The UFC is at a crossroads as we reach the end of 2014: by most accounts, the year was a disastrous one for the promotion, with profits down, fights scrapped due to injury, and for the second time in Zuffa history, an event cancelled. Add to that multiple performance enhancing drug scandals, sagging Pay-per-View sales, continued disinterest in flagship reality program The Ultimate Fighter (despite an exciting season that introduced the women’s strawweight division and crowned a champion), and a class action lawsuit that could change the MMA landscape, and you have quite the kettle of fish.

In short, the promotion has a large number of headaches, and to make matters worse, it’s long on events and short on stars.

Lets put aside the question of UFC over-saturation for the moment. Yes, the argument can be made that the UFC is holding too many events, and doesn’t have enough talent to fill their many fight cards, but the reality is that this is the schedule the UFC has opted to go with, and it has to meet obligations to Fox, global partners, and Fight Pass subscribers.

Now lets also put aside to idea of “talent” and “elite level fighters” — because those qualities, while important to a successful MMA career as far as titles in the sport and win/loss ratio is concerned, do not a star make. Just ask Bob Sapp.

No, what makes a “star” is name value, name recognition. And while the UFC continues to struggle with the absence of stars like Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Anderson Silva (though he, at least, is coming back), name value is more valuable than ever before.

That’s exactly why Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is (putting aside all questions about the legitimacy of his contract termination with Bellator MMA) returning to the UFC fold.

For the past few years, the UFC has attempted to hook fans on the idea that it is the brand, not the fighters, that matter. They refrained from really pushing over-the-top antics and personalities. The face of the company was Dana White, a man more recognizable to the public than, arguably, the number one contender in the light heavyweight division, Daniel Cormier. More recognizable, perhaps, than any but maybe a dozen of its top stars — if that.

The brand experiment failed. The UFC is not the NFL, NBA, or NHL. There are no teams, and ergo, there is no lifetime guarantee of loyalty. No matter how much it wishes that was not the case, the UFC will face the same issue as boxing has before it: when there are no names, no compelling match-ups, no stories to tell or feuds to sell, the sport will struggle.

It makes you wonder why, in hindsight, the UFC ever bothered with the “brand first” approach at all.

With that said, however, it seems the UFC is learning its lesson, if slowly. It quickly jumped on the Conor McGregor bandwagon this year. It signed the biggest name available on the market, despite that name having no fight experience: professional wrestler and former WWE champion CM Punk, basically a celebrity fan now afforded the chance to live out his dream. And this past weekend, it announced the signing of one Rampage Jackson, right out from under Bellator’s nose.

And there in is the lesson: it doesn’t matter that Rampage ended his UFC run on an 0-3 skid with losses to Jon Jones, Ryan Bader, and Glover Texeira. It doesn’t matter that his three wins since then were against lesser competition in Bellator, basically UFC cast-off Joey Beltran, undersized former Bellator light heavyweight champion Christian M’Pumbu, and a skin-of-his-teeth decision against King Mo. No, wins are wins, and Rampage still has a name. He’s been in movies, after all. He has personality. He can promote.

If you don’t want to believe that promotion skills are half the game in the UFC at this point, just ask Dominick Cruz. When asked about the CM Punk signing, here was the former bantamweight champion’s reply to the assembled media at UFC Fight Night 58:

“…if you think about it, it’s not just about the fighting anymore. It’s about this job right here (re: the media). This is a part of being a Mixed Martial Artist. When these Mixed Martial Artists realize that I’ve got to stand up in front of a camera, I’ve got to speak well, I have to fill the seats by selling a fight, I think that they’ll be less bitter and start understanding more.

That’s why CM Punk gets this opportunity. He speaks well. He’s got this huge fan base. Who knows how many people will come to see him either get beat up, or possibly win. If he wins, it could be one of the greatest things anyone could’ve ever seen, so why not give that a chance?”

What the UFC has been lacking over the past couple of years, and especially in 2014, is stars that can connect with the casual audience. Not the diehard MMA fan base. It has those under lock just as much as the Buffalo Bills have their core fans willing to sit in the upper rows in subzero temperatures with their shirts off and sloppily-painted slogans on their bellies locked down. The diehards are locked down, but the casuals? The guys and girls who might tune in for a fight with someone they’ve heard of, but who will  change the channel, or head out for the night otherwise?

Being able to retain them has value. Known names do that. Even if they don’t succeed in the cage, they do that. Dominick Cruz gets that.

No one expects CM Punk or Rampage Jackson to challenge for a title, but as much as MMA is a sport, the UFC is a business, and it has learned the hard way what happens when you try to market the promotion over the fighters. At least, we hope it has learned that lesson. You don’t root for the brand, you root for your favorite fighters, which is why you have to promote them first. The first steps to righting the ship, numbers wise, have been made: just take a look at how the company is setting up the return of Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz, with separate commercials starring each fighter. Silva gets the creepy ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ horror treatment. Diaz gets a spooky ‘Don’t Be Scared’ spot as well. That’s just the sort of hook the casual fans will latch on to. The fact that they’re fighting each other is almost secondary.

As fans, we want the UFC to succeed. Here’s to hoping that the focus shifts more and more to the fighters again, and that if they can hook the casual fans, this time around, they keep them.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.