Georges St-Pierre is on the shelf for at least a year following his latest knee surgery, and there’s no word whether or not he even wants to return to MMA. Chuck Liddell has been retired for several years now and won’t ever fight in the Octagon again. Brock Lesnar is currently enjoying the luxury of a multi-year deal with the WWE as a professional wrestler.
It would be easy to point at any of those names and say they were either the biggest star in the UFC or the face of the organization at one point in time. Fast-forward to today and names like Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey appear to be the next evolution of stars in the UFC, but who is the real face of the organization?
Some would say it’s actually UFC president Dana White, who is routinely the most recognizable face representing the promotion in press conferences and interviews all over the world. White’s outspoken, boisterous nature has made him a hit with local reporters, and the over the top way he handles just about every situation makes him a sports executive cut from a different cloth than people such as Roger Goodell in the NFL or Gary Bettman in the NHL.
At a media luncheon in Vancouver on Friday, White was a special guest of the Board of Trade where the star power question came up, and the moderator immediately pointed at the UFC president as the real face of the organization.
White was quick to shoot him down, however, because no matter how many events he attends, shows he promotes or interviews he gives, the head honcho isn’t the star of the show.
Cain Velasquez is a huge star, too. When you have an entire country that’s going to follow and support you, there’s nothing bigger than that
— Dana White
"That’s not true. The reception I got here was fantastic, but if I was standing right there and Georges St-Pierre was standing over there, I promise you I would have ate my lunch, I would have had dessert, and I probably would have made a few phone calls," White said with a laugh.
"I am the consistent guy you see promoting the fights, doing the things, and I appreciate it. Don’t ever be mistaken who the real stars are. The fighters are the real stars. Believe me."
It’s never easy to pinpoint why some fighters catch on with fans and others don’t. It’s not as simple as wins or losses or a name like Renan Barao would have been on top of the world prior to his fight with T.J. Dillashaw as he rode a 30-plus fight unbeaten streak into the Octagon.
Some would say the language barrier prevents some foreign fighters from catching on in the United States where everyone speaks English, but again there have been names like Anderson Silva, who remains one of the biggest stars in the sport today.
It sometimes comes down to catching fire at the exact right moment.
For instance look at St-Pierre as the prime example of the right place at the right time with the right kind of fighter.
When St-Pierre burst onto the scene in 2004, the sport of MMA was still very much in its infancy compared to where the UFC is at today. Here was this 23-year old Canadian with all the raw talent and ability to conquer the world given enough time.
As time ticked away, St-Pierre’s legend grew and an entire nation got behind him as Canada rallied around their home country hero as he ran roughshod over the entire UFC welterweight division. Over the course of his UFC career, St-Pierre was three times voted the Canadian Athlete of the year in front of famous and beloved hockey players.
The sport doesn’t have St-Pierre currently, but given the blueprint for how he became the biggest star in the UFC, White sees another person on the horizon ready to fill his role.
UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is already one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, but as the promotion embarks on their first pay-per-view card in Mexico later this year, the entire future of the sport south of the border lies in his hands. Velasquez is a well-liked and well-received fighter in the United States, but White sees him transcending superstar status with his fan base growing everyday in Mexico.
"Cain Velasquez, too, we’re literally riding him down to Mexico," White said on Friday. "I wouldn’t even go to Mexico without Cain Velasquez. Cain Velasquez is a huge star, too. When you have an entire country that’s going to follow and support you, there’s nothing bigger than that."
The support of an entire country seems to be the difference between being a star and being a superstar in the UFC. St-Pierre had it with Canada and over time he built his stardom into a brand, and was the biggest draw on pay-per-view in the UFC.
Velasquez could follow suit with the UFC’s push into Mexico, and soon the company could have another megastar cash cow raking in huge numbers at the box office.
"You can argue it’s Jon Jones, it’s Ronda (Rousey), they don’t have Canada riding on their backs. They don’t have Mexico riding on their backs. When you can get a whole country behind you, that’s when you know what a big star you are," White said.
"Cain is, he’s the guy everyone cares about down there. Biggest press conference in Telavisa history when we went down there."