Even with value of titles diminishing, middleweight division can’t wait for GSP

Georges St-Pierre’s statement earlier this week that he would be ready to fight after October is just the latest in what has to be a frustrating period for those waiting for the kind of big fights that propel the UFC into mainstream consciousness.

After two straight banner years, in particular a 2016 that saw a record for any sport of five different shows doing 1 million buys on pay-per-view, we are in early May and UFC’s combined pay-per-view buys for the year are closer to 800,000.

But unlike 2014, when UFC business took a hit due to a high rate of injuries, this year has been very different.

This year the culprit has included retirements of big names like Dan Henderson, Brock Lesnar (after a failed drug test), Urijah Faber, Miesha Tate and — while not official — in all likelihood Ronda Rousey.

The other, even more significant culprit is that the biggest active names aren’t fighting. Conor McGregor is chasing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and holding up a lightweight division filled with talent. Jon Jones is still suspended, although looks to be returning in late July. St-Pierre’s return — which at first people hoped would come in late 2016, and then for July for what would have been the year’s first true marquee money fight with Michael Bisping for the welterweight title — is now sounding realistically like November.

Nate Diaz is fighting in the media back-and-forth with Dana White. Neither he nor brother Nick are fighting. CM Punk helped draw a solid buy rate last year at UFC 203, and he’s had nothing new scheduled, with the flip side of the problem. UFC probably feels they can’t viably use him because he’s not a good enough fighter, but doesn’t want to release him because he would likely draw well for Bellator.

And the biggest issue of all is the inherent problem with an individual sport where business and sport contradict each other due to the fan base.

While it’s an argument that has raged from the beginning of time in combat sports, the UFC’s big successes and occasional failures in recent years has taught us that what is a key aspect of every major sport — the quest for the championships — matters little to the majority of MMA fans. Sure, the most vocal hardcore base is cares about the meritocracy, but they can’t pay the bills for a company that has gigantic interest payments due to the enormity of debt in the billion purchase price. The UFC needs fights that big scores of people are willing to pay to see, and the promotion needs to draw ratings that keep the television industry pumping huge money back.

In a nutshell, the comparison of two specific fighters gives you the issue.

Demetrious Johnson may be the best fighter currently in the sport, and — as far as not having any discernible major weaknesses — he and Jon Jones are likely the two best fighters MMA has ever seen. Leading up to his April 15 title defense against Wilson Reis, Johnson was talked of as being the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He was attempting to tie one of the sport’s most important records against Reis by recording his tenth title defense, a record held by Anderson Silva.

Johnson had already run through almost every top contender in his division. In a terrain where dominant athletes usually thrive, the general public hasn’t much cared. Johnson never gets into trouble. As champion, Johnson has never had his Fedor scary moment like with Kazuyuki Fujita where he was almost beaten in his prime via knockout, nor his Jon Jones moment with Alexander Gustafsson where the dominant champion squeaked by in a close decision, nor his Anderson Silva moment with Chael Sonnen where he needed a late submission to avoid what was going to be a one-sided decision loss at UFC 117.

He just dominates the flyweight division.

The result in his historic fight with Reis was the second lowest rated FOX special in history. It would have been the lowest had it not been for a FOX broadcast last August, Carlos Condit vs. Demian Maia, that was preempted in 15 key markets for NFL preseason football.

Johnson, when called on to headline pay-per-view shows, has usually drawn just over 100,000 buys.

Meanwhile, Nate Diaz has a 19-11 record, has never held a championship, and his lone title shot against then-champion Benson Henderson was not even competitive. Yet he and McGregor have drawn the two biggest pay-per-view numbers in UFC history, both garnering over 1.3 million buys. He’s made so much money during those fights he doesn’t have to compete again. Even though he’s done little to truly deserve it, Diaz probably could walk in and get a title shot at welterweight tomorrow. And if McGregor ever comes back to defend the lightweight title, Diaz — even if he were to lose at welterweight — could walk right back and get that shot at well.

And none of that seems to matter to him. Given the current climate, it’s hard to argue where he’s wrong in his thinking.

When the UFC exploded in 2005 and 2006, there were four total championships: Heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight. Lightweight didn’t return until late 2006. In those days it seemed like every fan knew every champion. If there was a title at stake, it seemed like a lock that there would be 300,000 or more buys on pay-per-view. While the right personality mix meant more than a championship, the title belts and being champion were a draw on their own.

Today, with 11 divisions — and the tease of a possible twelfth with women’s flyweight — along with constant teases of interim titles, only the fans who follow the sport closely can name the champions and the top contenders. We have very real contenders like Tony Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Yoel Romero, Robert Whittaker, Edson Barboza and Luke Rockhold all waiting for shots. On the flip side, we’ve had non-contenders like Germaine de Randamie and Holly Holm thrust into a PPV main event (UFC 208) to create a title in a nearly nonexistent division (women’s featherweight) because UFC simply had no championship fight they could put on early in the year.

But in the big picture, it’s increasingly no longer about championships primarily, it’s about big personalities. Unfortunately, the lessons of this year are that the big personalities don’t care enough about championships. And the casual fan, the one that makes the difference between a struggling and flourishing company, doesn’t care unless it’s the big personalities in championship fights. The big personalities make so much money that they don’t need to fight. And even if they win a title, they aren’t quick to defend them. More and more commonly if they do, they’re looking for big personalities as opponents rather than the top contenders.

McGregor won two titles, was stripped of one, and right now there’s no telling when he’ll defend the other. St-Pierre voluntarily vacated his belt as a champion, was gifted a title fight in a different weight class for his comeback, and has delayed it to the point it’s holding up one of the sport’s most interesting divisions. Daniel Cormier won a title, but was never truly accepted by the public as champion. On whole, people still believe Jones is the best while the prime of his career has been derailed by a suspension and legal matters.

Fighters are paid by the box office, so it makes all the sense in the world why a Bisping would prefer to fight St-Pierre instead of Romero, because it’s an enormous difference in pay. But from a sports standpoint, the middleweight division — with the legitimate contenders possibly now having to wait until 2018 before any of them gets a shot — drops the already declining value of the championship belt.

The UFC has tried, without success, to put together a fight to create an interim lightweight championship, with Ferguson against either Nurmagomedov or Nate Diaz. Given McGregor’s situation, this is a time with a unique circumstance, where an interim belt makes sense.

Whereas in the middleweight division, the UFC needs to get Bisping to defend against Romero or Whittaker. November is too long to wait for a St-Pierre fight. There will always be an opponent somewhere out there, whether it be Bisping, Tyron Woodley, Anderson Silva, or one of the Diaz Brothers, who St-Pierre can draw big with when he’s ready. But it’s not right to put a division on hold until that day comes.

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