In the end, it was fitting that Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre left the party together.
The Octagon’s two biggest stars began their respective title reigns a little more than a month apart in 2006 and, though St-Pierre’s was briefly interrupted by Matt Serra, they’ll likely always be linked in our minds.
But if 2013 is remembered as the year that UFC lost both of its most bankable champions at consecutive pay-per-view events, then 2014 shapes up as a serious rebuilding year for the fight company.
Silva and St-Pierre leave behind a fairly massive hole, not only in the fabric of the sport but also in the UFC’s bottom line.
The dominant story of the next 365 days may well be the organization’s search for someone who can possibly fill it.
The leading candidates? Here’s a status update on some of them: Heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez is out until late next year (shoulder), lightweight champ Anthony Pettis is out for four to six months (knee) and featherweight champ Jose Aldo is nearing the end of a six-month layoff (foot).
But wait, it gets worse: In the wake of his UFC 168 win over Silva, middleweight titlist Chris Weidman revealed he could need knee surgery. Meanwhile, Nick Diaz is still happily retired, and the rumors of a Brock Lesnar return grow colder by the day.
All told, it adds up to a lot of uncertainty and fear that our sport could experience another season of sluggish ratings and bleak PPV buyrates. To keep 2014 from seeming like a very long year, the UFC will likely have to lean on two fighters who so far have been slow to connect with fans: Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey.
It goes without saying that the organization will need both those champions to be a good deal more active than they were in 2013, when each fought only twice. Jones needs to have a 2014 that more closely resembles his 2011, when he went 4-0 and won the 205-pound title. Rousey won't have the luxury of spending next year out making movies.
The good news, if there is any, is that both of the promotion's last superstars left standing already have fights coming up. It's possible that could give the UFC a nice running start headed into the new year.
Rousey arguably emerged from UFC 168 as the new face of MMA, and matchmakers (or maybe just the UFC's accountants) weren’t about to let her momentum languish. At the post-fight press conference, Dana White already had a poster printed up for her UFC 170 bout against Sara McMann eight weeks from now.
Rousey has the full complement of attributes needed to be an all-time great, but she’s already talked openly about taking some more time off after that fight. Somehow, UFC brass will have to convince her to stick around.
For his part, Jones returns after nearly a seven-month break to take on Glover Teixeira at UFC 172 in April. Assuming he wins that—and can stay healthy—he’ll rematch with Alexander Gustafsson and then maybe take on Daniel Cormier near the end of next year.
Provided Cormier gets past Rashad Evans, of course.
Granted, having Jones and Rousey carry the flag is going to put a slightly different spin on the UFC's marketability, but the company could do a lot worse than to claw its way through next year with them as its top draws.
Where Silva and St-Pierre were largely beloved by MMA fans (especially those in their home countries), some fans have struggled to accept Rousey and Jones into their hearts. It's possible that next year a significant portion of viewers will tune in to their bouts not to celebrate their greatness but hoping to see one or both of them lose.
Whatever works, though, right?
With a cadre of young talent seemingly a win or two from a breakthrough (guys like Conor McGregor, Gunnar Nelson, Dustin Poirier and Khabib Nurmagomedov) and a group of salty veterans (Urijah Faber, Robbie Lawler, Matt Brown and Chad Mendes) on the road to reasserting themselves, any current or future crisis of leadership will surely pass.
For all its flaws, the UFC is nothing if not resilient. It has survived worse than this, and with the embarrassment of talent-richness that is its current roster, chances are somebody is going to step up.
With Silva and St-Pierre gone, 2014 may turn out to be an awkward year, but the party is far from over.
As the UFC president himself might say, somebody must still want to be an (expletive) fighter.
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