GEORGES ST-PIERRE VS. ROBBIE LAWLER – If Silva isn't the same and loses to Diaz, then this becomes the logical return fight for St-Pierre. St-Pierre going after the championship he never lost is a guaranteed box office success. But at this point, St-Pierre has given no indication he's even thinking in this direction.
Coming off a lethargic year for business, the last few months have shown clearly that the fans are still there. But they aren't watching unless it's something promoted well.
The last few months have shown, with the Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar fight in Bellator, the Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier pay-per-view at UFC 182 and Conor McGregor's show in Boston, that some of the lackluster MMA numbers of 2014 were not because people turned away from the sport.
The fan base is clearly still there, but the masses are only coming back when they sense something big is happening.
The problems of last year were really twofold. The first problem was that fans never got the huge fights they wanted to see. And the second, as evidenced by Ortiz vs. Bonnar and McGregor vs. Dennis Siver -- fights fans weren't exactly begging and pleading to see -- a lot has to do the fighters ability to sell fights we'd previously never considered.
There's no exact formula beyond the inexact science of getting people talking. Much of the Ortiz vs. Bonnar talk was negative, but people still tuned in. These were famous fighters from the past, and that success probably played (at least in part) in Bellator's decision to bring back Kimbo Slice, as well as the UFC's bringing back of Rampage Jackson and Mirko Cro Cop.
But McGregor was a complete unknown two years ago. He was not a television star of the boom period, and unlike Jones and Cormier, he had not proven himself dominant against the top tier of competition. Yet McGregor came in and, against a journeyman opponent, blew away even the most optimistic projections of what his drawing power would be.
Still, big talking showcase fights and nostalgia grudge matches work better for television. Realistically, for all the numbers Ortiz vs. Bonnar and McGregor vs. Siver did on television, put those matches in the main event on pay-per-view and I'd be skeptical they'd be all that successful. However, put McGregor against a big name with significant stakes and put it on pay-per-view, and that is right now more than a viable PPV headliner.
With the benefit of hindsight, the UFC's weakest year when it came to big fight numbers was based more on constant key injuries and positive drug tests combining to nix the biggest fights. And in the end, the annual ups and downs look to be more based on the right stars aligning to create good fights, and then those fights actually happening. There absolutely are fluctuations in the sports' popularity, and the proliferation of shows burning out the audience is an issue. But give them the right fight, and those people who stopped watching regularly are more than willing to come back.
While UFC has nothing on the immediate horizon as strong as Jones vs. Cormier, the next two pay-per-views are solid. Anderson Silva vs. Nate Diaz for UFC 183 on Jan. 31 comes in with a good deal of curiosity.
Silva and Diaz are two name fighters who have drawn huge in the past, and who have been out of action for long periods of time. This fight, depending on who wins and how they look, could also build the winner into a big fight follow-up.
Putting middleweight champion Chris Weidman with Ronda Rousey as a double title bill for UFC 184 has proved successful twice already. The Feb. 28 show won't match UFC 168, because Vitor Belfort is not Anderson Silva going for the title after losing it in a manner that left so many open questions. For that matter, Cat Zingano as Rousey's opponent won't create the interest that the Miesha Tate fight had, even if there is a good chance this will be Rousey's most competitive test to date.
But, as compared to the July show, Belfort is equally as big a name as an opponent for Chris Weidman as Lyoto Machida. Whether he'll prove as difficult is a question nobody can answer. Nobody knows how much the 2013 TRT-fueled Belfort who blew through everyone compares with a 2015 version with more stringent testing, at nearly 38 years old, and with 16 months since his last fight.
With nine champions in play, all either healthy today -- or like Cain Velasquez, well enough along in recovery from a knee surgery to where he looks to fight on schedule in a few months -- there is no shortage of the title bouts that usually carry the big events. But as last year's wide variation in numbers showed, UFC is not the Declaration of Independence and not all champions or title matches are created equal.
So barring a grudge match that clicks with the public, right now these fights look to be the biggest potential matches for this year, and all but one require several things to go right for them to fall into place:
CAIN VELASQUEZ VS. JON JONES – Dana White has talked and teased for years about making the "superfight," the battle of champions in different weight classes. There are obvious pluses and minuses in doing so. The plus is the interest in the fight itself. The minus is a risk to the drawing power and invincibility of the loser, who still has to go back and defend their championship on major shows.
In addition, making such a fight holds up title opportunities in two weight classes. So these type of fights have to be done with the right fighters and at the right time.
What makes Velasquez vs. Jones so viable is that if both men win their next fight, neither really has a strong challenger sitting on ready. If anything, provided Jones gets through Anthony Johnson with no controversy, and Velasquez beats Fabricio Werdum, both divisions really need more time to create a viable top contender.
It's also the right year for the fight. For one, Jones just beat Cormier in a high-profile fight. The connection between Cormier and Velasquez at AKA is well known, creating a viable story. Cormier would likely be Velasquez's main training partner and would help coach him, furthering hostilities that clearly didn't end on Jan. 3. The second is that Velasquez turns 33 this year. He's also had knee and shoulder problems for years. Holding the fight off until a late date risks losing its luster because time may not be Velasquez's ally.
GEORGES ST-PIERRE VS. ANDERSON SILVA – This fight has been talked about for years, nearly promised at certain points, and is certainly too late in time for it to be anywhere near what it could have been. But even so, it's the perfect fight to make for both men right now. It would still probably be the biggest fight of the year provided Silva beats Diaz and resembles anything of his former dominant self.
Silva having to look good is the short-term obstacle. If he does, the second holdup would be convincing St-Pierre to return from his indefinite hiatus. With neither as champion, it creates no divisional logjams nor keeps viable contenders from progressing. It's a big money fight that would most likely propel the winner, and perhaps even the loser, if it's the smaller man and he looks good in losing, into a major title fight next.
CHRIS WEIDMAN VS. ANDERSON SILVA – When White first broached the idea of this fight, saying Silva could get a title match if he beat Diaz, my knee jerk reaction was like most hardcore fans'. There were a number of active middleweights in the picture, most notably Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Yoel Romero who have been winning and looking impressive in doing so. They all have different unique strengths that would make a match-up with Weidman, or perhaps Belfort, intriguing enough.
But one of the flaws of being too close inside is you forget that MMA's growth is about the outside, the fans outside the core. The outside fan is about star power and stories. Silva trumps everyone else in the division in star power. The story of him coming back from such a devastating injury and challenging for the title is probably the strongest story one could come up with this year. And the idea of wanting Silva to get a few more wins before getting a title shot again risks throwing it all away. Plus, Silva turns 40 this year, and doing a longer build only takes him that much farther out of his prime and reduces his chances of being competitive.
JOSE ALDO VS. CONOR MCGREGOR – It's still unproven that a featherweight title fight can pull big numbers on pay-per-view. But whatever the ceiling is right now for the division, Aldo vs. McGregor will hit it. Unlike most of the fights on this list which are all theoretical, this fight, barring an injury, is not only happening, but happening by mid-year.
McGregor's ratings Sunday showed a level of interest in him with the public reserved for top-tier superstars. If McGregor wins, featherweight will for the first time be a marquee division. If he loses, he can still be the heir apparent to Chael Sonnen, who was able to garner interest for his fights at far above the usual top-five contender level because of his personality, and in doing so, he'll be always in line for plenty of opportunities.
RONDA ROUSEY VS. CRIS 'CYBORG' JUSTINO – Word this past week that Lorenzo Fertitta was once again trying to put this fight together gets it back on the list.
Without a doubt, this would be the biggest women's combat sport battle of all-time. But this fight was first talked about in 2011, and UFC has tried and failed to make it since late 2012. The onus is on Justino to prove she can make 135 pounds, and in two years, it hasn't happened. She's said on more than one occasion that she can't. And she needs the fight more than anyone, both to make money and to make her name. She has no other opponents that will get the public interested.
It has been five years since she's had a fight that anyone past the most ardent of fan knew about.
So after all this time, I'd really rather not even think about it until she decides to diet and train to change her body and drop the necessary weight. Until that happens, it's on the list because it would be big if it happened, but I'm not holding my breath.
JON JONES VS. ANTHONY "RUMBLE" JOHNSON – For all the negative headlines Jones has made since his win over Daniel Cormier, he is now a significantly bigger star than he has ever been. Gustafsson gave him the toughest fight of his life, and Johnson finished Gustafsson in the first round. This fight takes the place of the expected Jones vs. Gustafsson rematch. It's hard to say if it'll resonate with the public as big as a Gustafsson rematch would have. Johnson did win impressively in front of a large audience. But there was a lot of interest in a Gustafsson rematch.