UFC 209 was one of the most underwhelming events in recent memory and it has some fans questioning the sport’s future. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a fight with a name that’s really recognizable to casual fans and that’s exactly what the UFC needs if it’s going to be successful in the future. The old guard of MMA stars are rapidly aging (or retiring), with most in their mid-to-late thirties. If the sport wants to keep growing, it needs faces that can connect with the general public—and it needs them soon.
These days just about everyone is at least familiar with Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar, and Ronda Rousey but casual audiences would likely struggle to name any additional fighters. UFC might have been hoping to elevate the likes of Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson into household names, but the product has failed to live up to the hype.
Many were looking for the headlining fight of UFC 209 to potentially be one of the best fights of the year but found themselves sorely disappointed by the outcome. The event featured a Welterweight Championship rematch between Woodley and Thompson in what was expected to a highlight of a match. Instead, fans ended up with a “boring, painfully slow rematch” that did little to cement either fighter as the next potential star.
This dearth of big-name fighters has become a major problem for the UFC as of late. Miesha Tate retired from MMA in November 2016 after UFC 205. And after Ronda Rousey was soundly handled by Amanda Nunes at UFC 207, there’s no telling when she’ll step back into the Octagon. Then Brock Lesnar made his second retirement official in February 2017. It’s been pointed out that the top 10 pay-per-view events in UFC history have all included Conor McGregor, Lesnar, or Rousey and no fight card since UFC 183 (back in 2015) has managed to get more than half a million buys. MMA needs its biggest stars to step up but the options are dwindling with few new prospects in sight.
Of the stars available, the most obvious choice is Conor McGregor but he’s on a break until at least mid-2017 as he and his long-time girlfriend prepare for their first child. The Notorious MMA is the most marketable name the UFC has and he knows it, even going so far as to ask to be part of the promotion’s ownership group. He’s a rare competitor where his bite is just as good as his bark. McGregor has an 85% KO/TKO rate and lands 6.02 strikes per minute, just a few of the reasons he’s one of the most feared (and most entertaining) competitors in MMA. But you can’t build an entire industry around one man and that’s why UFC are doing everything they can to either develop or bring back bigger names.
In what can only be seen as a desperation move, the UFC is bringing Georges St-Pierre out of his three-year sabbatical to take on Michael Bisping in a battle for the Middleweight Championship. While it’s definitely exciting to see the return of St-Pierre, many see it as UFC struggling to bring back casual fans. St-Pierre is now 35 years old while Bisping himself is 38. The sport has to find exciting young stars that are able to connect with larger audiences if it wants to rise above the current plateau where it finds itself.
Luckily, there might be a new star on the horizon. Mackenzie Dern is a 23-year-old jiu-jitsu champion who not only knows how to work a crowd, but knows how to fight. She’s already being heralded as the next Ronda Rousey but only time will tell if she has what it takes to be a UFC champion. There are still no current plans to see Dern on a card just yet, but it’s a possibility that we could see her in the Octagon sooner, rather than later. Frankly, she can’t come soon enough, because UFC needs all the star-power it can get. Conor McGregor can’t do it alone.