UFC: How They're Building the Next Generation of Superstars

Matthew RyderFeatured ColumnistOctober 3, 2012

Dec 30, 2011; Las Vegas, NV, USA; UFC fighter Alexander Gustafsson celebrates against Vladimir Matyushenko (not pictured) during a light featherweight bout at UFC 141 at the MGM Grand Garden event center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Anderson Silva. Georges St-Pierre. Chael Sonnen. Jon Jones. Rashad Evans.

37. 31. 35. 25. 33.

Those are the top five pay-per-view draws in the UFC. And those are the ages of each guy.

That’s one big draw under the age of 30.

Oh boy.

Might be time to get some new blood for the marquee. People aren’t that interested in a UFC Senior’s Tour.

But how can the UFC do it? How do they develop new stars, develop guys that people know and will eventually be willing to pay money to see as champions and challengers?

Truthfully, they’re already doing a far better job than many realize. And it’s happening almost out of necessity.

While the network television deal to broadcast across three television platforms owned by FOX has been much-maligned, the one thing that has consistently delivered has been the UFC on FUEL series.

Five times the promotion has gone to FUEL TV, and five times it’s provided the exact type of delightful violence that has fans in their glee.

FUEL shows, despite being difficult to find sometimes, get fans going. They’ve been filled with violent knockouts and slick submissions, and they’ve given people something to talk about.

Sure, FX shows have been a nice place to showcase guys “in the mix,” and the big network shows have given people the chance to meet the men they’ll be paying $60 to watch within a couple of months, but FUEL has been the true beacon of light.

However, aside from being exciting, the shows have helped create momentum for younger stars.

Jake Ellenberger showed in his hometown that, at 27 and with more than 30 fights to his name, he deserved to be mentioned as part of the new breed when he beat Diego Sanchez.

Alex Gustafsson put on a clinic while FUEL viewers discussed the merits of the 25-year-old as a possible title contender and breakout international star.

The Korean Zombie was always fun to watch, but when he wiped out Dustin Poirier on FUEL, he quickly became a 25-year-old title contender with a fanbase and some very cool merchandise.

Chris Weidman was a guy who hardcore fans knew to be special, but when he utterly demolished Mark Munoz on FUEL, he became the odds-on favorite to get a crack at middleweight gold before he turns 29.

Stefan Struve wore out an unsinkable Stipe Miocic—another hot prospect—on his way to an exciting finish this past weekend, again while FUEL viewers got to see it happen and ponder how much damage a 24-year-old seven-footer might do in the heavyweight division going forward.

Five FUEL events. All exciting, all producing big wins for guys in their 20s.

That’s how the UFC has to build their stars.

They’ve been putting young, hungry guys on FUEL and getting results. If they start moving those individuals to FOX shows after such showings, where millions will see them, then they’ll start building stars for the future.

It’s not 2004. Exposure as a talented mixed martial artist is easier to come by, and with the UFC pushing 30 events a year, those talented mixed martial artists have more chances to break into the promotion than ever before.

Taking those kids and exposing them as the UFC has been will allow people to see them and allow the promotion cash in on them over the long term.

For all the things that people have complained about in this first year of the “FOX Era,” that’s one thing the UFC should be credited with. They’ve done a great job of building exciting events on FUEL, and of getting exposure for their young stars there. Riding that momentum properly is the next step, and if they do it, they’ll never be without pay-per-view draws again.

Jake Ellenberger. Alexander Gustafsson. Chan Sung Jung. Chris Weidman. Stefan Struve.

27. 25. 25. 28. 24.

Those are the guys who are the future of the business. And those are their ages—to say nothing of the five champions who presently hold gold in their 20s.

Perhaps the future of the UFC is brighter than people realize.