Lesnar’s retirement leaves UFC short on stars
LAS VEGAS – Minutes after the last fight that Brock Lesnar ever won ended, he grabbed the microphone from Joe Rogan, looked into the camera and declared to a worldwide pay-per-view audience, “I’m the baddest s.o.b. on the planet.”
The crowd at the Mandalay Bay Events Center roared its approval as Lesnar exulted in a heavyweight title victory over Shane Carwin at UFC 116 on July 3, 2010.
Those words weren’t close to being true.
Lesnar was never remotely close to being the baddest man on the planet. Heck, he was probably never really the baddest man in his own division.
His impact upon the business side of the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts was significantly greater than his actual fighting ability. Young fighters like Nate Diaz and Johny Hendricks, who both scored important victories at UFC 141 on Friday to move inexorably closer to the riches that come with a UFC title shot, owe Lesnar more than they could ever repay.
Guys like Diaz and Hendricks will make more money in future fights due to Lesnar, who attracted a slew of new fans to the sport during his three-year run in the UFC.
Pay-per-view sales were the biggest when the big man fought. Tickets were harder to get when he was topping the bill. Media interest was at its highest. Merchandise sales were more robust. The celebrity quotient was off the charts.
His time as a professional wrestler taught him how to attract attention, how to work a crowd. He commanded a room when he entered it, his booming voice taking over a press conference.
[ Related: Brock Lesnar announces retirement after UFC 141 loss ]
He was similar to ex-boxing heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. You watched because you never quite knew what he was going to do. He always seemed as if he were going to erupt, lose his cool and go on some sort of epic rant.
He was, without question, the biggest star in a star-driven sport.
Any individual sport relies on stars to boost its image. In team sports, it’s the logo. I cheer for Troy Polamalu because he plays for my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. If he were to leave the Steelers and sign with the Seattle Seahawks, he’d quickly became as anonymous to me as a rookie free agent from Slippery Rock who was cut in training camp.
Individual sports, though, rely on personalities such as Tyson and Tiger Woods and, yes, Lesnar to give them relevance. With Woods no longer dominating the competition, golf seems far less cool and less relevant than it did when he was collecting major championships as if they were trading cards.
The UFC will enter 2012 without its biggest attraction and with its second-biggest draw, welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, sidelined by a serious knee injury and facing an uncertain future.
The new year will bring great things for the UFC. It begins the first full year of its seven-year relationship with Fox networks with a 24-hour marathon Sunday on the Fox-owned Fuel TV. The exposure it will get on television will never be greater.
But for those television ratings to turn into pay-per-view sales, the UFC needs to come up with a superstar who people will clamor to see no matter who he fights or how he’s been doing.
When it scheduled Lesnar, the UFC could reasonably count on a multi-million dollar paid gate and pay-per-view sales that would at least approach a million.
Without him, it’s a much greater, though hardly impossible, challenge.
In the last year, big stars and established draws such as Lesnar, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture have retired. Matt Hughes is also giving indications he’s done and Tito Ortiz is begging for just one more fight.
[ Related: Kevin Iole’s complete UFC 141 recap ]
The UFC has invested so much money in building its brand that it can survive the loss of headliner talent in the short term. It has been able to cover for the loss of some of those stars by the presence of president Dana White, a savvy media personality who is a bigger star than just about all of his fighters.
White, though, is simply one man and the UFC’s global expansion has clearly taken a toll on him. He’s got a legendary work ethic, but he’s shown signs of slowing down a bit. He won’t be doing as many press conferences in 2012 as the UFC tries to find a way to lighten his burden and preserve its best asset.
In the long-term, the UFC must develop new stars. It simply won’t work if some of the younger fighters on the roster, such as light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, don’t morph into reliable drawing cards.
Lesnar was money in the bank from the day he announced he was joining the company with only one fight under his belt.
Just like PGA Tour players came to understand in the late 1990s when Woods was responsible for the soaring prize money that was available to them, so, too, should current UFC fighters be cognizant of Lesnar’s contributions to the same effect.
And it would help if one of them had been taking notes over the last three years and can mix a bit of the old Brock bravado into their games.
The UFC is going to need it.
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