Note - This is the first part of a two-part roundtable. The second part will be posted later today.
Brent Brookhouse: When doing a radio interview this week I was asked about the obvious impact that Georges St. Pierre's "hiatus" will have on the UFC. St. Pierre was one of the few consistently big draws in the promotion. The conversation then turned to the fact that the UFC doesn't seem to generate stars the same way it once did. Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, GSP, Brock Lesnar (though that one isn't really the UFC's doing) all functioned as personalities that captivated the general public's imagination.
The topic of the UFC's need to create new stars has been beaten to death. And one can make the case that Jon Jones is "emerging" as a star, though he hasn't become a massive draw to this point. And Dana and Co. are hoping that Ronda Rousey can take off as a mainstream star, but this season of TUF and some of her other outbursts (Sandy Hook conspiracy video) could mean there are very real limitations for how popular she can get outside the MMA world.
So rather than "does the UFC need to create new stars," a question to which you would never think "no" would be the right answer.
I ask you this...
What is the current generation of fighters missing? What is keeping these guys from being big draws? Cain Velasquez hasn't taken off to the extent they seem to hope. Unless GSP's drawing power had significantly decreased in a one fight span, Johny Hendricks as the B-side would seem to be a factor in the dip in buys for UFC 167.
What is keeping this crop of "modern" fighters from connecting with people the same way the previous periods have?
Iain Kidd: I think a big part of the problem is just familiarity. Fighters now are one face among over 400, and fans are skipping more events than they did in the past. Chuck Liddell fought 16 times between 2002 and 2007, and most of the fanbase saw most of those fights. Cain fought 12 times between 2008 and 2013, and almost half of those were on either UFN shows or under performing Pay Per Views.
Guys are fighting less often now, and even when they do fight, an event isn't the occasion it used to be. Now if a fan misses it, they'll catch the one next weekend instead. That makes it so much harder for the UFC to get a significant portion of the fanbase to invest emotionally in any one fighter.
Steph Daniels: In the current crop of fighters, only Ronda Rousey seems to have that intangible "it factor" that Chuck and the others had. It's more than her domination of the media and being featured in a movie (although that definitely helps), because Jones is perched on the edge yet still hasn't managed to get off the ground. Nick Diaz, despite being a media shy, over emotional problem child, has the factor, but is perfectly willing to fade out because that's just the kind of guy he is.
Chuck, even though he was pretty tight lipped, had a persona that spoke through the image of destroying cats in the cage and then just showing up in random places (King of Queens, Nickelback videos, etc). Robbie Lawler, should he become champ, has an opportunity to emulate that. Imagine if he KO's Hendricks. Post fight interview will be about 22 words and 16 of them will be Rogan's. His mystique will be in his silence, much like Chuck's.
MMA isn't new and exciting to everyone like it used to be. It was the hip thing 8-12 years ago to be an MMA fan because nobody else was doing it. Featuring a "cage fighter" on a sitcom or in a video was big shit then. The fight cards weren't happening every 5 minutes either, so the guys that were in there kicking ass and taking names became big stars. The roster was smaller and the shock value was more intense. The carny vibe was in full effect. Now, we see that shit all the time, which is why the UFC is cashing in on women. That novelty effect is big with the women right now. Once that wears off they're going to either go with the super heavies or midgets to get that novelty value stirred up again.
Tim Burke: It's not a matter of the UFC creating these stars. I find the whole idea of "the UFC can't create stars" to be completely misplaced because they didn't create Chuck, Tito, or Lesnar either. All they did, and all they can do, is offer a platform. It's the athletes themselves that either get over or they don't. All the Countdowns and DVD's and articles in the world can't make a guy like Cain Velasquez super popular. Sorry, but it's true.
Tito Ortiz still has legions of fans because he got himself over on the mic when he had the chance. GSP did it by being the white meat babyface. Chuck did it with straight mystique and some ass-kicking in the cage. Brock was a star when he came in. You never know what will work, what will connect with fans. There's no "formula" for it, because the UFC really doesn't really have much to do with it. It's all on the fighters themselves.
As for why no one in MMA is really connecting with fans right now - the nature of the sport from fan perspective is basically a big roller coaster of preferences. There will be down times like now, and suddenly someone incredibly magnetic (or a group of someones) will come along and carry the promotion (and the sport) on their shoulders for a while. Then their stars will fade, the sport will lull, and then it will rise again. There's just no way to tell what will click. It just happens. Unfortunately for Dana and Co, they have no control over it.
Fraser Coffeen: I agree with Crooklyn here about the novelty factor. There's a reason that in the earliest days a guy like Tank Abbott was super popular, while Dave Beneteau was not. Tank was a force, Beneteau was a hard worker. And that's what MMA is filled with these days - hard workers. I always think of Frankie Edgar in this kind of discussion. Edgar is a former champ who was in some incredible fights, is a top fighter in a second weight class, but he's not a marquee fighter and never will be. That's because he's just a tough, gritty worker who gets the job done. In short, he's a professional athlete. But that is not what the public image of a "cage fighter" is. To most, cage fighter = tattooed Chuck screaming with his arms out, or the bleached blonde Huntington Beach Bad Boy, or the wild pro wrestler. The image of cage fighter as consumate hard working athlete is not as appealing a hook, and people haven't bought it yet.
That said, GSP didn't have a massive hook beyond being really, really good at MMA, and he reached that success, so maybe he is paving the way for more. I think Weidman will be an interesting test - I just don't see him being much of a draw at all for this very reason. If I'm wrong, then maybe the tide is turning and your Weidmans, Edgars, and Velasquezs of the world will become those huge stars.
Trent Reinsmith: I'd agree with Iain, it may have something to do with volume. The early generation of fighters may not have fought more, but they were exposed more often to the public because there were less events bombarding the fans.
More events and short attention spans lead to fans forgetting what they saw from week to week. These days, a fight or a fighter has to be really memorable or really special to stay fresh in the minds of the fans.
This is also where the UFC's marketing of the UFC brand over the individual fighters has come to bite them in the ass a little bit.
Tim Burke: I don't really agree that the earlier fighters were exposed to the public more. They always fought on PPV. The stars of today get regular TV time which exposes them to a much bigger audience. And that's just live events, not even including TUF coaching stints and the like (which rarely do any good anyway).
Brent Brookhouse: GSP had multiple big hooks. He's good looking. Being either frightening looking or good looking is always good in "selling" a person as a product. Canadians are also tremendous fight fans so he had a lot of support from a very involved fanbase. That added extra levels of perceived "importance" to his place in the sport. On top of that, he was really, really good during a period when there were other major stars, which certainly helped.
I also think Tim is wrong in saying that the UFC has very little hand in creating stars. Promoters are promoters because their job is to...promote. How much has the UFC's approach to promoting evolved from the TUF era to now? Boxing promoters are still very hit and miss, but I feel like they're more interested in taking risks and new chances with promotional methods. The UFC has tried to ape some of those at least, like taking the Mayweather style "cross country presser" thing and toying with it a bit. But beyond that it's the same bad music screaming promos that tend to be cringe inducing. I was with some members of my wife's family I'd spent very little time with during Thanksgiving and their reactions when UFC ads would come on Fox summed up a lot of what I feel is a base problem with the promotion. It seems like it's aimed toward teenagers in 1998-2005 much of the time.
I should stress that I think this is very much a thing that does have to do with fighters doing more with their platform but I don't think we should make it seem as though they're set up for optimal success.
Tim Burke: What else can the UFC do though? Would better music and better production get these marginal guys over any more? I highly doubt it. I think WWE-style production would definitely help to a certain extent, but it will only take you so far. And it's not much further than they're at now.
Dallas Winston: Laudable insight from Iain, Crookie and Timmy above. After reading the intro, I was dead-set on lending a nearly identical perspective as Tim's but Crooklyn and Iain (even though I hesitate to trust anyone with three consecutive vowels in their name) both bring up some sensible points that I wouldn't have thought of.
Of course the UFC can influence stars with marketing and match making, but that's like paint and big advertisements on a race car -- it's the horsepower under the hood and overall performance that counts. In fact, perhaps Conor McGregor is an example of a young, marketable star that was getting a lot of early attention (not all of which was directly from the UFC or its marketing) before he'd earned it, and some fans and fighters spoke out about it. That's just my attempt at portraying how hype and marketing are usually a drop in the bucket compared to an individual's impact.
Also, somewhat further to Iain and Crooklyn's comments, there were more superstar roles to be filled in MMA's younger days. Machida made everyone who denounced karate and other less prominent, traditional martial arts wince with regret, and, though in different eras, both he and Liddell redefined takedown defense and sprawl-and-brawl. Jon Jones broke all previous molds with a level of innovation and creativity we'd never seen before. Brock Lesnar embodied pro wrestling with his imposing, cave-troll appearance and brash arrogance -- he typified the giant lug that purists loved to insist would get smoked by elite mixed martial artists, but his impressive athleticism, heart and willingness to evolve and adapt (see prolonged beating transformed to arm-triangle victory over Shane Carwin) made it impossible not to respect his abilities. The list goes on with Penn, Vitor, Big Nog, Genki Sudo, etc. Potential stars have to assume an identity somewhat akin to a past star and either match or excel beyond them, or carve out a brand new niche.
Overall, the reason these guys are stars and truly special and unique athletes is because they're one of a kind. And one-of-a-kind athletes, by definition, cannot constantly permeate MMA's spectrum.
Brent Brookhouse: If people are turned off by the presentation, and I think it's a fact that they are, then those people aren't watching the product. If 15% of people who would watch don't because it isn't sold to them properly, that's 15% less people who are exposed to the fighters. If they don't see the fighters, they're not going to form a connection with them. It's like saying that people don't buy a box of cereal because the commercials or packaging sucks. It could be the best cereal in the world, but if people aren't tasting it because they're turned off before it gets to that point, it's not going to sell as well as it should.
If 1 out of every 10 people who sees a guy like...let's say Johny Hendricks....fight ends up as a big fan who is willing to pay for his next fight, then every 10 people who doesn't watch him fight means losing one fan who would pay for the next time out. That's over simplified, obviously, but it gets to just the basics of promotion. Get people interested in the product -> those people try it -> aim for as high a retention as possible. The higher the number of people at step one, the higher the number of people you have at the end.
Connor Ruebusch: I think promotion has more to do with it than you think, Tim. Is Gennady Golovkin a big star for boxing because he's personable, or good-looking? He's basically just a Russian killing machine that hates livers, and he barely speaks English. But he's a big star, because he's been promoted very well.
I do think that the UFC could use either new marketing people, or a new marketing angle. Every poster looks the same as the last. Every trailer sounds and looks the same as the last. Everything is promoted in the same exact way, with slow motion fight footage played to Joe Rogan screaming over the grating sounds of some shitty nu-metal band. The UFC, for whatever reason, markets itself to a very specific demographic. They seem to think that the vast majority of their fanbase are still stuck in the TapouT early days, when in fact a lot of us are college students, parents, husbands, etc. I'm certainly not drawn in by any of the UFC's marketing, and my friends who watch MMA generally get more of a laugh out of the promos than anything else.
Trent Reinsmith: Excellent point on the one of a kind athletes. The UFC has a built in barrier to getting those type of athletes. They don't pay to get them.
If the UFC pay scale made the sport more appealing to elite athletes more would come to the sport and once you start getting those elite athletes in big numbers you have someone to market, someone that is truly something special. These days, it seems more about luck in getting these athletes, at least at the higher weight classes.
You'll always have wrestlers heading into MMA because their options are limited after college. But the elite who would be fighting in the higher weight divisions, they're going to the NFL where they can make up to $102,000 a season on the practice squad or a minimum of $405,000 for making the team.
No, not all of these top level athletes will want to get punched in the face for a living, but some of them may, but not for the money the UFC is offering.
Tim Burke: Brent, I just don't see it that way at all because of what we're talking about - a very physical sport. Their production is obviously outdated and hasn't evolved with the times, but people that are curious about cage fighting aren't going to be put off by Face The Pain or generic Mark Coleman punch-kick promos. They're going to be put off by the brutality in the cage if anything. It's a combat sport, not a tame commercial product.
It's like saying that people won't listen to a CD because the artwork on the cover is cheesy. It's not going to stop many people from trying it out - it's the music itself that will either earn a fan or cause the person to move on quickly. The platform can be modified and made as appealing as possible, but the core content is always what will matter.
Tim Burke: Golovkin isn't a big star though. He's not even close. He's not going to make major crazy bank on PPV. He's an awesome fighter and HBO has done well to get people to tune in to see him, but he's nothing like a GSP/Lesnar/Chuck and he never will be. They took a talented guy and put him on TV and got something out of it. Cool. But they can't make him a face of boxing because of all the things you mentioned - he can't speak English and he has no personality. A promoter can only do so much.