizant of that, UFC 159 being the most recent example. They used Sonnen, an established star, to help continue to build Jon Jones as one of the stars of the present, and future. With the continued growth of the MMA and the UFC, here’s to hoping that we will be seeing many more stars emerge.