Lefko: UFC needs to build up emerging stars

Chris Weidman, right, celebrates after defeating Anderson Silva during the second round of their UFC 162 middleweight championship bout. (AP/David Becker)
July 10, 2013, 7:15 PM

The UFC went to great lengths to promote the idea Chris Weidman had a chance to beat Anderson Silva in their epic bout. Now it will have to ramp it up to explain who the heck Chris Weidman is following his upset win over the legendary middleweight champion.

Weidman came into the fight as a true all-American hero, a native New Yorker draped in the U.S. flag battling a Brazilian on Independence Day. Combined with the fact he lost his home in Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and volunteered to help rebuild homes in the area affected by the disaster, is a practicing Christian who is quite public about his faith, had a record of 9-0 heading into the biggest fight of his life and was returning to the cage for the first time in almost a year due to an injury, well, this was practically scripted in Hollywood. This was the Star Spangled Banner forever.

And this is what the UFC will have to sell to the audience who knows only a little bit about Weidman and, more importantly, the people who don’t know him at all.

The mixed martial arts world is still reeling from Weidman’s surprising win last Saturday in Las Vegas in the main event of UFC 162. The manner in which Silva lost by clowning around and keeping his hands at his waist before he was clipped and dropped to the mat and finished off by a flurry of punches that resulted in a knockout is still being discussed. Going forward, there is a belief that if the two meet for a rematch — even though initially after the fight the ex-champion said he didn’t want to fight for the belt — Silva will not repeat his silly, tactical antics.

In the meantime, the UFC has to create a marketing machine for the 29-year-old Weidman to sell him as a conquering hero. Weidman represents the possibility of a new vanguard for the UFC, which could be in a similar position if Johny Hendricks — another American — beats longtime welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167 on Nov. 16 in Las Vegas. That card will fall on the 20th anniversary show of the UFC. There is speculation that Weidman and Silva will meet either in December in the final UFC show of the year or during Super Bowl weekend in early February.

Silva and St-Pierre are longtime UFC staples who are in the twilight of their careers, but the UFC needs to create new stars rather than relying on the ones who have carried the company banner for a long time and helped to build it into the billion-dollar empire it’s become. The Ultimate Fighter series has been the method to create new talent while the established stars from a different era in MMA move toward their eventual retirements.

Silva has 10 more fights remaining on his newest contract, but at the age of 38 does anyone believe he will actually fulfill those obligations? The loss to Weidman means Silva almost certainly won’t be fighting as regularly as he has in the last few years. If he loses to Weidman again, what value will there be in seeing Silva continuing to fight? If he felt mentally or emotionally spent from his reign of almost seven years as the champion, compiling 16 consecutive wins and 10 title defences, what motivation would he possibly have for continuing to fight with another loss to Weidman? If he beats Weidman, everyone will be calling for a trilogy match.

But if Weidman loses, would he then become a one-hit wonder who benefitted from a veteran who learned the hard way that you can never underestimate an opponent? And how would you build him back up as a star? In the short term, it is incumbent on the UFC to do all it can to profile Weidman and all of his wonderful qualities as a fighter and a person. As a U.S.-based company that does many of its events in the U.S., it doesn’t hurt if the champions are Americans.

Ronda Rousey, the ebullient and talented UFC women’s bantamweight champion, has helped launch the distaff division. At onetime women’s MMA, more specifically women in the UFC, was considered non-marketable, but Rousey has proven to be a bankable commodity, in particular in mainstream U.S. The onetime Olympian from California is part of the new UFC generation and understands self-promotion.

If every one of the UFC fighters had Rousey’s gumption, the company would fall over itself with requests from the media and advertisers. She is that powerful, and proof of that will come in the fall when she and arch-rival Miesha Tate are shown in the Ultimate Fighter season currently being filmed. For the first time, the series will feature men and women competitors, which will be a way for the UFC to go full throttle on its marketing. It will be pushed into another gear when Rousey and Tate fight in their rematch. There is no definitive date when or where the fight will take place. Maybe it will be part of the Weidman-Silva rematch or possibly on its own because Rousey has already proven she can headline a pay-per-view event.

It’s an interesting time for the UFC, and what happened last Saturday may be a harbinger of what is to come in terms of upsets by emerging stars or a chance for the old ones to continue to validate themselves by winning or reclaiming their glory in a rematch after losing their titles.

Weidman chose Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ song I Won’t Back Down for his walk-out music. It was apropos and even more so after what he did. It just might become the anthem for the new generation of UFC fighters who want to stake their claims as champions.

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