Opinion: The UFC has lost its star power

Ronda Rousey stands in the cage after Amanda Nunes forced a stoppage in the first round. Photo / AP
Ronda Rousey stands in the cage after Amanda Nunes forced a stoppage in the first round. Photo / AP

The return of Ronda Rousey couldn't have been better timed for the UFC. Just as Conor McGregor embarked on a 10 month vacation from the sport, the "Rowdy" bandwagon rolled into town to fill the void.

But the best plans have a habit of coming unstuck and the Rousey train has been seriously derailed, leaving the UFC with no backup stategy.

It's often said you can't make a house out of sticks and whine when it gets burnt to the ground, and that's the predicament facing the UFC.

The organisation stunned the sports entertainment landscape in mid-2016 when it announced it had been sold to WME-IMG for $US4 billion. At the time, the UFC was flying on the back of two stars - Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.

The deal was sealed on impressive numbers and unprecedented growth, but as anyone in the fight game knows, one punch can change a fight, and one fight can change the entire combat sports landscape.

If you looked cageside in the aftermath of UFC 207, you would have seen Dana White looking like a nervous man. He should be, with no Rousey and no McGregor - the UFC cupboard is bare.

Conor McGregor is set to be absent for the best part of 2017, as the sport's king has a break due to the impending birth of his first child.
McGregor's foe Nate Diaz is also cooling his heels on the sideline, saying he won't return unless he is given a third fight with the Irishman to complete their trilogy, and he wants a minimum guarantee of $20 million for the privilege.

Nate's brother Nick has been given the all clear to return to the Octagon, but he's on record as saying he's also holding out for big money. He's chasing cheques - not titles - at this point in his career.

Conor McGregor set some impressive numbers in 2016. He set records for fighter purse, pay-per-view sales, social media impressions, UFC title belts attained, gate receipts and more.

"The Notorious" is so unique, no one in the organisation came close to him in the past twelve months. Ronda Rousey didn't feature until the final days of the year, and we know now she's unlikely to return to the UFC after a brutal defeat at the hands of Amanda Nunes.

Rousey is comparable to McGregor in pay-per-view numbers and boasts an equal highest fight purse ($US3 million), but Ronda's best three rated events are beaten by the Irishman's worst box office performance.

McGregor's 3.5 million pay-per-view sales from mid-2015 to 2016 are more than what the rest of the UFC roster managed combined in Rousey's absence. Yes, one man outsold an entire roster.

Dana White will look around at his company and find he doesn't have much to turn to in terms of mass appeal - box office draw that resonates with the casual fight fan.

Brock Lesnar, brought back for UFC 200 after McGregor was removed, remains suspended by USADA for failing a drug test and White said just last week he won't fight again. Even if that changes, he's contracted to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) going forward.

MMA legend Georges St Pierre has intimated he wants to make a return to the organisation, but has been in a standoff with White and the UFC over money for the past two years.

Glamour girl Paige VanZant was destroyed in her latest outing, former WWE star CM Punk lasted just two minutes in his UFC debut, while "Super" Sage Northcutt is looking less promising with every fight.

Michael Bisping is the reigning middleweight champ and has just broken into Hollywood with a role in the new XXX movie alongside Vin Diesel. But Bisping has hardly been tested as champion yet and a 37-year-old isn't a long term option at the top.

Cody Garbrandt showed he has potential to become a star after his terrific showing against Dominick Cruz at UFC 207, but he's a diamond that will take some polishing.

Jon Jones is banned, serving yet another drug suspension, and White is on record saying he's unlikely to depend on the 29-year-old again in the main event picture.

At just 25, Garbrandt has a massive future. In only one year, he's gone from unranked fighter to UFC champion. He has an eye-catching style and is a good looking kid.

Some big fights are looming, as a rematch with former champion Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw sit on the horizon.

The Dillashaw fight has potential to make good money, given the rivalry between Garbrandt's Alpha Male gym and the former UFC champion. Dillashaw ditched the Urijah Faber led camp in difficult circumstances and the two have been throwing barbs at each other ever since.

The man Garbrandt dethroned - Dominick Cruz - is another star on the downturn.

Although not on the scale of McGregor and Rousey, Cruz is a notable face in the sport. An analyst on Fox Sports, Cruz has been a prominent fixture in the UFC.

It was hoped he would move up weight classes and set up new fights with Jose Aldo and others at featherweight, which now seems unlikely.

Amanda Nunes is on the rise, but even UFC president Dana White acknowledges she is a hard sell. Her English isn't great and the women's division is all over the place, as the title was like a hot potato in 2016.

If Nunes can hold onto the title for an extended period of time, she has potential to mirror the run of Rousey. But with Rousey seemingly finished, Miesha Tate retired, Cris "Cyborg" Justino facing a USADA breach and Holly Holm coming off two consecutive losses, do any dance partners exist for the Brazilian?

The UFC has some young talent in its ranks, but none have the potential to transcend the mainstream like McGregor and Rousey have in recent months.

Dana White recently threw up the name of Doo Ho Choi as the sport's next breakout star - but the Korean doesn't speak English and lost just over a month ago at UFC 206.
It was perhaps the fight of the year, but only the most passionate MMA fans know the name of The Korean Superboy.

No McGregor, no Rousey and no real stars in the short term means a blow to the UFC bottom line.

The $4 billion sale was stunning at the time, but it could prove to be the sale of the century. It looks like the former owners got out at exactly the right time.

• Adam Santarossa is a freelance sports commentator and journalist.

- news.com.au

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