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UFC’s big issue is the lack of big money upcoming stars on the horizon

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Jon Jones Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With it appearing like every main event for the first half of 2018 is announced, the talk of a UFC rebound on pay-per-view rests on the second half of the year.

After a year that was really only saved by UFC’s cut of the Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor windfall, this year is now dependent on several things that are all uncertain.

UFC has three legitimate significant pay-per-view drawing cards on the current roster, McGregor, Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre. At this point, the only one of those names in play for fighting any time soon is McGregor, and at last word, that’s not expected until August or September. But ever since his payday for the Mayweather fight, until McGregor actually signs for a fight, it’s hard to know what is and isn’t real about his fighting future.

Perhaps the tease of Mayweather doing MMA is based on the premise that UFC needs to hook to get that end of the business back up and create the perception that it’s 2016 all over again, particularly since this is a contract year and being hot or not will make tens of millions of dollars difference in its new deal.

The curiosity of Mayweather in MMA would mean something. Exactly what depends on the opponent. But Mayweather vs. McGregor under MMA rules would likely do record-setting numbers, even if it would be every bit the joke that their boxing match was. Whether he’s really serious about any of this, or the UFC feels he’d be worth the money past a one-time curiosity that he’d surely ask for, are other questions.

Jones is a mixed bag as a draw. With the right opponent, he would to big numbers. He would draw with Daniel Cormier a third team, and do big business with Brock Lesnar, and perhaps with Stipe Miocic or Cain Velasquez as a heavyweight. He would do decently well with Alexander Gustafsson.

Against anyone else, it’s far from a sure thing. But his issue isn’t opponents, it’s the nature of his still undetermined USADA suspension. Given his lack of an explanation for his drug test failure before the California commission, it’s hard to believe that anyone else in that situation wouldn’t be looking at less than a four-year suspension. And that makes the USADA decision in his case, expected to come relatively soon, the biggest test since they started working with UFC.

There are two other names that could also be on this list, Lesnar and Nate Diaz.

Lesnar is not advertised at this point for anything with WWE after April 8. There is talk of him returning to UFC, with the scenario almost identical to that of three years ago. In that one, there was talk and there were negotiations, but he chose the smarter route given his age, which was to stay with WWE. He’s now 40, and even if it’s probable his first fight back would draw, there’s no guarantee he would continue to draw without the championship or after a loss.

Diaz drew UFC’s two biggest pay-per-view numbers in history with McGregor, and a third fight would be similarly big. But he is unproven to be able to do numbers without McGregor as his opponent.

Before the year started, there was hope that Francis Ngannou could be added to the list, but after his loss to Miocic, he’s not there now, and may not ever be there.

Cris Cyborg pulled in excess of 350,000 buys with Holly Holm, which isn’t far off from what Ronda Rousey did on her own in her first two years with the company. But her March 3 fight with Yana Kunitskaya doing in the 215,000 to 260,000 range shows that Holm was a major part of the success of the Dec. 30 show.

UFC 223 on April 7 in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a double headliner of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson and Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk will be an interesting test. Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson is probably the most talked-about fight so far this year to the hardcore audience. The ramifications are big, not just the lightweight title being at stake, but the winner would theoretically be in line for the next McGregor date. A win over McGregor is probably the best shot any new fighter has of joining the big money club.

UFC 224, which is May 12, in Rio de Janeiro, is unlikely to do significant business, built around Amanda Nunes vs. Raquel Pennington. Nunes drew poorly in her last fight with Valentina Shevchenko, and Pennington as an opponent won’t be any different. While Kelvin Gastelum vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza is a strong middleweight fight, that’s unlikely to even get that show to the 200,000 range.

UFC 225, on June 9, has Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero for the middleweight title on top. If that show has any significant pop, it would be more if C.M. Punk could draw curiosity buys a second time. And after his debut, and being farther out of the spotlight than he was, and with such an unimpressive first showing, it would be a surprise if that intrigue could carry over to a second meeting.

In what will always be a cyclical business when it comes to the big money shows, based on the availability of the few true drawing cards, the problem isn’t the numbers from last year or even what has transpired this year. The real issue is nobody has come along new and captured the interest of the public to that degree. There is no McGregor or St-Pierre on the rise. Lesnar and St-Pierre, if they do fight in UFC this year or next, are still only stop-gap measures. McGregor is young enough to be there for the long haul, but his financial success makes his future unpredictable. It’s the ability to find somebody new to fall into this category, something far easier said than done, which will be the key to UFC returning to its popularity of 2016.