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By Alvin Benjamin Carter III, MMA Torch Specialist
The Ultimate Fighting Championship has introduced a host of lighter weight divisions over the past few years, but there seems to be a problem with effective star power in terms of having a fight card headlined by any bout below lightweight. Even the lightweight division started to lose its luster when Frankie Edgar only fought B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard for almost two years.
Even then, buyrates of events headlined by Frankie Edgar capped at 570,000, which was for his UFC 118 match in Boston, Mass., against Penn. His next headlining bout with Gray Maynard at UFC 125 in Las Vegas, Nev., had a buyrate of only 270,000. Their UFC 136 rubber match was even lower with a buyrate of 225,000. The numbers picked up when Edgar fought Ben Henderson at UFC 144, where he lost his title to "Bendo" in Japan in front of 375,000 pay-per-view buying fans, only to see the numbers sink again with the lowest Edgar headlined bout - the UFC 150 rematch with Henderson. It had a buyrate of 190,000.
Clearly the issue with the lightweight division is rematches. The numbers seem to spiral after fans have seen the bout once or twice. That might have also been a reflection on the 155 lbs. talent pool at the time. Now, there has been an influx of fighters and some other interesting match ups, not mention that Penn might be returning to lighweight before he retires for the umpteenth time (I will still pay to see him fight.)
The problem is not even just about lighter weight fighters headlining events. It is getting fans to respect the speed and technical ability that often comes with smaller fighters mixing it up (even the “brawl-tastic” Korean Zombie Jung Chan-Sung landed a submission via twister).
Moving down to the featherweights, it is clear that Jose Aldo is a rock star as far as talent is concerned. His pay-per-view numbers are not bad at all, but they are not near the 500,000 mark. His first headlining fight on pay-per-view was actually WEC 48 against Urijah Faber. The buyrate was 190,000, but that was Zuffa trying out something new. Aldo's two UFC headlining buyrates were 235,000 for UFC 142 (against Chad Mendes in Brazil) and 330,000 for UFC 156 (against Frankie Edgar in Las Vegas). Aldo's upcoming UFC 163 title defense against Anthony “Showtime” Pettis might hit the 500,000 mark, but it is not likely.
Bantamweights are where things really start getting murky. Sidelined UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominck Cruz defended his title against Urijah Faber at UFC 132 to a buyrate of 350,000, which is excellent for 135 lbs. headliner. When Cruz was injured, Urijah Faber and Renan Barao fought for the interim title at UFC 149. The buyrate was 235,000, showing that Dominck Cruz's "star power" was poised to help the division gain traction.
All of these buyrates do not rest solely on the shoulders of the headliners, but they are a huge factor. This may be why flyweights have not been given a pay-per-view headlining spot. The division is very new, and the Champ, Demetrious Johnson, is the first in the weight class and only has defended the belt once. He is an amazing talent, but the division needs more challengers. The UFC recently signed Ali Bagautinov to the flyweight division, and he is probably one win away from a title shot based on his current eight fight win streak.
It looks like the UFC will have to just keep at it and hope the talent pool stays healthy and continues to grow. They do also have the handy Urijah Faber, who is eager to take interesting fights at bantamweight and featherweight, and has been tapped to fight Yuri Alcantara at UFC on Fox Sports 1 in Boston on August 17. He is not headlining, but he carries enough celebrity to bring new eyes to his opponents. He is sort of like the lightweight Randy Couture circa 2010. Though Couture was always in an exciting division, there were times he was the reason people tuned in and his opponent was just a vehicle for seeing Randy Couture.
Training MMA with fighters that are at the professional regional level makes me wonder about the jump in competition to enter a UFC or Bellator event. Most regional professional fights are packed with 135 lbs. or 145 lbs. fights, with a treat usually being John Howard fighting at 185 or a decent 205 lbs. fight on the card. It seems like there is a disconnect between professional MMA training grounds across the United States and the big show. It is possible that there is not a ton of lighter weight talent floating around (though most likely not the case), and the UFC will have to continue pulling international names from places where there happen to be a larger number of experienced lighter weight fighters. Bringing in a number of exciting Muay Thai strikers seems like one way to add to the lighter divisions in an exciting fashion; specifically fighters from Thailand where 115 lbs. contests are not uncommon.
There is no quick remedy for the situation, but lighter weight fighters need to go for broke in each bout and continue to use their speed and technical ability fain the respect of the casual fan. Making an effort to finish fights will also help. After all, a division with finishes is a division with fans.
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