Making An MMA Star
There are star athletes in every major sport. Its usually just the best of the best at any given time. Lebron James in basketball. Tom Brady in football. Mike Trout in baseball. Alexander Ovechkin in hockey. Lionel Messi in soccer. Some are boring, some have personality, but they all command attention in one way or another because of the skills they put on display every time they step onto the field/court/rink. MMA is a little different. Unlike other sports which draw relatively similar TV ratings from year to year, MMA is boom or bust. The UFC sold for $4 billion at the peak of their Pay-Per-View drawing power. They had Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, and Jon Jones competing on a regular basis. In 2016 the UFC had five events that sold over a million PPVs. Three McGregor fights, Rousey’s return from the knockout to Holly Holm, and UFC 200 (Brock Lesnar’s return). In 2017 they had none. McGregor ran off to fight Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match, Rousey signed with the WWE, and Lesnar went back to wrestling. They came close two times with the Jon Jones/Daniel Cormier rematch (850,000 buys) and Georges St. Pierre’s return from a four year hiatus (875,000 buys) but it was a stark contrast that shows why the UFC should be doing whatever they can to generate more stars.
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They have a chance to do that this weekend. In the co-main event of UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia Israel Adesanya takes on former middleweight champion (and star) Anderson Silva. Adesanya checks all of the boxes to be a star in the sport. Being undefeated in MMA isn’t important like it is in boxing, you fight competition appropriate to your level for the most part. But it doesn’t hurt and ‘The Last Stylebender’ is 15-0. 13 of those wins are by knockout which isn’t surprising considering he was 25-5 in kickboxing and 5-1 in boxing before coming over to MMA. He has an exciting style of fighting and a unique form of trash talking. If you watch him fight and hear him interviewed afterwards you’re not likely to forget him. He’s also been tested against wrestlers in his last three outings and he is clearly improving dramatically in that regard against better and better competition. He won a split decision (although I thought it was pretty clear he won two out of three rounds) over solid prospect Marvin Vettori, then he won a dominant decision over five rounds against established top 15 contender Brad Tavares, and capped it off with a first round knockout over perennial top 10 middleweight Derek Brunson after stuffing every take down attempt.
The obvious fight to make following that string of performances would’ve been Jacare Souza who just recently knocked out Chris Weidman and has been on the cusp of a title shot since he entered the UFC after their acquisition of Strikeforce in 2011. It would’ve been a true number one contender fight with the winner fighting the winner of Saturday night’s middleweight championship bout, Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum. But instead Dana White is hoping Adesanya can knock out or at least definitively beat Silva. Despite being 1-4 with a no contest due to one of two positive drug tests over his last six fights dating back to 2013, Silva’s name carries a lot of weight. A win over him looks good on the resume plus there isn’t much risk against a deteriorated 43 year old. Beating a star (or former star in this case) doesn’t always give you the bump you would expect. It worked for Holly Holm against Ronda Rousey but not so much for Amanda Nunes. You have to promote it properly which it seems like the UFC is doing in this case. If Adesanya knocks out ‘The Spider’ and then goes on to win the middleweight belt over Gastelum or especially Whittaker, they might have something special on their hands. But MMA is almost never that predictable. You can’t schedule stardom or else Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson would be one instead of being shipped off to ONE (FC) for someone Dana White once buried.
There haven’t been many superstars in the UFC and the six biggest had different ways of getting there. Time will tell if Israel Adesanya can reach those heights, if he washes out, or if he falls somewhere in the middle as a draw but one that never comes close to selling a million pay-per-views. Let’s take a look at how the others got there and Adesanya compares to them.
Georges St. Pierre – GSP is a rare breed. The other five names on this list have used controversy in one way or the other to help catapult them to where they are. St. Pierre is the opposite. The consummate professional who never talked trash and always showed respect to his opponents which I’m sure frustrated the UFC. But it didn’t matter. Even his style of fighting was fairly predictable and boring. After getting knocked out by Matt Serra in one of the biggest upsets in the sports history he moved to a wrestling heavy game plan that led to a bunch of one sided decisions. To get the title he beat the welterweight star from the previous generation (Matt Hughes) as well as his lightweight contemporary BJ Penn. It doesn’t hurt that he represents an entire country (Canada) that counts towards Pay-Per-View buys. The first five PPV’s that he headlined sold between 400,000 and 600,000 but starting with his rematch with Penn at UFC 94 he never had one where he sold less than 700,000 other than the last fight before his comeback against Johnny Hendricks which sold 630,000. His biggest PPV was as the co-main event under Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir at UFC 100. That milestone event sold 1.6 million. The closest comparison to GSP is Demetrious Johnson but he never came close to being any kind of draw despite being dominant and having some exciting highlights to his name.
Brock Lesnar – Lesnar is an example of the UFC bringing in someone who is already famous in another sport. A WWE superstar who was able to have immediate success due to his large intimidating frame and real wrestling skills. In his first two Pay-Per-Views he was able to draw around 600,000 despite not even being the main event. He lost his debut to Frank Mir by submission but came back to dominate Heath Herring. The UFC wasted no time giving him a title shot against Randy Couture (a star from the previous era, much like Matt Hughes) which he promptly won. That event sold a million PPV’s. He then defended his belt in a rematch against Mir at UFC 100 which sold 1.6 million as mentioned above. They loved pairing him with GSP which they did again when he beat Shane Carwin, another million PPV seller. His reign was short lived however and he lost his next two fights to Cain Velasquez and Alistair Overeem which sold 900,000 and 500,000 PPV’s respectively. He returned to the WWE after realizing he doesn’t like to get punched in the face but returned for UFC 200 which he helped lead to another million PPV’s. His name keeps popping up for another possible return against Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight championship and if he does come back, you can expect big numbers once again.
Ronda Rousey – The UFC got lucky with Rousey. She made a name for herself in Scott Coker’s Strikeforce promotion as a former Judo medalist who was arm barring opponent after opponent in dominate fashion. Dana White infamously said the UFC would never promote women’s MMA inside the Octagon but when they purchased Strikeforce in 2011 Rousey fell right into their lap. In her first fight with the promotion she headlined a Pay-Per-View that sold almost 500,000. In her second fight she fought Miesha Tate in a rematch of their Strikeforce fight as the co-main event to the Anderson Silva/Chris Weidman rematch. It sold a million PPVs. Cemented as an immediate superstar she went on to sell 375,000 PPVs against Sara McMann, 550,000 against Alexis Davis, 600,000 against Cat Zingano, and 900,000 against Bethe Correia – all title defenses that lasted a combined two minutes and ten seconds. Unfortunately she didn’t take losing very well and joined Brock Lesnar over in WWE after back to back knockouts to the hands (and feet) of Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes. Her losses were the UFC’s gains as both of those PPV’s sold 1.1 million. Now the promotion that was once against WMMA has four women’s divisions despite their golden goose no longer participating in the sport.
Conor McGregor – Remember when I said you can’t schedule stardom? McGregor might be the only exception. He came into the UFC as a big time prospect who was easily promotable thanks to his razor sharp wit and trash talk. They let him build himself up with some smart matchmaking, giving him opponents that weren’t great wrestlers who would try to take him down. Not to say that he wasn’t fighting quality guys but the style match-ups favored him. He beat Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier before they were fully developed and have gone on to have great success as well as less notable names (Marcus Brimage, Diego Brandao, and Dennis Siver). All along the way he was taunting featherweight champion Jose Aldo and whoever else would listen. He was scheduled to fight Aldo at UFC 189 but due to an injury had to face Chad Mendes on very short notice. This was the wrestler that would surely derail his hype train. But instead he was able to withstand some early trouble in the first round and come back to knock him out in the second to win the interim belt. It was his first main event of a Pay-Per-View and it sold 825,000.
He finally got his fight with Aldo five months later and sold a million PPVs, knocking out his rival in 13 seconds. McGregor is a conqueror not a king, always with his eyes looking for next big step in his career. He was scheduled to fight Rafael Dos Anjos for the lightweight championship and become the first fighter to hold two belts simultaneously but again due to injury had his journey shifted in another direction. Nate Diaz stepped up and the two of them made promotional magic. Diaz shocked the Irishman, submitting him in the second round. But McGregor was humble in defeat (who wouldn’t be after selling 1.3 million PPVs) and somehow only got bigger as a result. The rematch did over 1.6 million PPVs and Conor was back on track towards history. He got his second belt to become ‘champ champ’ at Madison Square Garden in the first event since New York legalized MMA, knocking out Eddie Alvarez in the first round to the tune of 1.3 million PPV buys. He boxed Floyd Mayweather to a combat sports record 4.6 million and then returned to MMA after two years to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov, selling an MMA record 2.4 million PPVs. Despite losing two fights in a row in decisive fashion he is still the Pay-Per-View king of MMA and no matter what he does next, hes already thrown a dolly through a bus window, people will follow.
Anderson Silva – Adesanya’s opponent might never have reached the heights of the first four fighters but he’s still one of only 19 fighters to ever headline a UFC Pay-Per-View that sold over a million and one of only a handful that was the main reason for doing so. It took him awhile to get there however. Silva was signed out of Brazil as one of the biggest names outside of the UFC. He was an amazing striker with many highlight reel knockouts. He was fun to watch for his antics alone inside the cage, taunting opponents and dropping his hands then dodging punches like he was in the matrix. His first six PPV’s sold between 300,000 and 400,000. His next five sold between 500,000 and 850,000 but some of those (the Thales Leites and Demian Maia fights in particular) had Dana White fuming because Silva did more messing around than fighting despite winning handily. It wasn’t until Silva fought Chael Sonnen that he had a rival and some adversity to overcome. Sonnen beat ‘The Spider’ up for over four rounds but Silva caught him in a hail mary submission to prevent another one of the biggest upsets in UFC history. Silva was finally human and their rematch sold over 900,000 PPVs. Then he finally lost but it was looked at as a fluke because Chris Weidman knocked him out while Silva was letting him hit him, pretending to be hurt and then actually getting hurt. The rematch sold over a million and had its own controversy with Silva’s leg snapping in half on a checked leg kick. He came back to sell 650,000 PPVs against Nick Diaz but failed a drug test afterwards and hasn’t headlined a Pay-Per-View since.
Jon Jones – Jones is the only fighter on this list that hasn’t broken through the million Pay-Per-View buy milestone but its only a matter of time. Based on talent and accomplishments alone he is already the greatest fighter in the sports history. His only loss is on a disqualification in a fight he was on his way to winning easily. Hes a guy who would sell between 300,000 and 500,000 PPVs except in a few peaks where he had a rivalry. He sold 700,000 PPVs in his grudge match with former training partner Rashad Evans at UFC 145. He has arguably the best rivalry in UFC history with Daniel Cormier. Their first fight sold 800,000 PPVs and the rematch two and a half years later sold 860,000. Unfortunately the main reason I see him reaching the next level is because of the controversy he always seems to have outside of the cage as opposed to the amazing skills he puts on display in it. Hes been busted with cocaine, he was involved in a hit and run where he left the scene after injuring a pregnant woman, and hes had multiple failed drug tests for PEDs. He was supposed to fight Cormier in the main event of UFC 200 but tested positive for a banned substance the week of the event. They found that it came from a contaminated supplement and gave him a year suspension. A year later after competing at UFC 214 he tested positive again. Facing up to a four year ban, he was given 15 months by USADA despite not finding an unintentional way for it to have gotten in his system. Many were already claiming preferential treatment and that has only magnified recently. The UFC moved an entire event (UFC 232) from Las Vegas, Nevada to Los Angeles, California on a weeks notice because Jones was flagged for having picograms of the same substance (Turinabol) in his system. Nevada wouldn’t license him but California did. The event went on to sell 700,000 PPVs and now Nevada has cleared him to headline UFC 235 against Anthony Smith in March.
Getting back to Israel Adesanya, many have said his fighting style reminds them of a mix between Anderson Silva and Jon Jones (without the wrestling). But his promotional style is more of a mix between Silva and Conor McGregor. The physical tools and striking of Silva with the possible promotional capabilities of McGregor on the mic. But hes also his own person with his own X factors. Even the biggest stars took time to develop their stardom and cement their legacies. Adesanya has a great opportunity in front of him to take the next step for himself on February 9th. Time will tell if or when he and anyone else will be able to fill the void once the current era of stars are no longer viable.