It's the biggest star problem since the Rebel Alliance.
Jon Jones failed an in-competition drug test at UFC 214, when he beat Daniel Cormier to reclaim the light heavyweight title. Jones will have his day before UFC president Dana White and USADA to explain why Turinabol, an orally ingested anabolic steroid, was in his system. But a lengthy suspension for arguably MMA's best ever seems likely.
The UFC has to at least consider being without one of its biggest draws for the foreseeable future. And a like-for-like replacement isn't readily available.
Ronda Rousey's mystique is gone, should she even come back to the Octagon. Anderson Silva is a shadow of himself. Brock Lesnar has expressed loose interest in a return, but hurdles of WWE obligations and time persist for what would likely be a one-off. Georges St-Pierre says he's on a three-fight plan, but how he'll compare to the force of yesteryear remains a mystery.
And no one in the MMA bubble would be altogether shocked if Conor McGregor takes his nine-figure paycheck from last Saturday's mega-fight against Floyd Mayweather, makes another appearance or two, and then follows through with his plan to "retire young."
Thanks for the cheese. Catch ya's later.
In that conceivable scenario, who would be the UFC's biggest star? With whom can they headline a pay-per-view and have nonhardcore fans care enough to buy it?
The recipe of transcendent popularity isn't exact.
The gap of demand between Rousey and Joanna Jedrzejczyk is far greater than their gap of dominance. While Jedrzejczyk is clearly the more complete fighter, Rousey headlined six pay-per-views, Joanna none.
Demetrious Johnson is on the cusp of breaking Silva's title defense record. Look no further than White, the promoter, publicly criticizing DJ's ability to sell fights to disqualify him from this conversation. A dearth of near-equals doesn't help Johnson, a problem shared by Cyborg Justino.
What about the heavier weight classes?
Robert Whittaker seems ready for a long run among the upper echelon of middleweights. The 26-year-old interim champ has a 12-month résumé that's tough to top, with wins over Yoel Romero, Jacare Souza and Derek Brunson. But accessibility is an issue. Living and training in Australia makes regular, mainstream access to American fans challenging.
The same can be said for featherweight champion Max Holloway. The 25-year-old Hawaiian already has an astonishing 17 UFC appearances, including a dismantling of the once-untouchable Jose Aldo in June.
Stipe Miocic might be the most consistent heavyweight in promotion history, having already matched the division's title defense record. He handles himself well in front of the camera, genuinely engages interviewers and dresses to the nines. But there's a reason that belt has been historically mobile. Singular mistakes are final when big men wear small gloves.
Plus, Stipe is almost too good of a guy to demand public attention. There's no correlation between being an MMA A-lister and my willingness to ask you to babysit (Bobby Knuckles and Holloway would fall in that group, too, but the mileage is brutal).
At its base level, this is still cage fighting. Part of the muddied calculation for stardom is an element of the forbidden.
The UFC is responsible for much of this. Marketability can't be built in a vacuum. There's a harmony between fighter and employer to position well -- on cards and in the public domain -- to actualize promotional potential.
If I were in a corner office at WME headquarters, my chips would go behind four fighters, with hopes that one or two can hook fringe fans and move toward regular high-six-figure buy rates: Jedrzejczyk, Holloway, Whittaker and Cody Garbrandt.
The opening of the women's flyweight division makes Joanna an immediate favorite to hold two belts before 2018 closes out. While she won't make as many talk show rounds as Ronda, today's pound-for-pound queen of MMA can capitalize on the all-too-often overlooked female fan base.
Holloway could traverse between lightweight and featherweight, much like peak Silva's regular ventures up a class, and his best days lie ahead. His interest is regionalized, for now, but GSP and McGregor, through dominance, found ways to expand theirs.
Whittaker, ever improving, is set for a long run in an aging division. He's one of just three ranked middleweights under age 32, the only one in the top eight. Barring serious injury, the pride of Oceania will take part in many, many more title fights before he hangs up the gloves.
Garbrandt, like Miocic, is a blue-collar, Ohio-bred, boxer-wrestler hybrid establishing quite a reel of knockouts. More of the same with proper positioning would significantly grow his profile. It's early for him, too; he turned 26 in July. His trajectory might only be matched by Holloway and Whitaker, and his tattoo game is rivaled by no one.
Opportunity is as present as ever for these fighters and others. There is usually at least one obvious ace to make transition seamless. That doesn't appear the case now.
Stars will emerge. They always have. But with its TV rights deal up for renewal next summer, the UFC is just as eager as us to find them.