Last year we identified a problem, one the UFC has been pondering for some time. Where are all the new stars? Since the UFC exploded into the mainstream consciousness with The Ultimate Fighter in 2005, the business has grown dramatically. Stars have been born, men capable of drawing hundreds of thousands of fans with their names alone. Unfortunately, those men, the ones who built the sport, are looking older and older every day.
When MMA Payout did a study of the UFC's top draws, a handful men stood out. Few were the products of their star making system. The last enduring star they created was Georges St. Pierre, a man who won his first world title all the way back in 2006. Since GSP, they've had a hard time creating the kinds of stars that make fans want to put money down. They were given a gift in Brock Lesnar and have done an astounding job making him a bigger star than ever. But the home grown talent with potential seems to have a hard time breaking through. Several years into Anderson Silva's reign he's finally catching a little steam. Too bad he's on the tail end of a great career.
In some ways it has been right out of the WCW school of promotion. Before being sold to their greatest rival, the Atlanta based wrestling promotion was famous for pushing older stars in the stead of new and promising talent. UFC presenting a Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell coached season of TUF was a bad sign they might be on the same path - that they weren't ready to push the next generation of fighters to the fore. Meanwhile rising talents like Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard remain virtually unknown outside the subset of very hardcore fans:
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 successful 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.
After the break we talk Jon Jones: breakout star
Finally, the UFC has taken steps to remedy this situation. When Rashad Evans went down with injury, they wasted little time pushing Jones into his training partner's main event slot. Not too long ago that would have been Forrest Griffin's gig. But the UFC is learning with Jones. Now, not only is he competing for a world title, he and Evans are masterfully building to a big money grudge match of their own as a follow up act. Jones may be the next big thing, that new star the sport needs to maintain its PPV dominance. Now he just has to go out and win.
That's been a real problem in the past. The UFC has spent considerable promotional muscle and time building fighters like Rich Franklin and Forrest Griffin. Unfortunately, the promotion can only push a guy so far - after that it's up to him to make his own way in the cage.
It's why the makeup of The Ultimate Fighter is so important. Sure it's just reality TV. But it's reality TV that is a springboard to combat sports stardom. Better to make that effort with men who have serious potential to make it at the top level of the industry. Men like Jon Jones.