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A Tyron Woodley right hand ended the spectacular welterweight title run of “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler in the UFC 201 main event on Saturday at Philips Arena in Atlanta. The two American Top Team quasi-teammates cautiously moved about the cage for nearly two minutes without much interaction before Woodley uncorked a huge right hand that felled Lawler against the cage. The challenger wrested the belt from his friend with follow-up punches, as the stunned champion just couldn’t find his wits in time to defend himself.
The upset continued a string of underdog winners who snatched Ultimate Fighting Championship belts from their favored foes. UFC titles have now changed hands seven times since the calendar flipped to 2016. Lawler reigned over the welterweight division for about 19 months, a veritable marathon run compared to some of the other divisions of late.
As for the new champion, it’s hard not to be happy for the man. Woodley is a great guy and an awesome fighter. He came to the sport a little later than some but has battled and endured his way to this position. I, for one, couldn’t be any happier for him.
I know the guy just left the Octagon, but the talk about a future title shot for the hard-charging Stephen Thompson just can’t wait. “Wonderboy” has been tearing through the top of the division, and his crack at UFC gold can wait no longer. I imagine we will get to see Woodley defend his newly minted strap before the end of the year.
The parade of new titleholders presents an interesting dilemma for the promotion. The UFC pours a ton of money into building up its marquee stars, as well as those who have been crowned champions. With all the shuffling, it will be interesting to see who connects with the fans and who flops.
It isn’t an exact science by any stretch of the imagination, either. Take Lawler as an example. This guy should have been one of the biggest stars for the company, with his blood-and-guts style of fighting, epic battles and amazing story of redemption after a decade away from the UFC. It just wasn’t to be for “Brutal Bob.” He never really connected with the mainstream MMA fan. While he’s beloved by the fanatic hardcore cadre of fans, his soft-spoken demeanor kept him off the radar of many of the sport’s more casual followers.
The UFC has seen unprecedented growth because of the reach fighters like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey have brought to the sport. They, along with Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones, show just how fleeting star power can be in MMA. The cavalcade of new champions puts an even greater onus on the organization to try to develop potential new stars. In a sport where revenue can fluctuate greatly, having a squad of marketable champions and long-tenured stars is one of the big keys to keeping that profit engine revved up. The company has done a great job of bringing in fresh talent over the past couple of years, and it’s going to have to keep unearthing viable future stars if it wants to maintain its momentum.
I know having champions defend their belts over and over again doesn’t make them marquee attractions; just ask Demetrious Johnson. It does, however, give the promotion a head start in selling fighters who bring that “it” factor to the table. The revolving door atop so many weight classes makes it that much harder to lure in casual fans and turn them into diehard “Fighter X” supporters.
You can bet your bottom dollar that the new ownership group from WME-IMG will be looking at ways to further expose its talent to new audiences. It will most likely start with UFC champions. Hopefully, the organization can keep a few of them in place for more than a couple months so it can reap the rewards for its efforts.
Sherdog.com Executive Editor Greg Savage can be reached by email or via Twitter @TheSavageTruth.