If there was ever a testament to Georges St-Pierre’s place in the MMA world, it’s that he still gets our attention even when he’s not an active member of a promotional roster. Last week, the former UFC welterweight champion announced that he had torn his left ACL, delaying, for the foreseeable future, any potential return to the Octagon (not that any return had been planned in the first place) to reclaim his place atop the 170-pound division. Even though GSP is on an indefinite leave of absence, his injury announcement immediately became a moderately significant news story. The reaction to this news likely ranged from apathy (from those who prefer the new, GSP-less welterweight division) to devastation (from those for whom GSP constitutes the ne plus ultra of MMA fighters), but nevertheless the story was featured on its own—rather than just a blurb among the day’s other items of note—in just about every MMA news source out there.

The question, then, is why an inactive fighter continues to garner the sort of headlines GSP has in his thus-far-brief absence from the cage. The answer? Because St-Pierre is one of the few true “stars” to emerge from the world of MMA. Aside from his constant presence as one of the most popular fighters in the UFC, St-Pierre has been the face of Under Armour, did a series of hilarious deadpan commercials for NOS Energy Drinks and will soon make his major motion picture debut with a supporting role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He is, without question, the most famous MMA fighter of his era and certainly one of the most famous MMA fighters of all time.

There isn’t a whole lot of competition for that latter mantle, though. Due mostly to MMA’s relative newness and resultant secondary status in the sports world, its best athletes are not given a fraction of the attention paid even to non-superstars in one of the “big three” (NFL, NBA, MLB). As a result, mainstream America has really only been exposed to a small handful of MMA fighters, and they haven’t all had GSP’s talent.

Case in point: One of the first American MMA fighters to receive significant attention outside of the cage was none other than David “Tank” Abbott. Seemingly plucked directly from central casting, Abbott was a surly brute who looked very little like the sort of professional athletes one sees in the Octagon today, but his straightforward, brawling style won over a lot of fans, and soon Abbott found himself appearing (uncredited, but still) in an episode of Friends. Abbott then parlayed his notoriety into a brief professional wrestling career during the WCW’s “slow death” phase near the turn of the century, during which time he was likely paid far more than the UFC could then offer.

A contemporary of Abbott’s, the UFC’s first “Superfight champion” Ken Shamrock took a similar path to fame, albeit with slightly more success. Shamrock would leave the world of MMA after Ultimate Ultimate 1996 to join the ranks of the former World Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment) as one of the promotion’s featured performers. Shamrock led a solid mid-card career, capturing a couple of titles and winning the promotion’s “King of the Ring” tournament when the WWF/E was reaching the peak of its late-’90s popularity. Shamrock did get a bit part in an episode of That ’70s Show (and has appeared in a handful of indies since), but Shamrock would ultimately return to the MMA arena for another (less successful) run in the cage.

After Abbott and Shamrock, though, you have to jump quite a few years before you get to the next big UFC star, but this one would be the guy to really help bring the promotion, and the sport of MMA, to another level of fame.

With his success in the Octagon accentuated by his trademark mohawk hairstyle, Chuck Liddell would help bring the UFC out of the “dark ages” in which it languished during the period immediately before and after the promotion’s acquisition by Zuffa, LLC, its current ownership group. From 2004 through 2006, Liddell amassed seven consecutive wins, capturing and then defending the UFC light heavyweight belt in the last five. It was also during this period that the UFC introduced itself to a new group of fans via its new reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, on which Liddell played a significant role. Even after his defeat at the mighty right hand of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in 2007, Liddell continued (and perhaps continues to this day) to be the most recognizable face associated with MMA, even being invited to participate in the decidedly less violent and more popular spectacle that is Dancing With the Stars and amassing an acting resume that has warranted its own section on Wikipedia, even if the majority of his roles list Liddell playing “himself.”

A few of Liddell’s mid-decade peers would also achieve moderate levels of success outside the cage later in their careers, with Jackson appearing prominently in the 2010 remake of The A-Team and fellow Liddell opponent Randy Couture finding work in several minor Hollywood roles before being cast as Toll Road, one of Sylvester Stallone’s squad of Expendables who have run roughshod over all who stand in the way of freedom or whatever in two movies named for the group (with two more sequels on the way). Still, Liddell was the first of this group to achieve some measure of fame, and he continues to appear periodically in ads in need of a well-known fighter. (I’m pretty sure I saw him in an AutoZone commercial a few days ago.)

Since Liddell, though, the UFC has found few other fighters with the star power of “The Iceman.” Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson briefly made himself a household name, but he didn’t fight in the UFC until after his mystique had already been broken by Seth Petruzelli. Still, Ferguson’s presence on the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter did help it to achieve some of the highest ratings in the show’s history. Gina Carano was a similar flash-in-the-pan to get some attention outside of the UFC, but her role as the face of women’s MMA ended when she was handily defeated by Cris “Cyborg” Justino in 2009, and Carano hasn’t fought since. Both Ferguson and Carano would parlay their ascendance as MMA stars into acting careers, in which Carano found herself starring in Haywire (directed by the venerable Stephen Soderbergh) and Fast & Furious 6 (directed by the criminally underrated Justin Lin), but they are for all intents and purposes no longer part of the MMA world.

The UFC’s best fighter since its most significant period of growth began (2005) is Anderson Silva, who reigned supreme over the middleweight division from 2006 until this past July, putting together 16 straight UFC wins in the process (including three in the light heavyweight division). Although Silva certainly had the talent and charisma to make him a big star in America, he lacked one significant ingredient: a strong grasp of the English language. “The Spider” has conducted the vast majority of his media appearances in his native Portuguese, and while he likely has at least a conversational understanding of the unofficial language of the United States, the fact that he rarely employs it no doubt limits the connection he can have with most American fans.

Ironically, the biggest UFC draw in the post-Liddell era came from the world of violent ballet that is the WWE. Brock Lesnar made his promotional debut in February 2008 at UFC 81 and was certainly one of the main reasons that show (headlined by an interim heavyweight title bout between Tim Sylvia and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira) garnered 600,000 pay-per-view buys. The UFC did not see a pay-per-view buyrate of this magnitude until Lesnar’s next fight, against Heath Herring at UFC 87 in August 2008. Lesnar’s true drawing power was yet to be demonstrated, however, and the cards featuring Lesnar’s three fights after his starching of Herring each saw more than a million buys. Lesnar would fight only twice more after this, though, and after his second consecutive loss decided to walk away from MMA.

Since Lesnar’s departure, the UFC has tried with mixed success to fill his significant shoes with younger fighters who it hopes will become the stars that Liddell and Lesnar are. Current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is one of the most revered active UFC fighters and has therefore experienced the most commercial success of the current roster. He was the first MMA fighter to be part of a global Nike advertising campaign and also counts Gatorade among his endorsement deals. Unfortunately, his success in the cage has not translated to gigantic pay-per-view numbers—his most-watched fight by far was against Rashad Evans at UFC 145, which drew 700,000 viewers, and his most recent fight (against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165) drew just 310,000. Jones, like Anderson Silva, has been famously carefree when it comes to his public perception, making no apologies, for example, when withdrawing from what would have been a hastily put-together main event at the ultimately canceled UFC 151 after original opponent Dan Henderson was injured just a few days before the fight. Jones’s 2012 DUI arrest didn’t help endear him to anyone either. That said, though, Jones remains one of the UFC’s current featured faces, even if he might not quite have the drawing power of a Liddell or Lesnar.

Ronda Rousey is certainly another name that should be mentioned when discussing the UFC’s present crop of stars. Rousey burst onto the MMA scene in 2011, eventually capturing the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight belt in 2012 before becoming the main reason UFC President Dana White decided to incorporate a women’s division into the world’s premier MMA promotion. Rousey has since won three straight in the UFC and her face has become nearly as synonymous with the promotion as White’s. That said, Rousey’s pay-per-view numbers haven’t been stellar (though the combination of Rousey/Miesha Tate and Silva/Chris Weidman at UFC 168 drew more than a million viewers), and she’s already turned off a number of fans with a demonstrated lack of attention paid to how her uncensored way of living might be viewed by others, including an ill-advised social media posting about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

So where does this put the UFC today in terms of star power? Jones and Rousey are legitimate stars who have seen some crossover success (Rousey will appear in the third Expendables installment and the seventh in the Fast & Furious franchise), but whether they will ever reach the same levels of popularity as Liddell and Lesnar remains to be seen. Silva, despite the language barrier, remains a significant draw but is coming off one of the more brutal MMA injuries fans have ever seen, not to mention the fact that he’s on the wrong side of 35. That leaves GSP as the UFC’s most valuable commodity (he’s been able to consistently draw around 700,000 pay-per-view buys since becoming welterweight champion), and he’s not even fighting at the moment.

To whom, then, can the UFC look for its next big thing? I suppose the first logical place to look is at the top of each division.

Bantamweight champion Renan Barao and featherweight king Jose Aldo, despite their considerable talents, have the same problem as Silva in that they prefer to conduct their business in Portuguese, so they’re probably out. The same (unfortunately) goes for flyweight titlist Demetrious Johnson, who will forever be unfairly regarded as a lesser commodity due to his lesser physical stature. We’ve already discussed Jones (light heavyweight) and Rousey (women’s bantamweight), which leaves us with four champions: Anthony Pettis, Johny Hendricks, Chris Weidman and Cain Velasquez.

Chris Weidman made a name for himself by twice defeating Anderson Silva, but the 29-year-old New Yorker is still likely the least regarded of the UFC champions. A few more title defenses will certainly change that, but as it stands Weidman is probably the least popular of the four aforementioned champions. Next on the list is Cain Velasquez, who, as a UFC heavyweight champion of Mexican-American descent, could do wonders in attracting more Latino viewers to MMA. Velasquez is not, however, the sort of camera-ready presence the UFC has in people like Chael Sonnen or Brian Stann. This is certainly not to impugn the champion’s intelligence, but many have regarded Velasquez as more of a quiet, introspective type, qualities which do not necessarily play well in the national media. And then there’s the matter of Velasquez’s gigantic Brown Pride tattoo on his chest, which, fairly or not, will surely make some white fans look sideways at the champion.

This leaves two current champions—lightweight Pettis and welterweight Hendricks. Both only recently won their titles, but both have already established themselves not just as skilled fighters, but as entertaining ones. Hendricks is basically the heir apparent to Dan Henderson in that he’s an ultra-talented wrestler who also packs a dynamite punch. He finished five UFC opponents by knockout or TKO and recently put on a “Fight of the Year” candidate with Robbie Lawler. Hendricks’ easy smile and Okie charm only add to his appeal, and if he continues to be successful in the welterweight division, we could quickly see him becoming one of the UFC’s primary public ambassadors. The same could easily be said for Anthony Pettis, who has won his last three fights, all by stoppage, and who has in the past uncorked the sort of explosive (if unorthodox) striking attacks that bring fans to their feet. The Milwaukee native is just 27 and likely has several more years to ply his trade in the UFC and increase his star power with each successful title defense, especially if those defenses involve some Tony Jaa-type stuff.

This is not, however, to say that the UFC must look exclusively to its champions to cultivate new stars. Of the active non-champions, welterweight Rory MacDonald possesses both the skills and the intangibles necessary to perhaps one day assume St-Pierre’s role as one of the sport’s most marketable names. At 24, MacDonald is now only beginning to enter the prime of his fighting career, and few doubt that he will be a member of the welterweight top five for the foreseeable future. Outside of the Octagon, MacDonald has become known for his snappy manner of dress, and while the clothes certainly don’t make the man, the fact that MacDonald carries himself like a professional athlete of some repute (rather than as a guy who happened to make a name for himself fighting) will serve him well in the years to come.

Most MMA fighters won’t even come close to the level of stardom experienced by the Tom Bradys, Derek Jeters and LeBron Jameses of the sporting world, and even those who do break through, as Liddell and Lesnar did, probably won’t make nearly the same amount of money as the NFL, MLB and NBA’s top stars. Jones and Rousey are the two fighters currently seen as the UFC’s main attractions, but time will tell whether their fame will expand further beyond the chain-link. In the meantime, the UFC would do well to promote other champions like Hendricks and Pettis to the hilt and continue to shine the spotlight on top contenders like MacDonald.

The attention that St-Pierre attracts in 2014 didn’t come from nowhere. His combination of in-cage success, media friendliness and, let’s be honest, Hollywood good looks coalesced into stardom. Perhaps the UFC is big enough now where the promotion itself will forever be a bigger star than any one individual athlete, but professional sports are built to showcase their top talents, so it’s only a matter of time before another UFC fighter breaks through into superstardom.

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.