As 2013 comes to a close and 2014 begins, fight fans are left with one central question. Who will become the new face of the UFC? With the two most dominant champions and biggest pay-per-view draws in the history of the sport both out for the foreseeable future, a new star must rise to the top. But who? The most logical place to start our search is with the current champions.
As much as I wish this wasn't the case, any fighter below 155lbs is at a serious disadvantage. For whatever reason, despite how much respect they garner from hardcore fans, the general population often fails to fully get behind the little guys. For example, Jose Aldo has proven to be every bit as dominant and exciting in his respective weight class as any other modern day champion, yet despite getting recognition on the pound-for-pound rankings, his appeal seems to go largely unnoticed by the masses. Unfortunate? Unfair? Yes and yes. But that doesn't change the fact that positioning Aldo as the face of the promotion is unlikely.
The same goes for Mighty Mouse, at least for the time being. Renan Barao is flashy and dominate but lacks the popularity to become a superstar. At UFC 169, Barao will make his first official title defense against Urijah Faber. Faber has the starpower, the fan base, and the resume to become the face of the UFC, but it's hard to put all your chips behind a perennial contender. If Faber can seize the belt at UFC 169, then he is a sure front runner for the new face. If not? We must continue our search.
Next up is Anthony Pettis. Pettis has all the tools to fill this role, but reoccurring injuries have plagued his career thus far, and he will need to stay healthy in order to maintain a steady buzz. Weidman is still too new. While his resume is that of a future superstar, undefeated with back to back wins over a top G.O.A.T. candidate, he will need more title defenses to truly prove his worth.
Moving forward, Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez share a similar predicament. While both fighters are a thrill to watch, they are yet to be truly tested. Jones vs. Gustafsson was a close fight, but I'm not yet convinced that it wasn't simply a perfect storm of confidence vs. underestimation. Cain has looked unbeatable aside from a knockout at the hands of Junior Dos Santos. However, two dominant decision victories have pretty much rendered that knockout a fluke, and no one else has really given Cain a challenge at heavyweight. If Jones and Velasquez square off one day, perhaps they could elevate their popularity and become the brand new generation of superstar, but there are a lot of ifs in this situation.
Finally, we can't forget about the women. Ronda Rousey's value is undeniable. While the gimmick effect of her UFC debut needs to be taken into consideration, and the UFC 168 numbers are clouded by Weidman vs. Silva II, all signs point to Rousey being one of the biggest draws in the sport. In fact, I recall people leaving the bar I was at after the co-main event on December 28th, which was as shocking as it was telling. Plus, she has the cross-over appeal that most other fighters lack. Look at her list of magazine covers if you want proof. While Rousey suffers from the same difficulties as Jones and Velasquez, the fact that she has turned heel helps her immensely. The simple truth is that a dominant champion can still create buzz if a large faction of fans are rooting against him/her. So as it stands, here are our top prospects in order.
1) Ronda Rousey pending the maintenance of her villain role.
2) Urijah Faber pending a win at UFC 169.
3) Cain Velasquez & Jon Jones pending a true challenge.
4) Chris Weidman pending a string of title defenses.
5) Anthony Pettis pending his staying healthy.