(TJ Grant, doing his impression of a UFC fan who’s just been told that TJ Grant will be headlining a pay-per-view. Photo via MMAJunkie)
By Matt Saccaro
That’s not either guy’s fault. Benson Henderson managed to get the nod from the judges in his last three title defenses, scoring victories over the likes of Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz. And TJ Grant has put together a five-fight winning streak, most recently sending Gray Maynard down faster than Zynga’s stock price.
But that’s the problem: A fight between two guys who have done nothing but kick ass isn’t moving the needle. It’s not that the populace has run out of fucks to give about Henderson and Grant, they just never gave any in the first place.
Look at the estimated buyrates for Henderson’s PPVs. Henderson hasn’t been on a PPV since UFC 150 in August 2012, a card that earned a pathetic 190,000 buys. People don’t want to part with their cash to see Benson Henderson, so the UFC started giving him away for free on FOX. Bendo main evented two FOX cards which performed okay ratings-wise.
The UFC is putting Henderson back on PPV at UFC 164 for his title defense against TJ Grant. This PPV is a Battle of the Blackwater moment for the UFC. If UFC 164 can boast a decent buyrate, then the theory that the UFC can use FOX to create the next generation of stars will be proven true, and the UFC’s future will be a little more secure. But if UFC 164 fails as hard as UFC 150 did — if promoting a fighter TWO TIMES on one of the biggest networks on television failed to make that fighter a draw — then the UFC is in trouble. That would mean one champion who would be dead weight on a card, in addition to the champions from the lighter men’s weight classes who have all yet to establish themselves as major PPV draws.
That’s one half of the tidal wave approaching Zuffa HQ. Here’s the other: The UFC’s older stars have retired or are going to retire in the near future. Chuck Liddell is gone. Tito Ortiz is gone. Brock Lesnar (say what you will about his skill-level, the man could still part people with their cash) is gone. BJ Penn is gone. GSP is 32 and retirement may be looming for him. Anderson Silva is on the anchor leg of his career at the age of 38, and is about to face a very real threat in Chris Weidman.
What happens when all the UFC has left is Chris Weidmans, TJ Grants, and Ben Hendersons — fighters who casual fans don’t care about and who the average Joe doesn’t have a clue about?
Again, that’s not to slight any of these guys — they’ve turned physically destroying another human being into an art form. No, the blame lies with Zuffa; they’ve failed to turn the next generation of talent into superstars.
As of right now, the only two young fighters who have potential to be big draws are Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey. With only one PPV (earning 450,000 buys), it’s tough to definitively say if Rousey will be a massive draw going forward. She certainly garners mainstream media interest, but whether that’s solely due to the novelty of a female in the UFC can’t be determined yet.
Jones has performed well enough but hasn’t come close to the mythical “one million buys” mark that Lesnar, Liddell, and Ortiz have hit, and that GSP, Silva and Penn have come close to.
The UFC can’t remain “the fastest growing sport in the world” when a fighter who can only draw a max of 700,000 buys (for a match that was being hyped as a can’t-miss blood feud) is the foundation of their company.
Winter is coming for the UFC. Their old, dependable draws will one day be no more, and if the current course of events continues, there won’t be enough star power to replace them.