Time to Think About Tomorrow
Watching Tito Ortiz fail to find the win column once again on Saturday night offered a reflective moment for me as a fight fan.
While “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” and his constant excuses in defeat have become tiresome, he’s also one of the fighters who originally brought me back to this sport after MMA emerged from “The Dark Ages.” Must like arch rival Chuck Liddell before him, watching Ortiz come up short once again reiterated the fact that the sport evolves quickly, and the stars of today can become tomorrow’s afterthoughts awful quickly.
With that in mind, the UFC would be smart to start planning for the next couple years, as evidenced by recent results inside the cage.
Cain Velasquez’s domination of Brock Lesnar signals a changing of the guard at the top of the heavyweight division. Unfortunately, it could also be a hit to the UFC’s bottom line, as despite being the superior fighter, Velasquez is nowhere near the draw of the former champion.
No amount of marketing and promotion can deliver the kind of curious eyes that accompanied Lesnar’s emergence in mixed martial arts two years ago. His WWE background and oversized Viking persona struck a chord with casual fans and hardcore followers alike, unlike anything we’ve seen in the sport to date. But the failure to get Velasquez more mainstream exposure over the last 18-months could come back to haunt, and it is a problem that needs to be addressed across all divisions moving forward.
If the organization thought enough of Velasquez to sign the former Arizona State Sun Devil sight-unseen after two wins and a recommendation from Javier Mendez and his team at AKA, then they should have ensured that one of the few young lions in the heavyweight division was fighting on cards that afforded him maximum exposure.
Instead, Velasquez fought two of his previous three fights overseas, dominating Cheick Kongo in Germany and knocking out “Minotauro” Nogueira in Sydney, Australia before and after beating down Ben Rothwell in Los Angeles last October. The focus of the division has been on Lesnar, Shane Carwin and Frank Mir, and now that none of the three has the belt, the UFC faces a promotional problem. How do you sell a star that some of your fans have no connection with?
Not all of it has to do with personality and what fighters say when the camera is on; Jon Jones isn’t an overly charismatic character, but his in-ring exploits and the company’s decision to showcase him on a series of free events on Spike TV and Versus has made him into a bona fide star before he’s even challenged for the 205-pound championship.
The reality is that the champions of today are going to eventually be replaced by stars of tomorrow, and while the UFC did an expert job of identifying those emerging talents in the past, their recent focus has been on bombarding fans with the same small group of stars, and they might start to pay the price right now.
Long before he became UFC welterweight champion for the first time, Georges St-Pierre was showcased for his future potential. The early winners of the Ultimate Fighter seasons still get a solid push; Michael Bisping has been afforded more exposure than a Frankie Edgar, despite never having sniffed championship gold. The reasoning is solid, but doesn’t do the promotion any favors long term.
The UFC used to be home to the best fighters in the sport and the greatest collection of up-and-comers as well. While the former is truer today than it was in the early part of the last decade, the latter is far from the truth. Many of the sport’s top prospects compete outside of the premier organization, and while moves to the big show could come somewhere down the line, the UFC should be focusing on bringing them in early and giving fans a chance to connect with future contenders sooner rather than later.
Just as former flag-bearers Ortiz and Liddell fell on hard times inside the cage and were overtaken by the champions of today, that same scenario will play out with the likes of St-Pierre and Anderson Silva at some point as well. Instead of crossing that bridge closer to when it happens, identifying those few fighters who could grow into eventual champions early and giving them sufficient exposure should be the plan of attack the UFC follows moving forward.
We’re not talking about a vast population to sift through either; the number of fighters viewed as potential future champions is a relatively small group, and each and every one of them should be targets of the UFC if they’re not fighting for the company already.
While The Ultimate Fighter has become a vehicle for creating drama more than finding the best free agent talent in the sport, bringing in recognized prospects like Ben Askren and Cole Konrad instead of half of the cast of the current TUF season makes greater long-term sense.
As does showcasing rising stars that are already in house instead of pushing faded champions and former contenders over and over. Though the initial connection might not be there, what audience wants to watch veterans like Nogueira or Mirko Cro Cop continue to decline before our very eyes? Though both fighters still carry good levels of name recognition, so too do Ortiz and Liddell and you don’t see Dana White rushing to put either of those former stars back atop the marquee.
While they did a better job in giving Velasquez a promotional push before he took the heavyweight title from Lesnar on Saturday night, the new champion still has weaker name recognition than Roy Nelson, and that should not be the case.
Sure, focusing on the stars of today is important. However, looking ahead and promoting the stars of tomorrow is essential for the UFC to continue to have the kind of success they’ve enjoyed over the last five years. Instead of playing catch-up when fighters like Edgar and Velasquez emerge as title contenders and title holders, promote them early and get ahead of the game.
You can worry about today while planning for tomorrow at the same time, and when tomorrow comes, you’ll continue on as if it was yesterday.