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The Most Important Lesson MMA Needs to Learn: Shooting Jesse James Doesn’t Make You Jesse James

(Photo via Getty)

The new guard’s success in the Octagon might not translate to success in the box office, much to the detriment of the UFC’s future.

There’s no doubt that in terms of skill, the new generation of fighters is superior. Chris Weidman beat Anderson Silva twice without ever being in danger. Jon Jones is ten times the fighter any previous light heavyweight champ ever was. The recently arrived era of fighters are to the previous era what the previous era was to old time greats like Mark Coleman. There’s a skill disparity; MMA has evolved.

However, just because the new breed has more aptitude, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have more drawing power. The old guard, through their battles on the early TUF seasons, Spike TV and various PPVs, brought the UFC from fringe-level oddity status (think FX Toughman or Slamball) to global sports powerhouse—complete with a network TV deal and a burgeoning international audience. The UFC’s current crew simply can’t carry the company into growth like this in 2014 and onward.

It’s no secret that the UFC’s numbers haven’t been stellar lately. Despite having more exposure than ever before, 2013′s ceiling is looking a bit like 2008/9′s floor.

Will the new faces be able to reverse the UFC’s decline in popularity? If not, will they at least be able to help the UFC tread water until the storm is weathered?

The lighter, male, weight classes won’t, for starters. It’s widely-known that they don’t draw well. MMA’s casual fan—the guy who does bench presses in the squat rack and needs skulls on everything he owns—hears 125-pounds and immediately (wrongly) thinks “Fuck watching a fighter I can throw through the wall.”

It’s too early to tell whether the new generation of greats from lightweight, welterweight, or middleweight, or even the females will produce a “future of the company”/”franchise athlete”/choose your buzzword.

Ronda Rousey has had more exposure than any UFC fighter in recent memory, but she stamped herself with an expiration date. It’s possible that the women’s strawweight division can help matters due to starlets like CagePotato’s own Rose Namajunas and Felice Herrig. But we won’t know how much mainstream appeal women’s strawweight has until the division starts picking up steam in the UFC.

Only an estimated 270,000 (and all following PPV numbers are unofficial estimates via MMAPayout’s blue book) fans purchased Anthony Pettis‘ UFC 164 fight against Ben Henderson, a fighter that never moves the needle buyrate-wise, despite being promoted on FOX numerous times. To put this number into perspective, UFC 101— main-evented by BJ Penn vs. Kenny Florian—received 850,000 buys. The next card Penn headlined, UFC 107, received 620,000. So far, there hasn’t been a draw at lightweight not named BJ Penn. Don’t write Pettis off yet though, since he has the demeanor and attitude of a champion, as well as an extremely fan-friendly fighting style.

Johny Hendricks vs. GSP garnered an estimated 630,000 buys—GSP’s lowest performing PPV since UFC 87 when he fought Jon Fitch. The jury is still out on what’ll happen with this division regarding star power and the various, equally viable contenders for the belt.

That brings us to middleweight. Weidman is now a legend-killer, the Guy Who Beat Silva.™ Weidman’s reputation and success against one of MMA’s greatest fighters might translate into massive PPV buys and superstar status. But it might not.

At light heavyweight, Jon Jones wasn’t the Mike Tyson-esque superstar we all hoped he’d be. Judging from the buys, fans only show tepid interest in Jones’ systematic, brutal dismantling of some of the world’s greatest fighters. On average, Jones draws approximately 500,000 buys per PPV. That’s respectable but the UFC can’t move forward on that. A rematch with Alexander Gustafsson likely would’ve drawn well, but the UFC nixed the idea. Instead, they opted to put Jones against Glover Teixeira and put Gustafsson in a fight agaisnt 14-0 prospect Jimi Manuwa.

Jones’ good but disappointing numbers are similar to those of Cain Velasquez, the UFC’s great Mexican hope. His fight against Brock Lesnar approached one million buys, but he was never able to capture that success against any other opponent. Case in point: The final fight in arguably the most important feud in heavyweight history—Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos—sold only 330,000 PPVs.

Despite burying the old guard in the dust, fans might not care about the Chris Weidmans and Anthony Pettis’s of the UFC once the novelty wears off. Fans don’t always adopt the victorious young lions as their new idols once the old ones have been vanquished. Fans follow their heroes, and when their heroes are made into men—human beings just as fallible and vulnerable to the vagaries of time and the human body as the rest of us—the fans stop caring. Shooting Jesse James doesn’t make you Jesse James.

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