Brock Lesnar retiring -- along with Georges St. Pierre likely being out of action for the entirety of 2012 -- has left the UFC in a dilemma. Not only were they the biggest draws for the company, but they were the most significant draws for a company that has yet to find a close runner up in audience attraction.
Anderson Silva has to be considered in the twilight of his career on age alone, and his drawing power is only just now being fully realised after years spent dominating his division. Had Silva not fumbled with a trio of bizarre, frustrating performances against title challengers he should have otherwise blown away, he'd arguably be the headline act UFC could most depend on without Lesnar or GSP.
Silva's ability to draw though is now dependent on a viable contender people believe has a shot at beating him, which partly explains why his fight with Vitor Belfort did a lot better on Pay Per View than his fight with Yushin Okami, and why a rematch with Chael Sonnen is perhaps the most anticipated fight in 2012.
This year it's expected Jon Jones will be looked on to carry the UFC as its most dominant champion, but fans and critics alike are already wondering who could possibly present a competitive challenge for him, and that this might pose a problem in Jones' ability to become a big attraction at the gate and on PPV.
Herein lies the issue. UFC fans have been conditioned into believing the best should always fight the best, and that there are no easy fights in the UFC because it's something that Dana White -- as the UFC's main spokesman and figurehead -- likes to to use to trumpet the UFC's promotional model over that of Boxing's. But if the fans perceive what they're given as anything less, there's usually outcry (for example - most European cards).
To their credit the UFC has managed to bring certain fighters along slowly in order to develop them, whether it be current and former champions in Junior dos Santos, Cain Velasquez or Jon Jones, but also with some prospects such as Alexander Gustafsson.
Bringing prospects along slowly, or even building their champions without appearing to feed them nothing but cans is going to be a difficult balance to strike. Casual fans and even some hardcores usually revel in one sided destructions, and generally speaking the more dominant and consistent a fighter is, the easier it is to build a following and fanbase. The problem is having mismatches that would likely result in quick finishes as PPV headliners.
Watching a fighter get squashed by an obviously superior opponent is ideal for free Television though, and the increased number of shows UFC plans to put on thanks to its new partnership with Fox is an ideal opportunity to puff up fighters the UFC has long term plans for.
For the UFC to build a fighter like a Mike Tyson or like a Roy Jones Jr, the raw talent MMA's equivalents have is out of their hands. But, like Tyson and RJJ, the UFC can protect certain fighters to a degree so they can develop but also so they can showcase their abilities against outmatched opponents and wow audiences.
Using the Fox/FX shows to build number one contenders and present occasional title fights will work best with the right opponents used to elevate them and we're less likely to see the pass-the-parcel of title contenders (or even title holders) that have become somewhat common in the UFC. Lightweight champion Frankie Edgar should be put on free TV to squash an opponent and build his base, but instead risks being ignored on an international show which will feature less press coverage as a result, against an opponent who could quite possibly beat him. Similarly, Fox opting out of showing Ben Henderson vs Clay Guida was a missed opportunity to build either as a title contender and sell some PPV's.
Phil Davis vs Rashad Evans headlining UFC on FOX 2 sounds like a fantastic match to give to fans, but you wonder if it would have made more sense to build both guys and line them up sequentially as the next to face Jones rather than set one of them back. Keeping Davis' undefeated record intact or almost guaranteeing Evans a chance to destroy a lesser fighter in a similar fashion to his fight with Tito Ortiz would have kept both in better standing going into a championship bout with Jones and may have generated a bigger buzz about their chances. As it stands, either Evans' grudge match with Jones is derailed, or Davis' streak ends and fickle fans write him off as a potential challenge. Neither scenario is particularly good for business.
The ability of the UFC to build new stars to fill the void left by Lesnar and GSP in 2012 is going to be a point of debate perhaps for the rest of this year, and it's safe to say the UFC would like to do better on PPV than it did in 2011. Building these stars starts with the matchmaking, and maybe a little padding of records on free TV needs to be part of the process.