On December 30th 2016, Ronda Rousey faced off against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 in a bid to reclaim her Women’s Bantamweight title and regain her position at the pinnacle of the sport; As I’m sure you’re aware (unless you’ve been living under a rock), the once great PPV powerhouse was obliterated in 48 seconds, thus leaving Conor McGregor as the only legitimate ‘star’.
Now when I say star, I don’t mean the best fighter in the world – Granted, McGregor is certainly one of the best in the world, currently ranked 2nd in the pound for pound rankings; But in using the word star, I mean someone who can captivate audiences further than the hardcore fan base and engage the casual fan. Here I’m going to look at who could take over the sport during McGregor’s absence, as he enjoys the time with his new family, or chasing that ridiculous fight with Floyd Mayweather – but that fight is a debate for another day.
If we again go back to UFC 207, Dominick Cruz was scheduled to defend his title against the comparatively inexperienced Cody Garbrandt. Many before the fight acknowledged ‘No Love’s’ credentials as a solid contender but felt it was too early for the young lion. The script was torn to shreds, Cody put on a striking clinic that night and maybe could have finished his rival but instead opted to point and laugh whenever his foe had been grounded. Now the first thing that makes him a potential PPV star is that he’s talented – without that we aren’t going to get very far. Alongside the talent though are the following components that also play a huge part – Looks, trash talk and swagger. Cody is covered in tattoos from head to toe and just ‘looks the part’ for want of a better expression. In the run up to the Cruz fight, the pair engaged in plenty of verbal warfare with the now champion alluding to Cruz’s movement around the octagon saying ‘I’ve never chased pussy in my life, and I don’t intend to start now’. Garbrandt is the type of fighter you can convince your mates to watch, the mates that have a casual interest but don’t follow the sport as intently as you; with his knockout power and flashy combinations, he’ll certainly be fun to watch for as long as he sticks around. With a fierce grudge match against TJ Dillashaw next, and fun potential fights against the likes of John Lineker in the future, you may see the young man topping the bill very soon.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is the next to talk about; Khabib is one of the few title contenders in the UFC to still have an unblemished record. Now, the main selling point for Khabib as a PPV star is his place of birth. Nurmagomedov was born in Dagestan, Russia and is by far the biggest Russian star in the UFC. ‘The Eagle’ is already a huge name back home and with the chance to win UFC titles on the horizon, this could catapult the lightweight to huge stardom. 24-0 and representing a population of 143.5 million, the pay per view capabilities are endless and you only have to look to boxer Manny Pacquiao to see how one man can captivate the imaginations of a huge home backing. Add to that Khabib’s scary wrestling capabilities that were honed grappling bears as a youngster (yes, you read that correctly) and you have a fighter that could dominate the current ‘money’ division in the UFC. Nurmagomedov fighting Conor McGregor for the world title in Russia, imagine it.
By far the biggest name on this list is Jon ‘Bones’ Jones; the downside to Jones, and the reason he is still listed as a potential star on this list is his ability to screw himself over. Now, it’s not an exaggeration when I say that many laud Jones as the greatest Mixed Martial Artist to ever live. Jones became the youngest UFC champion ever when he defeated Shogun Rua back in 2011 and then defended his title 8 times consecutively before being stripped in 2015 for indiscretions outside the ring, one comeback fight later and he was then suspended for alleged PED abuse. Jones has all the tools to be the biggest name in the sport, he has heel capabilities that make him a loveable villain and the ability to shock audiences with the things he can pull off inside the octagon (watch back Jones submission victory over Lyoto Machida for one example). Jones has been all but promised an immediate title shot against the winner of Dan Cormier v Anthony Johnson and that would kick start a chain of huge fights against the likes of Manuwa, Gustaffson and Teixeira.
Coming through the Heavyweight division like a wrecking ball at the moment is young French contender Francis Ngannou; Ngannou recently finished veteran Andrei Arlovski in the first round and set up another big fight next. The Frenchman has looked unstoppable early on in his UFC days and it won’t be long before he’s a household name – EVERYONE loves a heavyweight. Nothing quite captures the imagination and attention of the buying public like two giant men with the ability to put the other to sleep at any time. Francis has shown he’s more than a slugger already with several victories by way of submission it now just remains to be seen whether he can continue this level of dominance as his level of opposition increases; current champion Stipe Miocic will certainly hope not.
Finally on this list, we have the only female contender I considered – Paige VanZant. The first thing you would notice about VanZant are her incredibly good looks, and given that the large proportion of viewers are male, this certainly helps. Now VanZant is definitely much more than just a pretty face, don’t get that confused for a minute and for such a young talent she is still ever improving. She won’t be topping bills for the time being, as she is still learning the craft and is mountains away from beating current champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (try saying that after a few drinks), fortunately for her though, time is her biggest ally. She has a fun, exciting style to watch and the best example of this is her jumping head kick KO of Bec Rawlings – so far she’s the poster girl that isn’t topping the poster, but after a stint on Dancing With the Stars in the America she is now a household name and after a few more wins she could be a serious money maker for the new UFC owners.
The UFC certainly will be worse off without the Notorious one, but they’ll be a long way from finished; As history has taught us, there’s always a new star waiting in the wings.