The UFC has a problem. That in itself seems unbelievable. In the middle of an unprecedented run of success, the promotion seems like it can do no wrong. No mere mortal can stop the Zuffa juggernaut. Affliction, Pride, the IFL - they've all fallen victim to the UFC's superior promotion, talent, and presentation. But father time? There's no stopping him.
The UFC's top stars are old. There's no getting around it. Randy Couture is 47. Chuck Liddell just hit the big four oh. Anderson Silva is 35. Brock Lesnar is 33. Rampage is 32. BJ Penn is an ancient 31. Forrest Griffin is as well. Even Georges St. Pierre sees 30 creeping up on him.
These are the UFC's biggest stars, the guys who draw the big money on PPV. All but Forrest get a percentage of the pay per views they appear on. These men are the difference between a show drawing a basement level number and drawing a million or more buys. They are also men in desperate need of replacements.
Couture and Liddell have one foot out the door already. Rampage seems disinterested and distracted. Silva and Penn may have peaked athletically and a steep decline seems possible. Lesnar has quit million dollar a year jobs before, and on a whim. New blood is needed, fighters in the position to pick up the slack for the guys who built the company into a powerhouse.
But when I look to see who is waiting in the wings, the cupboard seems awfully barren.
Everyone knows that The Ultimate Fighter changed the course of MMA history. It catapulted the UFC and the fighters I've mentioned into the stratosphere. But all of the UFC's major stars predate TUF except Griffin. These were established names before the boom. Even St. Pierre, who is the most recent Zuffa creation, first won a UFC title all the way back in 2006. Since that time, only Lesnar has come to the forefront, and he was a premade star built by the WWE and unleashed on the MMA world.
Where are the stars?
The UFC has done a great job using reality television to populate the middle of their cards with recognizable talent. But they haven't been succesful in building the next big thing. TUF has been used as a television vehicle for fringe prospects like Amir Saddolah and never wills like Kimbo Slice. It's brought us gatekeepers like Nate Diaz and Joe Stevenson, quality fighters but not fighters with the potential to replace Chuck Liddell. Where are the mega prospects? Why wasn't Jon Jones featured in a season of reality television? Where was Cain Velasquez? How big a star would Phil Davis be with a TUF title under his belt? Those are men with potential to be huge stars. Instead, they feel like strangers to many UFC fans, fans that would rather give their emotional energy and support to the fighters they feel they know.
We've seen how powerful a tool reality television can be. Use it to take real blue chip prospects - the Mo Lawals, Ben Askrens, and Cain Velasquezs of the world - and make them television stars. Then, if they pan out at the top level of the fight game, you have a guy primed and ready to take the world by storm. You have the next Chuck Liddell and not the next Frankie Edgar - a great fighter who couldn't draw 5000 people on the power of his name to any arena in the world.