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UFC needs new stars to emerge to buoy PPV sales and popularity

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
UFC needs new stars to emerge to buoy PPV sales and popularity
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Ronda Rousey is perhaps UFC president Dana White's biggest star, but she still hasn't reached her full potential as an attraction. (Getty Images)

Two fight cards into the second half of 2014, and one fact has become abundantly clear: Without former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, the UFC does not have one fighter it can place atop a card and, no matter who he or she is fighting, reasonably expect it to sell 500,000 or more pay-per-views.

The company has a lot of popular fighters and burgeoning stars, not the least of which are women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and middleweight champion Chris Weidman.

Selling a fight on pay-per-view is a difficult and challenging business in the best of times. When times are rough, it can be next to impossible.

The UFC does not release its pay-per-view results and any list or discussion of sales is speculation. There is, however, a general feeling in the industry that the company has backslid in pay-per-view sales this year compared to last.

In 2013, the UFC had extraordinary luck with injuries and did not have to change one main event all year after it was announced because a fighter got hurt.

But in 2014, some of the company's best fighters and potential stars have yet to compete.

Consider:

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Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez's absence hasn't helped the UFC. (Getty Images)

Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez's absence hasn't helped the UFC. (Getty Images)

Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez underwent shoulder surgery in December and hasn't fought yet this year. Making matters worse from a UFC perspective, Velasquez has been virtually anonymous from the public. He's not a fan of interviews and the media when he's active and it's seemed at times that Velasquez has been harder to find in 2014 than Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Former middleweight champion Anderson Silva broke his leg in a gruesome sequence in a 2013 fight with Weidman and has yet to fight this year, though he's edging nearer to a return.

St-Pierre announced a sabbatical in December after a difficult victory over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167. He then tore his ACL while training and there is no timetable for his return.

Lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, who has the look of a breakout star, injured a knee and has yet to fight. He's coaching opposite Gilbert Melendez on Season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter," and he's not due to compete again until December.

Melendez, one of the most exciting fighters in the world, hasn't fought since a sensational win over Diego Sanchez at UFC 166 in October. That was the last fight on his contract and he nearly fled for Bellator. Bellator signed him to an offer sheet, but the UFC matched and announced Melendez would coach opposite Pettis on TUF. Thus, he'll be out close to 14 months by the time he returns.

Former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz was injured yet again earlier in the year, delaying his return until UFC 178 in September. When he fights – if he fights – it will be a handful of days short of three years since his last bout.

Middleweight contender Chael Sonnen had developed into a reliable draw, but he failed two drug tests and is facing a lengthy suspension. It is likely his fighting career is over.

Rashad Evans had routinely proven to be one of the sport's best B-sides, very similar to what Shane Mosley had been in boxing for many years. Evans wasn't going to sell 600,000 pay-per-views on his name alone, but put him in a good match and he would have. He played a big role in the success of fights against light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former champs Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Chuck Liddell. Evans was injured in training earlier this year and hasn't fought since November.

Brothers Nick and Nate Diaz have been in some sort of dispute with the UFC. Nick hasn't fought since UFC 158 on March 16, 2013, and it appears he may not fight again the rest of this year. Nate defeated Gray Maynard in November, but has shown no interest in fighting in 2014 and has asked to be released.

There have been others, but that's a good idea of how depleted the roster has been.

And the adage, "One man's misfortune is another man's gain," doesn't really seem to hold true. No fighter has emerged in the first half of 2014 and shown the potential to become a top-of-a-card, big-selling attraction.

There are at least 15, if not more, fighters who have at least some potential to become the kind of seller that St-Pierre had so reliably been for years: An athlete who regularly sells 500,000 or 600,000 pay-per-views as a headliner and who, with the right opponent, can threaten 1 million sales.

Most of them won't make it, but the UFC needs to have a few of them break through. When the company was going through its massive upswing in popularity following the success of Season 1 of TUF, guys like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Matt Hughes were huge pay-per-view stars.

There are no such fighters active right now. But there is time for some fighters to develop into big draws. Here are the top candidates who could become major attractions.

Ronda Rousey, women's bantamweight champion: She's the UFC's biggest star in terms of attracting media attention. The late-night talk shows love to have her on. Magazines routinely put her on the cover. Non-traditional MMA media feature her. The regular MMA media can't get enough of her. She has all the makings of a mega-pay-per-view star. She is a dynamic fighter who has great finishing ability. She's a tremendous athlete and can do things in the cage few others can. She's well-spoken and willing to accept the responsibility of promoting her shows. She's an attractive woman and appealing to the 18-to-34-year-old men who are the UFC's target audience. But few in the general public have ever heard a thing about any of her opponents, and the MMA public doesn't see her being challenged unless she fights Cris "Cyborg" Justino. It's tough to get fans to buy fights they see as mismatches.

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UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman has all the qualities to become a star. (Getty Images)

UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman has all the qualities to become a star. (Getty Images)

Chris Weidman, middleweight champion: Weidman has two wins over a legend on his record and a Fight of the Year-type victory over Lyoto Machida in a grueling five-round battle. He's a handsome guy in the mold of Oscar De La Hoya and he has the kind of homespun humor that appeals to the everyday folks who are potential customers.

Jon Jones, light heavyweight champion: Jones is easily the greatest fighter in the world, a rare athlete in the UFC. His run is remarkable and the fact that he's been so dominant should make him bigger than he is. He's kind of found himself in that in-between spot with the fans. He's angered a portion of the fans with what they perceive as a cocky, arrogant attitude, but Jones hasn't been able to embrace the heel persona that has worked so fabulously for Floyd Mayweather Jr. Jones is so marvelously talented that he'll almost certainly raise his pay-per-view sales. But the UFC's public-relations and marketing team needs to do a much better job of positioning Jones and helping him maximize his vast potential.

Cain Velasquez, heavyweight champion: I have long been a fan of Velasquez the fighter and believed he had limitless potential. But Velasquez hasn't always embraced the spotlight. He'd rather not do interviews or appearances and he has a low-key demeanor. Given his tremendous ability, he should be a star of the highest order, but he hasn't worked hard enough at selling himself. He needs to look closely at how Rousey has handled her career. She is as hard of a worker as there is in practice, but she works equally hard at promoting herself and the sport. If someone at the UFC can get that message through to Velasquez, he'll explode as an attraction.

Luke Rockhold, middleweight contender: Rockhold seems to have it all. He's got a complete and improving fight game. He's a good-looking guy who attracts plenty of women to his fights and he's very glib. He needs regular exposure and some big fights.

Anthony Pettis, lightweight champion: Pettis is a marvelously talented fighter who has the athleticism to make moves that wind up on SportsCenter's "Plays of the Night." He's charismatic with a nice smile and a good way about him. He's recently landed an endorsement with Reebok and is in a contest to land on the front of a box of Wheaties.

Conor McGregor, featherweight contender: McGregor is a promoter's delight for the way he yaps about himself and trash-talks his opponents. The question about him is whether he's actually good enough to fight at the highest level. He is vastly unproven now, with a win over Marcus Brimage that proved nothing and a victory over Max Holloway that was better but far from what he'll need. If he's half as good as he says he is, he could become a major draw.

Donald Cerrone, lightweight contender: Cerrone is one of the game's most exciting fighters and is regularly in Fight of the Night type of bouts. He's got a bunch of crazy hobbies and is willing to say just about anything. If he gets a title, he could surprisingly morph into a big seller.

Johny Hendricks, welterweight champion: Hendricks has tremendous punching power, and that always sells, and a charm that appeals to the guy who loves country-and-western music. He's kind of an everyman, a guy who balloons up in weight between fights, and that is appealing. With the right fights, Hendricks could make it.

Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, middleweight contender: The language barrier is going to hurt Souza and keep him from becoming an American pay-per-view star. But he's mega-talented and, like Pettis, can pull off some crazy moves in the cage. He's also got a passionate following in Brazil and the ability to reel off a long winning streak. He's probably not going to get there, but he's a good long shot to keep an eye on.

Though the UFC is increasingly turning toward a free-TV model, pay-per-view revenues remain a massive part of its business. And for it to shake its lethargy, in which some of the pay-per-view sales have been flat or gone down, it needs a handful of fighters to make that step up.

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