Brighter Spotlights Make Brighter Stars: The UFC’s Promotion of McGregor and Others in the Main Event is On Point

By Roy Billington

The last few years have signalled a through passing of the guard in mixed martial arts. It has been quite apparent that the UFC has lost more pay per view stars than it has made. Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Brock Lesnar have all left the promotion (and in some cases, the sport), Anderson Silva has been dethroned, and Georges St Pierre is still on his self-imposed sabbatical. To further compound this problem, the UFC has significantly increased the number of cards it puts on, leading to somewhat top-heavy, diluted cards. However, I feel the oversaturation of the market might in fact be key in bringing the new wave of superstars to prominence.

One of the primary focuses of the “Fight Night” series is to get the UFC to put on smaller shows in areas to increase the overall popularity of the UFC in that area, and it has proven very successful. The key to penetrating a new market is to go in there with a local fighter and heavily hype him to create a genuine interest in the fighter, and in turn make him a profitable star in the area. One of the best examples of this is Alexander Gustafsson. In 2012, Alexander Gustafsson was anonymous in Sweden — I personally sat in a hotel in Stockholm with him and no one batted an eye. Fast forward two years and he is filling soccer stadiums in Stockholm. Why is this, you might ask? Well, it’s simple, the UFC made a calculated investment in promoting him through the top-heavy “Fight Night” platform.

The UFC Fight Night card in Stockholm (UFC on Fuel TV 2) was essentially a watered-down card with a moderately interesting main event between Gustafsson and Thiago Silva on the surface, but it served as a springboard. Mainstream media in Sweden flocked to the spectacle and it became major news over there. The Globen completely sold out and Gustafsson put on a impressive performance, making him an overnight sensation in Stockholm; the UFC’s risk paid off. And for his next fight, he will be headlining UFC on Fox 14 at the 30,000-seat Tele2 Arena. This isn’t the only time the UFC has used this route to build a star to extreme success, and it won’t be the last.

Conor McGregor has exploded onto the scene over the last two years. Two undercard bouts led to him building a solid following amongst hardcore fans, but he had yet to impact the mainstream. That was of course until UFC Fight Night 46 in July, a weak card in terms of on-paper talent, but one that might very well prove huge for the UFC as time goes on. The o2 arena in Dublin is quite modest in terms of size, but nonetheless the Irishman sold it out. In the buildup to the event, the UFC hyped the fighter to the maximum. It seemed like every major MMA media outlet had interviews and long form features on “The Notorious” one. Heading into the fight, McGregor was a prospect with solid talent, but through all the coverage he acquired and the performance he put on, he came out a star in terms of mainstream media across the UK. In fact, he became the first MMA athlete to truly transcend the fight game in the UK and become a household name there.

McGregor’s hype grew exponentially through the UFC’s decision to make him the sole focus for Fight Night 46 in Dublin, and it paid off. McGregor then fought on the main card of UFC 178, and he was somewhat forgotten among the pile of stars that featured. So even though he arguably did enough to earn a title shot that night, the UFC made a clever calculated decision to give McGregor another round of the “Fight Night” treatment that worked so well on fans in the UK and Ireland, only this time the UFC decided to make him main event a card in Boston, the adopted home of the Irish in America, in hopes that McGregor can become a star in America.

While my colleague Raphael makes a great point that Benson Henderson vs. Donald Cerrone 3 is worth media attention, he misses the fact that Benson Henderson even while champion wasn’t a fan favorite. The UFC put him on the main event of multiple FOX cards and he still couldn’t sell pay-per-views, whereas McGregor has proven that he can win over fans, and with the right advertising, he could become a huge commodity in the US. Most important of all is the fact that the UFC is planning to have McGregor fight in front of 80,000 in Croke Park for the world title in his next fight, so why wouldn’t the UFC advertise him as much as possible to make sure his fight with Jose Aldo will do good numbers on pay-per-view?

All things considered, so far the UFC has done a great job of building stars with the Fight Night cards, and if the promotion continues to put the main focus on the main event fighters, it will most likely build the next generation of pay-per-view stars.

Disagree? For a different perspective, read: Lonely At the Top: The UFC Needs To Promote More Than Its Main Event Bouts by Raphael Garcia


UFC Fight Night 59: McGregor vs. Siver is due to take place on January 18, 2015 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.

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