"So you want to be a fighter?"
The motto for the long-running reality series The Ultimate Fighter is catchy, but, frankly, no one just wants to be a fighter.
How about: So you want to be a star?
Better yet, a superstar?
The difference between the middle-tier fighters in the UFC and the elite is a wide void, separated by millions of dollars collectively. The top fighters are paid more, sponsored by bigger, better brands, and more highly publicized.
But there is also a gap between the stars of the UFC and the promotion's superstars.
The division between the two categories is not as great as the division between the stars altogether and the rest of the UFC roster, but there is still a difference between being Anderson Silva and being Vitor Belfort.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand whether a fighter is a superstar or just a star is by examining his or her pay-per-view track record.
If a fighter is sent to headline, or even just fight, on a free card, that fighter has not achieved superstar status (the lone exception to that rule is the heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos who fought in the main event of UFC on Fox 1).
Here is an example:
Vitor Belfort has been in three PPV headliners since rejoining the UFC back in Sept. 2009. He's 1-2 in those fights, with losses against middleweight champion Anderson Silva and light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
Since his loss to Jones at UFC 152, Belfort has headlined two UFC on FX events, which is at least a mild relegation, and displays that he is not the superstar he once was.
"The Phenom" is huge in Brazil, though, and both of his most recent wins have come in front of his fellow countrymen. But superstars don't headline free cards. When he has headlined pay-per-view events—against Rich Franklin, Anderson Silva and Jon Jones—the buy-rates have been strong. But if the UFC thought he was the primary reason for the buys, they wouldn't be so eager to throw him on FX cards.
For what it's worth, Belfort's fight against Rich Franklin (back when Franklin was still a top middleweight) did over 300,000 buys (according to Wrestling Observer Newsletter), while his fights against Jones and Silva did far more. His fight against Franklin is a more telling figure since Jones and Silva sell PPV's no matter who they are matched against.
Here's another example:
Benson Henderson, the UFC lightweight champion, has fought on three pay-per-views in his UFC career, winning all three of those fights (he's undefeated in the UFC). But, as the 155-pound champion, he has headlined just one PPV event, with his last two title defenses coming on free cards.
"Bendo," champion or not, is hardly a superstar. In his rematch with Frankie Edgar at UFC 150, the PPV broadcast drew just 190,000 buys.
Are Vitor Belfort and Benson Henderson MMA superstars?
Henderson is set to headline UFC 164 against TJ Grant, which will mark his return to PPV for just the second time out of four title defense opportunities.
It's tempting (if not easy) to mistake Henderson and Belfort for superstars—Henderson is a champion, Belfort scores plenty of highlight reel knockouts. But neither quite make the leap into that tier. They're stars, sure, but take a look at what makes a superstar in terms of the PPV aspect.
Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Jose Aldo, and Ronda Rousey are the only current UFC champions never to fight for or defend their titles on a free UFC event.
Here's what they average in title fights when they headline PPV's:
• Georges St. Pierre: 689,000 buys
• Anderson Silva: 490,000 buys
• Jon Jones: 531,667 buys
• Jose Aldo: 272,500 buys
• Ronda Rousey: 450,000 buys
Let's take a look at the other champions, who have fought on free television at least once:
• Cain Velasquez: 745,000 buys (excludes UFC 160, buy-rate for that event still pending)
• Benson Henderson: 257,000 buys
• Renan Barao: 230,000 buys
• Dominick Cruz: 320,000 buys
• Demetrious Johnson: N/A
Obviously, Jose Aldo is the odd man out in the top list, while Cain Velasquez serves that role in the bottom list.
Aldo struggles to get the buys the other four listed receive, and that brings his superstar status into question. But the fact that he is never put on free television says a lot about him. Also, his division is still developing and is not yet as popular as the original weight classes, which is another factor that hurts his popularity, at least to some extent (more on that later).
Meanwhile, Velasquez headlined the highly-successful UFC on Fox 1, which disqualified him for the top list and, if the "No Free Event" rule is in place, he can't be a superstar, right?
Wrong, he's the exception, and, for the record, so is dos Santos. The UFC needed a huge main event to headline that card, and it lead to almost six million viewers.
Competing in the main event or main card of a free event does not mean a fighter is not a contender or a star. It simply means he or she is not yet a superstar. In order to achieve that status, one must have the PPV numbers to back it up.
But weight classes also play a role in PPV billings, like it or not. They also play a large role in a fighter's likelihood in becoming a superstar.
It's the way of the sporting world, more often than not.
Fans enjoy the MLB power-hitters like Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, and Chris Davis. They don't enjoy contact hitters nearly as much. Tony Parker is one of the top point guards in the NBA, but LeBron James jerseys are the far hotter sell.
In the UFC, something similar is happening; the fans pay much more attention to the bigger weight classes. That's simply how it goes in combat sports. Fans want the heavyweights, not the flyweights.
Even look back at boxing over the years and a similar trend is apparent. Boxers such as Muhammad Ali, George Frazier, Mike Tyson, and Joe Louis, all former heavyweight champions, are some of the sport's biggest stars.
And who is the biggest superstar in UFC history? Brock Lesnar, the former heavyweight champion.
Who are the biggest stars now? Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones, and Cain Velasquez, all 170-pounds or bigger.
The lighter weight classes are still attempting to assimilate into the UFC framework, as is apparent by the popularity that the original weight classes garner, except perhaps for lightweight.
Of course, Ronda Rousey and Jose Aldo have gained strong fan bases, but the UFC has heavily promoted each, while giving each PPV headliners.
Lighter champions such as Renan Barao, Dominick Cruz, and Demetrious Johnson, as well as the entire flyweight, bantamweight, and featherweight divisions, will need more attention from fans before any lighter fighter can break into the superstar level.
And the UFC executives are trying to garner more attention for the lighter guys by putting them on free cards. If they were superstars, their fights would come with a price. If those fighters could draw strong PPV numbers, they'd headline major events.
But they aren't, and they can't. Not yet.
Leave that to the Silvas, the St. Pierres of the UFC—the superstars.
All PPV buy-rates courtesy of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter