Can Stipe Miocic and Joanna Jedrzejczyk become UFC superstars?

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When UFC president Dana White was on “Inside the NBA” on Wednesday after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, it came as no surprise which UFC fighter and which possible fight he was asked about.

It’s the only UFC fighter and the only fight he has been asked about by non-MMA media for the past few months.

When will we see UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor fight Floyd Mayweather?

“The McGregor side is done,” White told the show, which McGregor later confirmed. “I’m starting to work on the Mayweather side now.”

When the Mayweather side will get done — if it ever actually gets done — is anyone’s guess. Even White laughed when asked late Saturday night when he expected to come to terms with Mayweather.

“We’re just getting this deal done with Conor,” he said. “What do you think the Mayweather side is going to be like and how much time do you think I’m going to spend on this?”

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In the meantime, talk of a glorified exhibition boxing match between McGregor, the UFC’s biggest star in the prime of his career, and Mayweather, the 40-year-old retired boxing champion, will continue to dominate the mainstream coverage and consciousness of UFC.

It’s no secret that 2017 has been rough for UFC. Fight cancellations for a variety of reasons have plagued many cards that have already been void of the mainstream stars that helped the company enjoy unprecedented pay-per-view success over a 14-month period from the end of 2015 to the end of 2016 when McGregor (four), Ronda Rousey (two) and Brock Lesnar (one) combined to headline seven pay-per-views, each garnering over one million pay-per-view buys.

While final pay-per-view numbers aren’t in yet, last Saturday’s UFC 211 in Dallas, easily the company’s most stacked card of the year, is expected to garner around 300,000 buys. It would be the largest buy rate for the company this year.

The problem is, not only was UFC 211 a deep card, it was headlined by UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and UFC women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who could easily be the faces of the company.

Miocic has the most successful title defenses (two) of any UFC heavyweight champion ever and has won his last four fights decisively in the first round, knocking out former UFC champions Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum and Junior dos Santos as well as Alistair Overeem. He is arguably the greatest heavyweight champion in UFC history and could probably remove the “arguably” tag if he is able to take down Cain Velasquez next and defend his heavyweight title successfully for a record third straight time.

Jedrzejczyk is one win away from tying Rousey’s record (six) for most title defenses in UFC history. She has never lost in her MMA career, dating back to 2012, and is eyeing becoming the UFC’s first women’s two-division champion. In a thoroughly dominant win over Jessica Andrade on Sunday, she landed the most significant strikes in UFC championship history and had the highest significant strike differential in UFC championship history. She is arguably the greatest female MMA fighter ever.

It stands to reason that a UFC pay-per-view headlined by arguably the greatest UFC heavyweight ever and the greatest women’s fighter ever should be an easy sell for a mainstream audience, but Miocic and Jedrzejczyk haven’t yet earned the mainstream fame the likes of McGregor, Lesnar and Rousey enjoyed.

How and when that happens isn’t an easy answer for White and the UFC. They can book both fighters on media tours and talk-show circuits around big events, but superstars are often built outside of the Octagon. Whether it’s Rousey’s looks, which got her on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue and ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, or McGregor’s gift of gab or Lesnar’s previous run with the WWE; they attract casual fans and mainstream attention for reasons outside of knockout streaks or strike differential.

UFC president Dana White hopes another fighter reaches the stardom level of Conor McGregor. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

“Everybody in the fight game has a different path,” White said. “For some people it [happens fast]. When we bought the UFC, Chuck Liddell wasn’t in the UFC. The UFC didn’t want him. We brought him in and he became the biggest star, but look how long it took. He was in Tito [Ortiz]’s shadow for a long time, and then he wins the big Tito fight and he becomes arguably one of the biggest stars ever in the sport. Everybody has their own path.”

Jedrzejczyk has tried to fast-track her path over the past year. She moved from Poland to the United States, joining American Top Team (ATT), one of the premier MMA teams in the world, and switched management teams. She is now represented by Paradigm Sports Management, which also represents McGregor.

“That’s why I moved to the U.S.,” Jedrzejczyk said. “That’s why I moved to ATT. I want to build my brand in the U.S. MMA in Poland is very big, but there are other organizations. The UFC is going to be for the second time in Poland this year. People know a lot about my MMA, but I feel like I’m an international champion. The UFC is simply the best organization in the world, and most of the shows are here in the United States. I feel like I need to be here to build my brand. I just signed with new management, I met a few agents, and I want to put on more outside the gym, outside the Octagon. But the most important thing is to work hard and to keep defending the belt.”

Miocic isn’t as interested in growing his brand as Jedrzejczyk. He’s content being the heavyweight champion and a local celebrity in Cleveland where he has become a household name at Cavaliers, Browns and Indians games over the past year as well as being the most famous part-time firefighter/paramedic in Ohio.

“I’m going to be me,” Miocic said. “What you see on ‘Embedded,’ that’s how I am 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. That’s exactly how I am. I’m surprised my wife hasn’t left me yet because she puts up with a lot of [stuff]. I’m never going to change. If they want to promote me, awesome, but I’m not going to beg for it. I’m going to be the guy I am — a normal Midwest boy that loves to fight and likes to win and is a fireman.”

Miocic and Jedrzejczyk could easily cement their legacies as the best-ever in their respective divisions and become faces of the company following their next win. But as long as McGregor and Mayweather loom in the distance, casting a shadow over the UFC and every other budding star and big fight, chances are they’ll continue to go unnoticed by casual fans and pay-per-view buyers waiting on an exhibition boxing match.



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