This article originally appeared on WrestlingObserver.com on 9/5/13
After Anthony Pettis captured the UFC lightweight title by submitting Benson Henderson with a first round armbar this past Saturday night, the new champ made a very smart move.
During his post-fight interview Pettis wasted no time in calling out long-reigning featherweight champion Jose Aldo, citing "unfinished business" between the two.
In a sport where the future is so uncertain, it's always wise for fighters to have an eye on where their next paycheck is coming from. What's more, given the hectic MMA news cycle, it's essential for athletes who want to maximize their earning potential to use their valuable thirty seconds in the spotlight during post-fight interviews to create interest in their next bout. Aldo would have been the biggest matchup available to Pettis in terms of notoriety, so it was within the new champ's best interest to lobby for the fight.
But like the Rolling Stones so astutely observed, you can't always get what you want. Instead of Aldo, Pettis will draw #3 ranked TJ Grant in his first attempt to defend the title.
From a sporting standpoint Grant was the obvious choice given his 5-0 record since dropping to lightweight and his spectacular first round knockout of Gray Maynard. That's all fine and well, but from a starpower perspective Pettis must feel a bit like a middle schooler who got turned down by his crush and instead ended up going to the school dance with the mousey girl who sits behind him in algebra class.
Simply put, the idea of Grant challenging for the title hasn't lit the public's collective imagination on fire. He may be a very good fighter, but as a personality he's more vanilla than a white chocolate mocha from Starbucks. That's not an ideal opponent for a new champion who hasn't established himself as a draw yet, and it's also not an ideal scenario for a promotion looking to get fans to open up their wallets for the privilege of watching fights.
But here's the thing: searching for a genuine money matchup in the UFC's lighter weight divisions is like combing the woods trying to find evidence of Sasquatch. Try as you might you're going not going to be able to unearth anything other than some man-made tracks or perhaps a former title-holder challenging for the belt in a different weight class.
Which is why an Aldo/Pettis champion vs. champion bout was never going to do big business in the first place. How could it when nobody who fights under 170 pounds in the UFC is a difference maker at the box office anymore?
Sound far fetched? A glance over at the UFC's pay per view numbers since 2011 is all it takes to show how weak the drawing power of the lighter weight classes truly is these days.
The first PPV of 2011 was the Frankie Edgar/Gray Maynard headlined UFC 125, which marked the first lightweight title fight of the modern era that didn't involve the ever-popular BJ Penn. Ever since Penn was forced out of the title picture by two losses in a row to Edgar PPV buyrates have nosedived for lightweight championship bouts. According to numbers provided by MMAPayout.com Blue Book, during Penn's reign he achieved an average PPV buyrate of 540,000 for shows he headlined as lightweight champion (i.e. not counting his blockbuster welterweight title fight against champion Georges St-Pierre). However, from Edgar/Maynard II on the lightweight title has only done an average of 250,000 buys on PPV. That's a 54% drop in the post-Penn era.
What's more, if you combine all PPV's headlined by the weight classes under 170 pounds since the start of 2011 you get an average of 250,000 buys. That's 39% less than the UFC average during that time frame of 415,000 buys. However, the weak drawing power of the lighter weight classes stands out in even greater relief when you subtract cards they have headlined from the UFC average. The average of all UFC PPV events since 2011 that didn't feature a lighter weight title fight on top is 485,000 buys -- a 94% increase over the 250,000 buys drawn by main eventers weighing 155 pound or less.
Furthermore, the average for all UFC PPV's headlined by a non-title match since 2011 is 240,000 buys (excluding the aberration of Brock Lesnar -- the UFC's all time PPV king -- doing 535,000 buys at UFC 141). In other words the lighter weight titles are only worth about an average of 10,000 extra buys more than a show headlined by a non-title fight at this point.
It's important to realize these numbers don't mean that it's impossible for lighter weight fighters to become money drawing stars. I've got two words for anyone who thinks smaller fighters can't become blockbuster PPV attractions: "Floyd Mayweather." In the UFC we've already had an example in BJ Penn of a 155 pounder who did big business on PPV, so it's absurd to think there's any reason a lightweight or featherweight couldn't become a huge superstar.
So what can the UFC do to help make the current crop of lighter weight champions into money drawing attractions?
To be honest I don't know if there's much that can be done with either flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson or the winner of the eventual unification match between bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao. Johnson and Cruz don't have particularly exciting styles for fans of hard-hitting action, and Barao has a serious lack of charisma working against him.
Of the current crop of champions Aldo and Pettis have by far the best chances at becoming breakthrough stars. Aldo by all means should be there if drawing power was based on sheer talent and accomplishments alone, but unfortunately it isn't. Although the featherweight champ has cut an Anderson Sliva-like swath through his division, outside of his native Brazil the majority of causal fans who drive UFC business have been apathetic to his fights. Then again, during the early half of his middleweight title reign Silva himself wasn't a box office draw despite his superlative talent.
It took years of continued dominance, and the right opponents in Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort, for Silva to reach his potential as a draw. It also didn't hurt that from about 2009 on Dana White built Silva up as the greatest pound for pound fighter alive.
This same formula can likely work for Aldo as well given the right presentation. The first thing the UFC needs to do with Aldo is to put his next fight in the US rather than Brazil in order to shine a larger media spotlight on him in North America. They would also be wise to slot that bout on an upcoming FOX card during football season. If the huge audience who watches the NFL on FOX sees a hype special building Aldo up as one of the pound for pound kings and a legend in the making, it will at least expose his accomplishments to a much larger number of people than just the UFC hardcores who currently understand how special a talent Aldo is. Then if Aldo keeps winning, which in all likelihood is a strong possibility, the UFC should hype up his every fight as not just a featherweight title bout, but also a special event where fans have the opportunity to watch history unfolding in real time.
As for Pettis, only time and a few big wins will tell if he's got what it takes to draw. On the surface he seems to be a far better candidate to become a crowd favorite than either Henderson or Edgar, both of whom had reserved personalities and styles that favored narrow decisions. Pettis stands in sharp contrast to these two as a flashy finisher with a bit of a cocky swagger in his step. If the wins start piling up for Pettis he could become the first legitimate lightweight superstar in years.
Which is why it may end up being best for the UFC in the long run that they didn't rush into Aldo/Pettis when there really wasn't much public demand for the fight. Former lightweight champ Edgar drew 330,000 buys against Aldo and it's reasonable to think Pettis would do a similar number. 80,000 to 100,000 buys over the usual lighter weight average of 250,000 is nothing to scoff at, but the UFC may feel it's worth more to them to have title fights available for two separate cards rather than putting one division on ice for half a year.
While we've been provided with ample evidence over the years that there are no sure things in MMA, especially when it comes to long term planning, it's not like a potential Aldo vs. Pettis match would have drawn significantly better than both fighter's next title bouts will. Given a few more years though, plus the right breaks, and Aldo vs. Pettis could be a match fans are begging the UFC to make.