The UFC’s Star Problem

written by Brent Todd

The UFC has been around for over twenty years.  In that time, not only has the promotion fought hard to survive, but also to show that the sport of mixed martial arts is mainstream and gain acceptance.  One of the ways that it has done this throughout the years is with the emergence of stars time and time again.

There are a few greats that will always be remembered for individual sports.  Most people can name at least one famous athlete from nearly any major sport that has aired on network television.  The UFC has seen stars come and go and now we are in a time where star power seems to be dwindling.

The fighters who were the pay per view kings are no longer there.  Many of the hardcore fans will lay the blame on how many events the UFC is putting on each year.  These fans are quick to forget the days when there would be months between UFC events and if there happened to be a PRIDE event in the same month we were like a kid at Christmas.

The issue isn’t the number of events as the UFC is trying to expand into several markets.  We have witnessed three seasons of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil, one of China and several other versions of country versus country.  All in the hopes of creating a fan base outside of the US.

While we don’t know how valuable these expanding markets are, they obviously have some return on investment within the company.  It is why Fight Pass was created.  So that fights in different parts of the world could air at a normal time there and stream live to those in the US.

Which leads to the issue of lack of star power and the question of how to create new stars.  The obvious answer is that the UFC cannot manufacture a new star fighter overnight and it takes time.  So how to solve this problem?

Have fewer fighters.

That isn’t a typo.  I didn’t mean to write have fewer fights, no I meant have fewer fighters.  Currently the UFC has 502 fighters under contract according to their website.  The divisions range in size from 23 for the women’s bantamweight all the way up to 103 for welterweight.

Now one thing to remember is that the UFC is a business and is in the business of making money.  That is their primary goal.  Their secondary is to put on fights amongst the best fighters in the world.  This is important.  More stars equals higher ratings or buys equals higher income.  Simple as that.

With that said, and no offense to these fighters, but is a guy who is internally ranked at 50 out of 103 in the men’s welterweight division really going to bring in any sort of income to the company?  Doubtful.  Can a guy who is ranked 50 fight and make his way up to the top?  Yes, but not in any sort of reasonable timeframe.  Why?  The closer he gets to the top 10, the more difficult the fights and more fighters he would have to fight to move up a spot. 

So the solution?  Massive roster cuts.  This would initially cause a huge uproar, but the UFC should cut their roster down to 300, giving 30 spots per weight class including the new women’s 115lb division.  No more than 30 spots per weight class, and arguably 25 would be better as it gives you some wiggle room for new signees, TUF, etc…

Why this magic number of 300 fighters?  It’s simple math.  Right now the UFC is putting on around 35 events a year.  That works out to 770 fighters fighting on a card in the year or about each fighter fighting 2.5 times a year.  With the current 502 fighters, the average fighter fights 1.5 times a year.

What makes this so important?  Remember a star isn’t born overnight.  And fighting five times in two years is much better than fighting three times in two years.  While a lot of people will dismiss Bellator, their tournament in forcing fighters to fight three times in a season is amazing for the fighters star power that win.  The more times a fighter fights, the more the media will talk about him, the more his star power can rise.

The issue of course is the expanding markets and trying to find a star or two for each of those.  There’s a reason why Vitor has fought in Brazil for his last three fights and while many will claim it has to do with his TRT usage, it also has to do with him being a major draw on television down there.  Again this equals money for the UFC.

By limiting the roster size the fans can follow along much easier.  Look at the other major sports like NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB.  Because they are team based, the number of teams is limited and then subset within each team are the players.  The UFC has weight classes and within each of those are the fighters.  It’s not an exact comparison, but it works for this argument.  A casual fan of fighting should be able to name a fighter in most of the weight classes, much like a casual fan of football can name a player or coach on a team.

The UFC for the most part is good about matching up similar guys against similar guys.  A fighter coming off a loss tends to get paired up with another guy coming off a loss.  A fighter who is ranked 18 typically fights another fighter who is ranked between 11 and 20 and so on.  By limiting the spots to 30, it is perfectly conceivable that a fighter fighting the average amount of five times in two years (see above) who started off ranked 30th could move into the top 10.  And all those fans that watched this fighter from his start at the bottom all the way to the top, well that’s how you create a star.

The major downside of cutting the roster by 200+ fighters is that the competition would immediately be able to reap the benefits.  Promotions like Bellator, WSOF, RFA, and Titan are all duking it out stateside to see who is the number two promotion, while promotions like Cage Warriors and One FC are securing their foothold in Europe and Asia respectively.

There would likely be some big names cut with this process, but we have seen that the UFC is not shy in cutting fighters that aren’t delivering.  Fighters like Jake Shields, Yushin Okami, Rampage, Kongo and Jon Fitch are some of the more recent ones.  But realistically, cutting 200 fighters, the majority of those being cut are guys we “might” have heard of because they were on the losing end of a highlight reel finish.

Could another promotion stake a claim that they have a better individual division than the UFC with all these cuts and signees?  Maybe, but doubtful.  While WSOF has a great welterweight division, can they argue that it is better than UFC’s?  No.  Bellator has a fantastic lightweight division, but most people will only say it has two stars (Alvarez and Chandler) and that the UFC still has more star power than they do.  The only division that has ever been better outside of the UFC in the last decade was heavyweight.  Currently the UFC is home to 33 heavyweight fighters so losing three guys isn’t going to make another promotion have a better heavyweight division.

We also have to look at The Ultimate Fighter which is used as a tool to develop new stars.  And while stateside this might be somewhat of a false statement, the international editions this is not.  The UFC needs to look at TUF in two parts.  The first being that it is a reality show that generates money for them.  The second being that after the show airs, they have some new talent to work with.

Again, the downside for the UFC is the promotion of a fighter only to be cut and then signed by another organization.  Could that fighter make a big impact at that promotion?  Absolutely.  But would that impact have anything to do with his time on TUF?  Not likely.  This is a case where the UFC looks at the fighter during TUF as someone providing ratings for the show and that is it.

In the end, cutting the roster down will help fans be able to follow an entire division.  It will also allow for more talent rich cards.  Even if outside of the main and co-main event the rest of the card is filled with guys ranking in the 20-30 range, that is still better than seeing guys who are ranked 80-90 fight.