FEATURE: Cage-fighting promoters searching for new stars

The Guardian, MONTREAL

Tue, Dec 31, 2013 - Page 19

He is the face of cage fighting — and not always a pretty one. The Canadian mixed martial artist Georges St-Pierre has reigned supreme over ultimate fighting for more than six years. He is a model, multimillionaire and as much a poster boy for his sport as Muhammad Ali was for 1970s boxing or David Beckham for 1990s soccer.

However, just as the controversial sport is planning a bold European expansion, a problem has arisen. After a particularly messy recent fight, St-Pierre vacated his welterweight belt and announced an indefinite break from the sport. It could not have come at a worse time for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) organization.

The UFC enterprise, reportedly worth US$2 billion, pits fighters employing submission wrestling, punches and kicks against one another inside an octagonal cage.

It was once denounced as “human cockfighting” by US Senator John McCain, but the sport has been sanitized and had a major public relations makeover in the past decade, with St-Pierre as its main pin-up.

The UFC’s European business plan, led by former Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook, involves building up regional fighters into headline brawlers through a series of reality TV shows known as The Ultimate Fighter, along with live, ticketed shows. Events are being planned for countries including the UK, Ireland, Poland, Germany and Sweden for next year.

However, the aspiring champions and the ticket sellers will not have St-Pierre to draw on, either as their inspiration or part of their marketing pitch.

The 32-year-old has said he needs time to focus on his personal life and to get over his habit of focusing obsessively on his next fight, no matter how far in the future it may be.

As welterweight champion since August 2007, he said the same success that turned him into an international celebrity led to his decision to withdraw from the sport.

“The situation that I’m in, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s like every fight I’m carrying weight on my shoulder and every fight it’s like you add weight ... and add weight and add weight. At one point it becomes so heavy that I have a hard time carrying it myself,” he said.

St-Pierre has profited greatly from his exploits. He has a UFC contract worth US$9 million a year, plus another US$3 million in sponsorships and endorsements, according to Forbes magazine. He wrote a bestselling book, The Way of the Fight, that is a mix of biography and inspirational fan guide. He also has a role in the forthcoming film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and lent his voice to the French-language version of the animated children’s movie Monster University.

However, not even the most talented makeup artist could reproduce the damage done to St-Pierre’s face in a five-round title fight last month, after which he gave his first hint of the decision that was coming.

The champion said that at one point during his savaging by Johny Hendricks, a powerful former college wrestler from Oklahoma, he could no longer see out of his right eye and that he had “lost a little bit of memory of what happened.”

“My brain got bashed left and right inside my skull,” he said. “So I just need to think about what’s going to happen.”

His comments turned questions about his physical and mental health into doubts about the future of the fast-rising sport as a whole.

The pay-per-view orders double or triple when St-Pierre is on the bill, as they do for recently injured Brazilian Anderson Silva, UFC’s middleweight champion from 2006 until July this year.

“I think it’s definitely an issue. He’s arguably their top pay-per-view draw, him and Anderson Silva,” said Steven Salaga, an assistant professor of sport management business at the Florida Institute of Technology who has written on the UFC’s business model. “If they lose both of those two at the same time, that’s certainly a bigger issue.”

Andre Richelieu, a professor of sports marketing at Quebec City’s Laval University, said the UFC must now renew itself by creating “new superstars who will act as emotional anchors” for those who may feel set adrift by St-Pierre’s absence.

It may also be a lesson for the future to spread celebrity more evenly and with it the risk to the sport when one main draw disappears, he said.

UFC president Dana White appears to have already taken that lesson to heart.

The timeless story of “the fight game” involves old champs being replaced by new ones, he said, before the promoter in him took over.

“The story isn’t finished yet. The guy’s going to go deal with his stuff,” he said. “It’s like you put a bookmark in it and we wait to see how this story ends.”