UFC hoping to build buzz with busy schedule to close 2017

Canadian UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

NEW YORK — So, here it is. The beginning of the UFC’s all-out sprint to the end of the year.

As we near the conclusion of what even the most hopeful, optimistic, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed observers would describe as a down year for the UFC, there is very real potential for the promotion to turn things around soon, and turn them around fast.

First, there is Saturday night’s mega-card at Madison Square Garden, easily the best the company has put on this year. An undercard bound to fly beneath the radar — Stephen Thompson versus Jorge Masvidal could be the fight of the night — will give way to two terrific title bouts featuring plenty of bad blood between strawweights Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and bantamweights T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt.

And that, in turn, will give way to a super-fight between the fresh-off-sabbatical legend Georges St-Pierre and the winningest fighter in UFC history, the prickly Michael Bisping, whose captivating trash talk would be enough to sell the fight on its own if the long-awaited return of one of MMA’s greatest ever wasn’t enough.

UFC President Dana White said after the ceremonial weigh-ins on Friday that Saturday night’s card is trending to sell more than a million pay-per-views in the United States and Canada, which would be huge, and the biggest windfall since Amanda Nunes effectively ended Ronda Rousey’s career last December.

It’s worth noting that White’s track record of public honesty is somewhat suspect. But anything north of the 860,000 buys that UFC 214 garnered — the 2017 high-water mark set when Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones fought for a second time — would undeniably be a success.

And from there the UFC will feature a card essentially every Saturday for the rest of the year — the weekend leading into Christmas Monday is the lone exception — with some of the organization’s most exciting, and marketable, fighters set to enter the octagon.

UFC 218 in Detroit on Dec. 2 features a card that rivals Saturday night’s in New York, and there is rumour that the promotion’s undisputed PPV king, Conor McGregor, could return to MMA competition for the first time in more than a year on Dec. 30, when the UFC holds its final 2017 PPV in Las Vegas.

So, things are looking up, and that’s extremely helpful for an organization that struggled mightily to sell its cards for the first 10 months of the year. UFC PPV sales have suffered greatly (as outlined here by Sportsnet’s Mike Johnston) thanks to a confluence of factors, some within its control and some beyond.

The yearlong loss of McGregor, whose last four fights all sold over 1.2 million PPVs, stung the most. So, too, did the shocking defeat of Rousey, who was one of the sport’s most transcendent stars but has been neither seen nor heard from since Nunes teed off on her.

Brock Lesnar, the WWE convert and headliner of three cards that sold over one million PPVs, was also lost thanks to a doping violation. And the Diaz brothers, Nick and Nate, two famously irascible potheads who are not coincidentally two of the sport’s most popular names, have each refused to fight in 2017.

This year has also suffered due to its spate of 11th-hour fight cancellations. When Ion Cutelaba was flagged by USADA for a possible doping violation Friday ahead of his date with Michal Oleksiejczuk, it marked the 15th time this year a fight has had to be scratched within 48 hours of a UFC event.

That’s the part the UFC couldn’t control. The part they could was developing new stars, something the company has struggled to do with its current champions.

Flyweight title holder Demetrious Johnson is widely regarded as the best fighter on the planet, and an interesting character who often livestreams himself playing video games on the Internet, but the UFC has been unable to turn him into a name brand star. At the complete opposite end of the weight spectrum, the same goes for heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic, a blue-collar firefighter from Cleveland with a massive personality who hasn’t broken through to the mainstream.

Jedrzejczyk, the women’s strawweight champion, is magnetic, quirky, and unfathomably talented. Saturday night she’ll attempt to tie Rousey’s record of six consecutive title defences. She’s everything a marketer could want. But the UFC has never made her the sole headliner of a PPV, and when her and Miocic were involved in the top two fights of UFC 211 the PPV buys reached only 300,000.

And how do we not mention Nunes, the women’s bantamweight champion who is on a hell of a run, having taken out some of the best females in the sport since 2015 including Sara McMann, Valentina Shevchenko, Meisha Tate, Rousey, and then Shevchenko again. Nunes’ most recent defeat of Shevchenko headlined UFC 215 in September, which reportedly drew only 100,000 PPV buys.

It’s hard not to fault the UFC for failing to develop these fighters into new stars, especially considering how vehemently the public bought in to the previous generation like Rousey and Lesnar, and even the fan favourites of the mid-2000s like Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. None of those fighters had particularly charismatic personalities, but the UFC marketed them well and reaped the rewards with high-grossing PPVs.

That’s why these final few events of 2017 are so important for the UFC in this down year. St-Pierre’s return is big; McGregor’s return will be bigger. And if the UFC can channel the momentum generated by those two and use it to help elevate interest in other young fighters atop cards between now and the end of the year — think Jedrzejczyk, Garbrandt, Francis Ngannou, and Max Halloway — it could set itself up well to turn the page in 2018 and begin establishing a new crop of reliable headliners.

It won’t happen overnight. But something has to happen. In the UFC, the quality of the product has never been higher. The personalities have never been bigger. The organization just needs to start making the most of it.