By Adam Martin
This past weekend at UFC on FOX 9, for the eighth time in eight UFC fights, Urijah Faber was on a fight poster for a UFC card as one of the main three fights of the night — an absolute rarity for any sub-155 pound fighter. The card, which took place in Faber’s backyard of Sacramento, California, marked the fifth time Faber has either headlined or co-headlined a UFC event in the nearly three years he’s been with the promotion.
Not only is Faber the only sub-155′er to be featured on eight fight posters, but he’s also only one of three to be featured in five or more main or co-main events of UFC cards, along with UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo and UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
However, unlike Johnson, who has fought mostly on free TV, only Faber and Aldo have appeared in more than one pay-per-view main or co-main event, with Faber having headlined two thus far and Aldo three.
According to Wikipedia, there are currently 419 fighters signed to the UFC, not including the recently-added women’s strawweights. 126 of those fighters are part of the UFC featherweight, bantamweight, and flyweight divisions. Including women’s bantamweight fighters, 144 fighters currently signed to the UFC are part of the sub-155 pound weight classes.
My math skills aren’t great, but that should mean that 34% of UFC fighters are either 145, 135, or 125 pounds. And yet, for some reason, despite over a third of the roster fighting in these weight classes, only two of those 144 fighters have headlined two or more UFC pay-per-view cards, despite the UFC having featured 42 PPV events over the last three years since the little guys merged over from the WEC in late 2010 (not including UFC 124, which only featured lightweights and above).
How can this be?
I mean, it’s not like the little guys (and gals) are less exciting than the heavier weight classes. Sure, there’s more one-punch knockouts at the higher weights, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those weight divisions produce more exciting fights. In fact, since the sub-155 pound weight classes were introduced to UFC fans in December 2010, the majority of the post-fight bonuses have been won by these fighters.
It’s also not like the UFC isn’t doing it’s part to help build up these smaller fighters. The promotion has often featured them in the main events of its UFC on FOX cards, and a number of the little guys have opened up UFC pay-per-view cards. In addition, two seasons of the Ultimate Fighter have been dedicated to bantamweights and featherweights (TUF 14 and TUF 18), not to mention the first TUF Brazil season, which included 145-pounders.
And yet, it seems like the UFC is still having a hard time turning lighter-weight fighters into stars. Really, the only fighters under 155 pounds in the UFC who are recognizable stars to the average fan are Faber, Aldo, and UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. And the proof of that is that they’re the only ones who have headlined UFC PPV cards, even if the sales numbers haven’t always been great.
Of all the sub-155 pound fighters who have a chance at becoming a breakout star, I believe it’s UFC interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao. The guy is dangerous everywhere, currently riding a 31-fight unbeaten streak, and is one of the most exciting pound-for-pound fighters to watch. I believe his lack of English is holding him back, but if he can become more comfortable with the language, he’ll get even bigger — provided he’s still knocking cats out with spinning back kicks.
I also believe that Johnson can become a star for the UFC and eventually start to headline pay-per-views, especially if he continues to KO fighters with one punch like he did in the main event of UFC on FOX 9. I mean, it’s not like the UFC will want to keep putting Johnson on free TV forever; at some point, the promotion will want to get a bigger return on their investment and start having Johnson headline UFC PPV cards.
But that’s about all I can think of, at least as far as the sub-155 pound men are concerned (although there are a number of women I think the UFC can groom into stars). Yes, Chad Mendes, Cub Swanson, Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson — to name just a few — are tremendous talents, but are they on their way to headlining big PPV events? Probably not, even though they are all so skilled and fun to watch.
This is why, after submitting Michael McDonald in the co-main event of UFC on FOX 9, Faber is a shoe-in to fight the winner of UFC 169’s Cruz vs. Barao on a PPV later in 2014. This is despite the fact he has already lost to both men in the UFC. Surely, there has to be a deserving, fresh contender out there right?
Indeed, there are guys like Raphael Assuncao and Francisco Rivera who are inching their way up the ladder. But would these guys jump ahead of Faber for a title shot? Hell no, they wouldn’t, at least not if the UFC wants to keep putting the bantamweight title on PPV in the future. And it’s because the fans know and love Faber; the UFC knows and loves him as well, since he’s a near guaranteed draw and therefore less of a risk to put in a title fight, even if he’s not being booked for a fresh matchup.
Still, at some point, I’m sure the UFC will want their sub-155 pound divisions to operate like their heavier weight classes, where there are numerous contenders the promotion could slot into main events and still do well at the box office. And in due time, I think it’s possible this could happen, especially now with the influx of women fighters in the Octagon, which has created a newfound interest in the sport. Without question, the UFC will try and take advantage of that by pushing these women quickly and attempting to find the next Rousey out of the bunch.
As to why there just aren’t many “little stars” in the sport, I’m not really sure. In boxing, many of the most popular fighters in the world weigh less than 150, so you can’t fully chalk it up to a size-bias by combat sports enthusiasts. However, it is possible there is an inherent preference towards taller people in general by human beings, which might be one reason why the smaller weight classes aren’t headlining more PPVs. Because, to many people, there’s just something about watching shorter and lighter people fighting that they don’t like. Personally, I don’t agree with this line of thinking, but I know for a fact there are a lot of people who perceive smaller fighters as less powerful or less talented even though that’s not the case at all.
At the same time, though, I think the UFC can actually play up the image of a little 125-pound wrecking ball knocking his opponents out, just like Johnson did to Benavidez the other night, and push the fact that a sub-155 pounder is able to do what the heavyweights can do. So even though the word flyweight has made some people shrug their shoulders in the past, I believe the UFC can change this reaction, especially if they keep getting great finishes from their fighters.
In that sense, the athletes — not just the organization that employs them — also have a part to play in the promotion of their weight class as a PPV draw. But this won’t happen overnight. Just like it took time for the 155-pound weight class to headline multiple PPVs a year and be a reason for people to stay at home on a Saturday night, it will take time until the 125, 135, 145, and women’s divisions to do the same.
I want to see the smaller weight classes become more popular, because that’s a good thing for everyone in this business, including MMA writers. But I’m not oblivious to the fact that, for whatever reason, they just don’t seem to have the star power that fighters in heavier weight divisions do. And that’s why — to bring this piece back full circle — I’m fully expecting Faber to get a third UFC bantamweight title shot and fifth overall Zuffa title shot in the coming months and for it to headline a marquee UFC PPV event. Because at the end of the day, the UFC is a PPV-driven business, and Faber is one of the few little guys who is going to sell — for now, at least.