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Five Burning Questions for WEC in 2010

With 2010 freshly underway, MMA Fighting takes a look at some of the burning questions facing WEC during this year.

Included in the discussion of the company's yearly outlook are whether WEC will produce a pay-per-view, if they're capable of developing another major star, whether a WEC-UFC merger is likely and more.

1. Will the WEC do a pay-per-view show in 2010?

Michael David Smith: Yes. In combat sports, pay-per-view has proven to be by far the most lucrative business model, and I think Zuffa wants to give it a try with the WEC this year. To me, the big question is whether a WEC pay-per-view will be attractive enough to draw in anyone other than the hardest of hard-core MMA fans, and that's where I'm skeptical. The WEC puts on great fights, but I just don't think it has a deep enough fan base to make big money on pay-per-view.
The fans will ultimately decide whether WEC is a viable product on pay-per-view.
-- Mike Chiappetta

Mike Chiappetta: Yes, it's practically a lock. They're going to have to put together their biggest and best card ever for it, though. We've seen UFC have injury issues decimate best-laid PPV plans; WEC can't afford that. Still, it's a low-risk, high-reward gamble as a one-shot deal. You have to credit Zuffa for giving it a try, but the fans will ultimately decide whether WEC is a viable product on pay-per-view, and as of now, MMA fans have been averse to spending their money on non-UFC PPVs.

2. Can they develop another star to rival the popularity of Urijah Faber?

Chiappetta: That's a bit of a loaded question as Faber is more popular than a lot of big time UFC stars, but I think Jose Aldo has the star quality that can make him a major attraction. He's young, charismatic, and his performances are must-see television. That's the basic checklist for sports superstardom. It's up to the WEC and Zuffa to make sure people understand just how special he is, and that's no easy task with so many MMA options out there right now. If Aldo was a stock, I'd be buying. But will he rival Faber in popularity in the coming year? No, it will take more time.

MDS: To me, this is the key question for the WEC -- Faber is still far and away their most popular fighter, and they don't have anyone else who comes close to his drawing power. I don't think they can develop a star to rival Faber in 2010, but if they're smart about how they promote Aldo they can make him a star some day. He's already one of the best and most exciting athletes in the sport, and he's only 23.

2. Who will own the three WEC belts at the end of 2010?

MDS: The lightweight champion will be Anthony Njokuani, whose dynamic striking will earn him a title shot some time this year. The featherweight champion will be Jose Aldo, who will defeat Urijah Faber and then retain his title against whatever other featherweight contender the WEC throws at him. The bantamweight champion will be Miguel Torres, who will earn a rematch with Brian Bowles and get his belt back in the fall.

Chiappetta: I think Bowles will hang on to the bantamweight belt, as his powerful hands, wrestling skill and underrated ground game will make him a tough out for anyone. At featherweight, I think Aldo is a phenom, and while a top wrestler like Mike Brown or Urijah Faber can give him a tough matchup, over the course of five rounds, I like Aldo to find a way to win. As for the lightweight belt, I think Jamie Varner works his way back to the top. He's only 25 and was coming off a long layoff, so it's not surprising he lost his focus for a second against Ben Henderson and lost. But long-term I think he's likely to rise back to the top of the WEC 155ers.

4. Will the WEC merge into the UFC?

Chiappetta: Eventually, but probably not in 2010. The WEC has talked about trying its own pay-per-view shows but has yet to pull the trigger. I believe they'll give it a try with the belief that PPV revenue could drastically change the promotion's bottom line. But if WEC pay-per-views don't do well -- and they do face an uphill battle in convincing consumers to part with their dollars -- the executives at Zuffa may see the writing on the wall. In the end, I think fighters like Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber, et. al. become a lot more valuable simply by putting them in a UFC octagon. At some point, the ongoing fight to build WEC will become too much, and Zuffa will shift strategy. It's likely that time won't come until 2011.
He's already one of the best and most exciting athletes in the sport, and he's only 23.
-- MDS on Jose Aldo

MDS: I definitely agree with you that it won't happen in 2010, and I actually don't think the WEC will merge into the UFC at all. I think Zuffa likes having a second brand, one that they can differentiate from the UFC. Right now they're differentiating the WEC by making it the home of smaller fighters, but in the future they might do it by adding female fights, or using a tournament format, or taking it into countries like Mexico where the UFC hasn't yet gone.

5. Will the UFC on Versus deal help or hurt the WEC brand?

MDS: I think it can only help. The UFC will attract far more viewers to Versus than the WEC has, and when those viewers are inundated with advertising reminding them that there's more MMA on Versus than just the UFC, some of them will come back to give the WEC a try. There are a whole lot of people who watch the UFC on Spike but have never watched the WEC on Versus, and a lot of those people will start watching the WEC once the UFC gets them in the habit of watching Versus.

Chiappetta: I just don't think UFC can get fans "in the habit" of watching Versus when they're only going to do two shows a year. Don't get me wrong, it will help in the sense that it will give Zuffa a vehicle in which to promote WEC fighters unlike any they've had before. Cross-promotion of WEC fighters is rarely done on Spike-broadcasted UFC shows, but expect that to change greatly once "UFC on Versus" begins. But because right now they're only contracted to do two shows a year, it's not going to be enough to make any major impact. Still, it will be valuable in highlighting at least the biggest names in WEC. Perhaps an equally important though tangential effect: it could ultimately prove beneficial if the time comes to pull the trigger on a UFC-WEC merger, as those stars won't be so foreign to casual UFC fans.