What does it take to be a star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship? Not just to headline pay per views or grace the cover of FIGHT! Magazine, but to really draw money, to have a name large enough to make a difference at the box office. Whatever it is, Jon Jones doesn't have it yet, drawing a measly 415,000 buys for UFC 128 in New Jersey.
The New York media, the glowing write ups on MMA websites, the reality television special - none of it was enough. It goes to show something wrestling and boxing promoters have known for years: creating a money drawing star is as much art (and luck) as it is science. Jon Jones may end up being the next big thing. But he may not. If he makes it, historically these are the factors that will be the G.W. Bush's- the deciders:
1. Bad Boy Presence: If you look at the top draws in the history of this sport one thing stands out: besides Georges St. Pierre, none have been wholesome good guys. That's the model the UFC is pushing for Jones. He's constantly telling us how humble he is. Commentators can't get enough of how clean cut and articulate his interviews are. If he talks trash on Twitter, breaks up a united team, or changes management multiple times in a brief career - hey, he's just young and still learning.
What's interesting about the insistence that Jones is the good guy, when all signs point to the opposite being true, is that the "good guy" just doesn't work in MMA. Fans are watching cage fighting, not auditioning a guy to date their sister. They want violence, testosterone, anger and fear. From Ken Shamrock, to Tito Ortiz, to Chuck Liddell, to Brock Lesnar, the top historical draws have been bad boys, men with an edge. St. Pierre stands alone as the exception (and part of his box office appeal involves his intensely partisan Canadian fans).
Every other lovable, apple pie eating hero who has been pushed to the moon by the UFC brass has failed to make a huge dent. American hero Randy Couture has been an average draw. School teacher Rich Franklin hasn't even hit average - he's the pay per view Mendoza line. Matt Hughes, when he played the humble farm boy, performed so poorly at the box office that Lorenzo Fertitta considered selling the company.
Jones should embrace his inner diva. He's the best and he knows it. There's nothing wrong with that. It didn't stop Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning from selling sneakers and televisions - and it won't stop Jones on Madison Avenue. But a fake humble act and a steadfastly boring facade? That will be a killer. Time to let the id run free; making things interesting is the first step.
2. The Ultimate Fighter: History tells us that the UFC's seminal reality television show is a true starmaker. Before TUF, Hughes was the greatest fighter in the sport, but one they couldn't get people to pay a red cent for. The shows he headlined did a third or sometimes even a quarter of the business Tito Ortiz did - despite Hughes being widely respected as the best fighter in the promotion. It was only after he let his true colors shine on The Ultimate Fighter that Hughes became a fighter fans found worth caring about.
Former Bloody Elbow contributor Mike Rome says fighters become draws by beating stars. That's certainly a piece of it and you can't make it to the top without winning regularly. But reality television is also seemingly a necessary component. Sure, St. Pierre became a star in the insular world of MMA by beating Hughes for the belt. But at the box office, his main events trailed behind Liddell, Couture, and even Ortiz. It was only after a reality TV special called Primetime highlighting his second fight with B.J. Penn that St. Pierre's star really started to shine. There was no stopping him after that - he hasn't drawn less than 770,000 buys since, becoming one of the UFC's most consistent performers.
3. Feuds:St. Pierre's star turn on reality television highlights another important lesson - feuds sell tickets. Some fans find them corny, distasteful, too reminiscent of pro wrestling. But money talks. From UFC 40 when Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock blew Zuffa's previous PPV record out of the water, to UFC 61 when they did it again, grudges have been big business. Zuffa caught on quickly. Ortiz-Liddell II at UFC 66 set what appeared to be an unbreakable record with an intense grudge - until Lesnar-Frank Mir II lapped it with their own hate-fest. Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson became the third all time best selling fight based on incredible heat and tension. With no title on the line, hatred alone propelled the fight into the PPV stratusphere.
That's what gives me great hope for Jones. His upcoming fight with Evans has the potential to be a grudge for the ages. Former training partners collide, a veteran betrayed by the young fighter he took under his wing, a family torn asunder. It's a great story - one that will draw money if played right. Jones has the ingredients here to be a star. He just has to be willing to play the cards he's been dealt, even if that means he has to play the bad guy.