For a long time now, the UFC's Lightweight division has been a shark tank. In the past it was ruled by BJ Penn, who, when not trying to fight with opponents in other weight divisions, was destroying all other challengers. Then, in UFC 112, Frankie Edgar did the unthinkable: he beat BJ Penn at Lightweight. And then, just to prove that the first time was not fluke or a result of erroneous scoring, he accomplished the feat once again at UFC 118 to prove that he is the best Lightweight in the world.
Now Frankie Edgar will have the chance to avenge his only loss when he defends his title for the second time, against number one contender Gray Maynard. And this is where problems for the UFC begins. Although Frankie Edgar may have the 'answer' to the BJ Penn riddle at Lightweight, the employees of Zuffa must be scratching their heads when wondering why he isn't a major draw when seems to possess the potential to be one. Then, on the other side of the cage, there is his opponent, Gray Maynard, who has about as much pulling power as a demagnetised magnet due to his smothering wrestling style of fighting. In short, as Jonathan Snowden points out, Frankie Edgar is a champion but not a star and things are not likely to change even if he does beat Gray Maynard.
Looking briefly at the rest of the UFC Lightweight fighters and apart from BJ Penn, it can be argued that none of them are proven draws. The old guard, Takanori Gomi and Sean Sherk have yet to convince fans that they are truly back to their best, although recent wins, however dubious in Sherk's case, have erased some doubts as to whether they belong. The young guns are also failing to reach star status: Melvin Guillard recently alienated fans with his Greg Jackson induced 'safe' style of fighting, Nate Diaz is too busy hopping divisions to stay and become a star in one, Jeremy Stephens, Evan Dunham and Tyson Griffin have recently suffered losses. Charles Oliveira is too green, and George Sotiropoulos and Joe Lauzon need wins against some big name opponents in order to prove their point.
Across the pond, similar problems are found within the UFC's sister promotion, the WEC. Firstly, there is the fan's perception that WEC's Lightweight fighters are of a lesser calibre than the UFC's. It simple: if they were that good, they would be fighting in the UFC and earning more money, right? However, like the UFC, The WEC also has a problem with 'stars' and drawing power within it's Lightweight division: Ben Henderson, the WEC's Lightweight Champion was subject to an online debate after his win at WEC 48 as to whether he could hang with the Top 10 UFC Lightweights. Like Edgar, he is a Champion but not a star, although that could be contributed to the lesser public interest in the WEC, rather than any personal fault of Henderson's.
Looking at the rest of the roster, Anthony Pettis, with his flashy moves and exciting style could potentially become the WEC's first major Lightweight star, but he has the difficult task of getting past Benson Henderson first. Donald Cerrone and Jamie Varner may have attracted more viewers with their last fight, but much of that was due to the history between the two. It is likely that if the two fought other opponents rather than each other, the interest in their fights would decline. Reed Harris, WEC supremo, must have been internally thanking Cerrone when the "Cowboy" offered Varner a final fight in their rubber match. Moving on, Shane Roller is coming off a loss, Kamal Shalorus was lucky to get a draw in his last fight, Anthony Njokuani was knocked out of relevance by a Polish newcomer, and Chris Horodecki and Bart Palaszewski, despite recent win streaks, have yet to demonstrate 'star' potential.
And so here is the problem: Two separate organisations, one weight class, no major drawing power.
The solution? Cross-Promotional Fights.
I am not suggesting that the WEC should just dissolve it's Lightweight class and throw all of the fighters into the UFC, for that would be a foolish move. Instead, Zuffa should explore the option of cross-promotional match-ups. This would give the opportunity for WEC fighters to be introduced to the wider UFC audience, and the concept might freshen up the lightweight division and save the UFC from making unappealing fights.
For example, most fans cannot honestly say that they are eagerly anticipating Frankie Edgar v Gray Maynard 2. Infact, fans outside of Maynard's immediate family are probably hoping that he doesn't win so that future championship fights won't be less exciting than watching paint dry. So if Edgar v Maynard 2 doesn't tickle your fancy, why not try matching Maynard with someone from the WEC, such as Kamal Shalorus, who is on paper the better wrestler and is a fighter with a penchant for brawling.
If questions are asked as to whether the WEC's lightweights can hang with the UFC's, then the only definitive answer outside of speculation is to match them up. The pros for cross-promotional matches are there: it is a new concept in which both brands can be heavily advertised - think the angle with Toney v Couture: Boxing v MMA, but instead of representing different sports, fighters are representing their own promotions. Furthermore, cross-promotional matches are a good way of introducing the WEC fighters to the wider UFC audience, which could in turn help push ratings for future WEC shows. Lastly, if Zuffa ever decide to merge the two separate divisions, then cross-promotional matches could make things easier in the future.
However, the concept is not without flaws. Contract clauses could affect this idea ever from happening, the question of whether a WEC fighter would permanently 'belong' in the UFC if he beat a UFC fighter would arise - no doubt, most fighters would want to fight for the UFC as the pay is significantly greater, and there is also the tricky issue of matching the fighters to begin with in a manner that doesn't ruin any fighter's plans to gaining a title shot in their own respective organisations (although I am sure that the combined force of Joe Silva and Sean Shelby would be up to the task). Lastly, matching cross-promotional fighters might not necessarily create any more stars, as the main selling point is the concept itself.
So yes, the idea is not new, nor is it completely perfect, but if Zuffa are planning to eventually dissolve the WEC's lightweight class into the UFCs, then cross-promotional fights between the two could very well be a good place to start.
What do you guys think?