Earlier today BE Columnist Tim Burke posted the first of a two-part series of articles analyzing the UFC-WEC merger up until this point. Burke's main thesis is that the merger has been a bit of a failure, as the bantamweights and featherweights aren't getting the attention they deserve. While there's no arguing with the facts that Burke lays out, his conclusions are just plain wrong.
Sure, the bantamweights and featherweights aren't receiving the same level of exposure as those in the established UFC divisions. But that doesn't mean the merger was necessarily bad for the fighters, or that the UFC should have kept the WEC running as a separate organization. The reason for it is simple: the UFC is running a business which thrives on money like any other business, and that means drawing as many eyeballs as possible to its product by showcasing fighters casual fans know. It follows that the former WEC fighters aren't going to be filling up the majority of UFC cards.
One might argue that since the UFC is running a business that now includes the bantamweight and featherweight divisions, the best way to maximize profits off of those divisions is to build them up as quickly as possible and showcase their fighters often. The problem with this argument, and with Burker's thesis, is that in the same way that you cannot build a brand overnight, you also cannot build a division overnight. It's a process that takes time. As a result, the UFC is taking it's time.
Look no further then what the UFC has been doing to build these divisions, as opposed to what the UFC has not been doing. Instead of simply filling cards with random 135 lb and 145 lb fights, the UFC has been focusing on building individual fighters within these divisions. Champions Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz have prominently been featured in main event and co-main event bouts. Contenders like Urijah Faber, Miguel Torres, Chad Mendes, and Mark Hominick have been featured in high profile, televised bouts. Faber and Hominick, specifically, have seen their profiles rise considerably even in defeat, as their performance were thrilling and memorable. As a result, there is no doubt that the next bout of each man will be featured on the main card of a future UFC event, against opponents that will in turn receive more exposure.
Look at the UFC's success over the past five or six years and it is inarguable that the success of the organization is directly related to its ability to build stars. One of the first major stars in the UFC was Tito Ortiz, who was propelled to the next level after his UFC 40 win over Ken Shamrock. Knowing the UFC had a hot commodity on its hands, they were able to use Ortiz's drawing power to turn Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture into household names. Later, Ortiz helped to convert fighters like Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, and Lyoto Machida from promising prospects to legitimate contenders with drawing power of their own. The UFC has a model for building its brand that has worked and that will continue to work. Once the company is able to build a few stars, it can build a division around those stars to the point where you see divisions as deep as lightweight and welterweight.
In the next few months, there isn't going to be some dramatic increase in the exposure the bantamweight and featherweight divisions receive, and I'm not going to tell you otherwise. At the same time, new faces from these divisions will receive their shot to impress the UFC audience and executives alike, which can only be seen as a good thing.
For example, on September 17th, Erik Koch and Jonathan Brookins will do battle on the main card of UFC: Battle on the Bayou. With Koch's fan friendly style, based on his streak of two Knockout of the Night bonuses, and Brookins' success on The Ultimate Fighter, the winner of this one will only receive more exposure moving forward. On October 1st, Dominick Cruz will once again defend his championship against Demetrious Johnson, who will be fighting in his first UFC main event and only the second bantamweight title fight in UFC history. This will be huge for Johnson's career, win or lose. A week later Jose Aldo will defend his featherweight title against Kenny Florian in the co-main event at one of the biggest cards of the year. And then, later that month, George Roop will welcome Japanese sensation Hatsu Hioki to the Octagon in a fight that is sure to be televised.
Moreover, Burke's complaints are truly unwarranted when the fighters themselves aren't complaining. Eddie Wineland recently admitted in an interview that while he wishes his fight this Sunday against Joseph Benavidez was televised, he can't complain because the opportunity he had in March to fight in the co-main event of UFC 128 rose his stock in this sport to a higher place than it's ever been before. Cruz and other former WEC fighters have said that it was refreshing to finally be in the UFC because they no longer had to explain to people that they fought UFC-type fights but didn't exactly fight in the UFC. The point is that the UFC brand alone has elevated the careers of all the men that put their bodies on the line in the WEC. They're not complaining, so why should we?