Will Brock Lesnar's Impending Return Save the UFC's Dismal 2018?

Matthew Ryder@@matthewjryderFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2018

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 07:  Brock Lesnar confronts Daniel Cormier in their UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 226 event inside T-Mobile Arena on July 7, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The UFC's 2018 is in bad need of saving.

Don't think so?

Consider this: Conor McGregor hasn't been inside a cage for almost two years; Ronda Rousey is now a WWE darling and probably won't fight in MMA again; Georges St-Pierre is on indefinite medical hiatus; and Jon Jones is whatever and wherever Jon Jones is whenever he's not allowed to fight.

Bellator has been chipping away at the UFC roster with a steady stream of known free-agent acquisitions.

Two of the biggest stars the UFC has had, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, are gearing up for a third fight, and it won't happen in the Octagon. An intriguing offering such as Daniel Cormier's heavyweight title win over Stipe Miocic last Saturday made virtually no waves in the mainstream sports media space.

Pay-per-view numbers have been horrendous—January's UFC 220 is the reported high-water mark so far with 380,000 buys, making it slightly more popular than a 2009 non-title headliner between Rich Franklin and Vitor Belfort, per Tapology. Some reports suggest that even selling their TV rights was touch-and-go for a period of time.

That really says it all. Things are not going well this year for the worldwide leader in MMA.

Which is why, as Cormier paraded around with his two world titles at the end of UFC 226, pro wrestling icon and former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar found his way into the cage to make a good old-fashioned scene.

Lesnar, hulking over Cormier and shoving, swearing and spitting like a lunatic, advised that he would soon be coming for the title. He took shots at Miocic and Francis Ngannou along the way, then smashed Joe Rogan's hand and microphone into a camera before storming off.

Depending on one's perspective, it was either a cringeworthy stamp on an otherwise fine night, or a dream come true and the sign of the next great heavyweight fight on the horizon.

In any event, it raised one major question: Can Lesnar save the UFC's 2018?

The short answer is: probably not.

When the same shrinking pool of hardcore fans are the only ones buying your most premium product, you're going to have a hard time saving an entire year on the back of one fighter. 

Complicating things further is the reality that Lesnar didn't enter the USADA testing pool until July 3 (h/t Bloody Elbow), which means he's not even eligible to fight until January. That essentially means Lesnar himself wouldn't be saving the UFC this year, but instead the idea of Lesnar fighting next year would be enough to drum up some interest.

Sorry. That's not going to happen.

An even further challenge is Lesnar's ongoing status as a WWE champion—not just an active member of Vince McMahon's stable of performers but one of the top draws in the company.

Lesnar will appear at WWE shows between now and the time he returns to the UFC (although, if pro wrestling fans are to be believed, he's not appearing enough), so he won't even be a viable marketing tool in MMA until he drops his Universal Championship and recommits to legitimate sport full time.

How then will the UFC twist Lesnar's return into a revenue generator this year? By sharing social media clips of his shoving Cormier? By talking about a return that's a lifetime away in MMA terms? By hoping Lesnar promotes his return on WWE programming somehow?

And even if any of those paths are taken, do any of them make the UFC money in 2018? Increase interest in 2018?

They don't.

It's a tough spot for the UFC to be in.

It knows it doesn't have a reliable pay-per-view draw on the roster and that parachuting Lesnar back into the title picture is a totally viable, probably successful, solution to that problem.

The UFC almost can't afford to resist the temptation to bring him back, and it would be borderline financial malfeasance if they did resist.

But what they're getting in Lesnar won't bring them out of their 2018 doldrums. The sport is in a downtime, and the numbers and perception bear that out. It's going to take more to turn things around in the second half of the year.

                    

Follow me on Twitter @matthewjryder

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