The queen is dead. Long live … who?
With the loss by Ronda Rousey to Holly Holm over the weekend, the Ultimate Fighting Championship finds itself in need of a marquee star. Though other fighters have periodically had mainstream attention over the years, only Rousey captured the attention of nonfans, made the covers of magazines like Self, Maxim and Sports Illustrated, and was a regular on talk shows, award shows and in Hollywood movies.
Here are the 10 fighters best equipped to be the UFC’s biggest name in the months ahead:
10. Donald Cerrone
Known as Cowboy, Cerrone, 32, always rates highly in most popular fighter surveys. Though he has been fighting in the Octagon since 2011, several ill-timed losses have prevented him from ever getting a title shot. A run of eight straight wins has finally earned it for him, and he will fight the lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos on Dec. 19 in Orlando, Florida. He is the underdog, but if one of his devastating head kicks can catch the Brazilian, he could jump up into the top levels of stardom.
9. Demetrious Johnson
Some fans do not like the smaller fighters, but they often put on a fast-moving, action-packed show. The affable Johnson is the only UFC flyweight champion in history and has methodically defended his title seven times. No one doubts his skills, but a few more knockouts, and maybe a little less geniality, would help his popularity.
8. C.M. Punk
Though the sport continues to mature, there is still a lot of carnival in mixed martial arts, and most fans enjoy that. Brock Lesnar was an accomplished heavyweight champion, but his popularity in the cage stemmed in large part from his years in professional wrestling. Now another colorful wrestler, C.M. Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, is set to try his hand at MMA, with a debut sometime in 2016. There is no telling how good he will be, and many people expect him to flop. But if it turns out he can fight, his background will make him one of the most watched fighters very quickly.
7. Anderson Silva
The king of MMA for years, Silva holds the record for most consecutive UFC wins, 16. Flamboyant and cocky, the Brazilian would have topped a list like this for a decade or more. But the last few years have not been kind; he was knocked out while showboating against Chris Weidman and lost his title, then suffered a terrible leg injury in the rematch. After a year away, he returned, then failed a drug test. He plans to return to the Octagon in 2016, and there will be excitement when he does. But at 40, his time may be past.
6. Chris Weidman
A native of Long Island, New York, who wrestled at Hofstra, Weidman is champion of the ultracompetitive middleweight division. He made his name with those back-to-back wins in 2013 over Silva and has done little wrong since. He fights Luke Rockhold in Las Vegas on Dec. 12 and will be favored again. But his ability to transcend the sport is still in doubt; the Rockhold bout is not even the main event on the card.
5. Holly Holm
One fight vaulted Holm from unknown to one of the game’s bigger names. The path ahead depends entirely on her performance. A win in a Rousey rematch will prove wrong those calling her a fluke. But should she lose, she could sink without a trace. The famous upsetter she has been compared to, Buster Douglas, lost his title immediately after stunning Mike Tyson and never fought a match of importance again.
4. Jose Aldo
Currently ranked No. 1 in most lists of the best pound-for-pound fighters, Aldo has dominated the featherweight decision since 2009. A rib injury has kept him out of the ring for a year, and a lot will ride on his comeback fight against …
3. Conor McGregor
McGregor has taken the UFC by storm, with his fists and mouth getting him attention, especially among Irish and Irish-Americans. After a win in January, he jumped out of the cage and wildly confronted Aldo, who was sitting at ringside. The lower-key Aldo just laughed. Now the two will meet Dec. 12 in Las Vegas for the undisputed featherweight title in one of the most anticipated fights in years. It is a sign of how fast McGregor’s stock is rising that he is actually the betting favorite over the nonpareil Aldo. The winner will have a real claim to the spot as the UFC’s top dog.
2. Jon Jones
Jones has inherited the unbeatable mantle once held by Rousey. He is 21-1 in MMA, with the only loss coming on a disqualification for illegal elbows. He became the youngest UFC champ at 23, and since then has taken on all comers in the light-heavyweight division and seldom been challenged. But Jones ran into trouble outside the cage when he was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jones was stripped of his title, suspended and pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Now reinstated, and only 28, there is no reason to think he will not return to his previous dominance in 2016.
1. Ronda Rousey
Yes, there’s no getting around it. Ronda Rousey is still the UFC’s biggest star. Part of her appeal lay in her invincibility. That is gone, but it has been replaced by an equally appealing comeback story line.
Love her or hate her — and based on the reaction to her loss, many fans hate her — Rousey makes news. Her comeback fight, probably against Holm, will draw as much attention, if not more, than any in her career.
“When she gets over this loss, she’s going to be a savage,” the UFC’s president, Dana White, told MMA Junkie. If the loss motivates Rousey to get better, her continuing stardom will be assured.