Former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar retired following his first-round loss to Alistair Overeem at UFC 141. Lesnar is the biggest pay-per-view attraction in UFC history. In a single calendar year he headlined two million-selling pay-per-view events, a feat only matched by Mike Tyson and Manny Pacquiao. Now he's gone and the UFC's number-two draw Georges St. Pierre is out with injuries for most of 2012. Who does the UFC have waiting in the wings, ready to take over the throne?
Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is clearly the man the UFC is banking on in 2012.
Jones headlined three of the seven top selling UFC pay-per-views in 2011 (that's assuming that UFC 141 performs up to expectations) and his UFC 133 bout with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson did over 500,000 buys. According to the Wrestling Observer's (subscription required) latest analysis of Google searches for fighters, boxers and pro-wrestlers, Jon Jones was the #10 most popular fighter in the U.S. last year, up from #41 in 2010.
Jones told Josh Gross yesterday that he might fight as many as four times in 2012. This is a big change from Jones. After his UFC 140 win over Lyoto Machida, he was talking about taking four or five months off. If Jones can maintain the higher level of activity without injuring himself too much in training, that's the best thing for both him and the UFC.
Dave Meltzer spoke to MMA Nation's Luke Thomas about Jones' potential in 2012 and beyond and identified his biggest weakness:
This year, let's face it, Jon Jones is gonna carry the company. Georges [St. Pierre] is gonna be out for most of the year, Anderson Silva's probably only gonna fight once, maybe twice and he's no matter what, Anderson's getting old and Anderson's a reflex guy. I'm not saying that he's gonna be done but when you get a guy who relies on incredible, incredible reflexes and they start getting in their late 30s, look at Roy Jones Jr. as an example. You can fall from the top pretty quick. Jon Jones is a young guy and he's gonna have to carry the company. The problem with Jon Jones is he desperately needs a rival and I don't know who that guy is. That adversary that really brings it out where you can't wait for this fight, the two top guys that people talk about and Jon Jones is still not quite at the level of a draw that people might have hoped so it's gonna be a struggle but I think the exposure on FOX helps in a lot of ways but there's a mainstream thing that Jon Jones may be years away from being able to get or may never get that Brock Lesnar already had and that no one else in the UFC, even St. Pierre really had.
Meltzer is talking around a problem that has been diagnosed for a while: the UFC hasn't figured out how to make stars in MMA. The popular satirical humor web site The Onion had a brief blurb this week called,"UFC Fan Knows What All Those Guys' Names Are", here's an excerpt:
Sources confirmed Monday that area resident Kyle Nickerson apparently knows the actual names of all those guys in the UFC and that, to him, they don't all sort of run together. "I know maybe four of those guys: Brock Lesnar, Kent Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, and the guy with the mohawk-but Kyle knows all of them, even the ones from that reality show," Nickerson's friend Eric Heijl told reporters...
They're not trying to analyze the UFC's business model, but they have done it pretty succinctly. The UFC has very successfully marketed the promotion into the mainstream of the American consciousness, but they haven't really figured out how to build the superstars that take their business to the next level. In a post-Brock Lesnar world, they're going to have to.