As fun as it is to watch anonymous featherweights mash each other’s faces, the UFC only works when it has stars to sell the public. Brock Lesnar sold pay-per-views. So did Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva. Fighters’ peaks are short, since their trade involves repeated blunt-force trauma, but as long as the UFC could replace aging or creaky stars with readymade replacements, they could theoretically ensure a non-stop pipeline of PPV gold.
For a while, it worked. Lesnar and St-Pierre faded off into the sunset and Silva started to lose, but fans were happy to pay to see Ronda Rousey’s brand of sudden violence, or Jon Jones emerging as the baddest motherfucker on Earth, or for a mouthy Irishman to talk shit while punching out his foes. Conor McGregor is making more money than God this weekend for a fake fight with a champion boxer precisely because he spent years hooting, hollering, and hitting people enough to become the biggest draw in the UFC. Of the top five UFC PPV events, McGregor was the headliner on four. He leveraged that drawing power to secure a fight with Floyd Mayweather, Jr., in which he will most likely get his ass beat and earn enough money to never fight again unless he really wants to.
While all of this was happening, the UFC effectively stopped trying to market the best fighters they had. Spectacle is always what’s sold for the UFC, but over the past few years the promotion essentially ignored all-timers like Demetrious Johnson, focusing even more intently than it always had on pro wrestling-esque theatrics rather than the sports qua sports of top-level MMA fighting.
This is a good strategy that works and breaks records as long as you have a world-class showman like McGregor, or a feud like Jones vs. Cormier that works equally well as carnival or world-class sports. It doesn’t when you don’t. It also has costs. Due to the focus on spectacle, the UFC has largely lost the ability to sell fights on nothing more than the promise of seeing two of the best in the world go at it. Its titles have lost value both because the process of obtaining and defending titles is by now a byzantine ritual and because of a lack of charismatic champions. And then there’s the way McGregor is (rightly) serving as an example for other fighters. Tyron fucking Woodley, a boring champ who has spent the last 50 minutes of his UFC career not punching his opponents, is now demanding big-money fights against the semi-retired likes of St-Pierre and Nick Diaz. He knows fans don’t just want to see him against some other guy who happens to be the No. 1 contender. He knows where the money is.
These dynamics were covered over for a while by star power. After McGregor made off with his satchel of boxing cash and Rousey got whooped so badly in her last two fights that she might not ever fight again, Jones returned from his suspension just in time to take up the mantle. After years of turmoil, failed doping tests and high-profile arrests, Jones redeemed himself and won back his UFC light heavyweight championship belt from Daniel Cormier with a face-melting kick. The sport’s greatest recent rivalry culminated in a moment of redemption for Jones, and a perfectly-timed return of one of the UFC’s greatest ever fighters and draws. Whether he fought Lesnar or Stipe Miocic or kept making mincemeat of the light heavyweight crowd, Jones was set to ascend to an entirely new level of stardom.
All was more or less well for three whole weeks, and then Jones popped a positive and turned gold into shit yet again. Since he’s a repeat offender, he might garner a multi-year suspension, and UFC dictator Dana White has even conceded that Jones’s career might be over. Jones’s agent has denied that the champ was doped up, but no matter what, even if Jones is cleared, he’s probably shot his dick off so many times that fans won’t trust him.
So what does the UFC do now? A cursory look at their upcoming cards shows a desolate schedule, with November’s UFC 217 the only fight card with a chance to move PPV units, let alone the only actually enticing event. If McGregor comes back, it will be likely be as a man who got worked in his lone boxing match, and even then, he probably won’t be too happy with a normal payday to fight a sage and a master like Nate Diaz after taking ungodly wads of cash to fight Floyd. The UFC’s gamble has put them in a bad spot and there isn’t an easy solution.
Go harder on promoting the likes of Max Holloway and DJ, who have nothing to offer save being the best? Sure, go for it, although that should have started years ago. Bring back legends like GSP and Nick Diaz? That only makes the existing problems worse. Make Sage Northcutt the face of the UFC? That’d be a good idea, if only he could fight. The UFC faces an uncertain future, one that they created for themselves. Even if the fighting is good—and since DJ’s got another title defense next month, it will be—there’s no one like Jones or McGregor on the horizon, and no sign that the masses want to simply see glamor-division champions like Miocic and Woodley dutifully work their way down the ranks of contenders. You can’t blame them. They’re doing what the UFC taught them to do.