After spending years getting trashed by UFC management, Cris Cyborg made her Octagon debut on May 14, 2016. She dispatched of Leslie Smith in 1:21, showing a potentially new audience why she is the most dangerous female fighter in the world. In her second fight, she headlined in Brazil against Lina Lansberg.
The September bout with Lansberg drew 8,410 fans (no gate was announced) at the Ginasio Nilson Nelson. The attendance was down from the 8,822 fans drawn by Antonio Silva and Andrei Arlovski in 2014 at the same gymnasium.
The ratings told a better story. The event drew 1.1 million on FS 1, peaking at 1.3 million viewers for Cyborg's bout. It was the most watched UFC event headlined by a female and the highest rated UFC event since March of that year. One week prior, an event headlined by Michael Johnson and Dustin Poirier drew 826,000 viewers on FS 1.
Cyborg's strong television ratings didn't come as a surprise to longtime fans. Her 2009 fight with Gina Carano was the highest rated Strikeforce/EliteXC event on Showtime up to that point. The 576,000 viewers they drew topped even Ronda Rousey's eventual fights with Miesha Tate and Sarah Kaufman.
Both bouts were contested at 140 lbs for....reasons. The official reason is that Cyborg needed to cut the weight to prepare for a bout with Ronda Rousey. But a Rousey fight was not guaranteed and ended up being off the table by the end of the year after Amanda Nunes sent the current WWE star into hiding.
In January 2017, UFC moved forward with their women's featherweight division. Only Cyborg would not be in the inaugural title fight. She turned down the January date as she was still recovering from the September weight cut. She was also flagged by USADA for a doping violation, which she cleared up with retroactive therapeutic use exemption. Instead of waiting for their biggest asset to get healthy, UFC went ahead and booked a women's featherweight title fight between Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie.
It was a desperate ploy to save UFC 208 by adding a title fight and another slap in the face of Cyborg.
De Randamie won and became the biggest footnote in UFC history. She was stripped of the title in the summer after refusing to fight Cyborg.
Finally, in July 2107, Cyborg would fight for the women's featherweight title. She dominated Tonya Evinger, eventually finishing her in the third round. It's impossible to judge Cyborg's impact on the UFC 214 as the event was headlined by the grudge match between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier. UFC 214 would have drawn 750,000-plus on pay-per-view with anything underneath the light heavyweight title tilt.
UFC 219 and a date with Holly Holm was Cyborg's first real test as a pay-per-view headliner.
The event drew 13,561 fans for a gate of $1.7 million at T-Mobile Arena. Two months earlier, UFC 216, headlined by Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson, drew 10,638 fans for a $677,999 gate. Of the five UFC events held at T-Mobile Arena, Cyborg-Holm drew the biggest attendance, but only the third highest gate.
On pay-per-view, it was the third highest selling event of the year, coming in at 380,000 buys. If you want to show extreme bias towards Cyborg, you can say she had two of the top three selling pay-per-views in 2018.
This past weekend, headlining against an unknown Yana Kunitskaya, Cyborg was back at T-Mobile arena. The attendance and gate were down from UFC 219, drawing 12,041 fans for $1.3 million. Pay-per-view numbers are not out yet, but the final buyrate is unlikely to be over 300,000.
The jury is still out on just how big of a draw Cyborg is, but early returns are encouraging. The company is now behind her, promoting her as "The Most Feared Fight in Women's MMA History" leading up to UFC 222. Her two pay-per-view headliners came in T-Mobile arena, where there is no "first time at the arena" boost to the gate. The fights underneath her (Khabib Nurmagomedov-Edson Barboza at UFC 219 and Frankie Edgar-Brian Ortega at UFC 222) have been solid, but only Frankie Edgar is a proven commodity of the four. And even his drawing power is on the low end of the spectrum.
Lack of opponents might be the biggest detriment to Cyborg's drawing power. After Amanda Nunes, the women's featherweight queen will be stuck fighting unknowns and whoever they can convince to gain ten pounds. However, the lack of feasible opponents in relation to her drawing power could be overstated.
Fans will flock to a dominant fighter as long as the promotion is behind them. Ronda Rousey drew millions despite being unchallenged because she was promoted as the female Mike Tyson. Demetrious Johnson might be the pound-for-pound best fighter ever and wouldn't get recognized at a mall in Kentucky because he's treated as an afterthought.
Dana White and the UFC know what they have with Cyborg. It's about time she got the recognition she deserves.
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