2016 is shaping up to be the biggest year in UFC history, thanks predominantly to Conor McGregor with an expected “assist” from Ronda Rousey (expected because she doesn’t fight until December). Below is a list of estimated PPV buys since January of this year courtesy of MMAPayout.com:
UFC 195, 01/02/2016
Lawler vs Condit
UFC 196, 03/05/2016
McGregor vs Diaz
UFC 197, 04/23/2016
Jones vs St. Preux
UFC 198, 05/14/2016
Werdum vs Miocic
UFC 199, 06/04/2016
Rockhold v Bisping 2
UFC 200, 07/09/2016
Tate v Nunes
UFC 201, 07/30/2016
Lawler v Woodley
UFC 202, 08/20/2016
McGregor v Diaz 2
Of course the year isn’t over yet, and Rousey’s upcoming fight in December against Amanda Nunes should exceed the one million mark even though UFC is foolishly doing that show on a Friday night, a move that will cost the company a couple hundred thousand buys at least.
In 2015, only two events exceeded a million buys, that being the Rousey vs. Holly Holm fight at UFC 193 that November which did a reported 1.1 million buys and the McGregor vs. Aldo fight at UFC 194 that did a reported 1.2 million buys. Of the other eight events in 2015 that weren’t headlined by McGregor or Rousey, the average buys were 365,625. Only two shows exceeded 500,000 buys (Silva vs. Diaz at UFC 183 and Jones vs. Cormier at UFC 182) and only one exceeded 750,000 buys (Jones vs. Cormier).
So far this year the trend has been even more alarming, as only one card not featuring Rousey or McGregor has exceeded 500,000 buys, that being UFC 200 featuring Brock Lesnar. Even UFC 203 featuring the novelty of CM Punk’s first UFC fight - failed to hit that mark, doing an estimated 425,000 – 475,000 buys, still good compared to the non-Rousey/McGregor average, but nowhere near what those two stars generated. Matter of fact, the only regular UFC fighter outside of those names to even exceed 400,000 buys since January of 2015 is Jon Jones, but he has shown so far that he can’t carry a card by himself and needs a big name opponent, unlike McGregor and Rousey who can seemingly compete against anyone and draw.
My point is that both Rousey and McGregor have indicated that they’re going to slow things down in 2017. Rousey has stated publicly that her upcoming fight with Nunes will be one of her last, and it appears likely that she’ll be done with the sport after 2017. And McGregor, who was very active in 2016 with three fights, has announced that he’ll become a father next year and has hinted at his desire to slow things down as well. Brock Lesnar will likely never fight again pending the outcome of his USADA battle, and CM Punk likely won’t fight again on PPV after his performance against Mickey Gall, although I can envision UFC giving him one more shot on a Fight Night card since he’s still a draw regardless.
Given UFC’s new ownership and the fact that they’re expecting a fee increase in the FOX television contract in 2018, it’s imperative that they keep the numbers up. But if Rousey and McGregor step aside or at least reduce their respective schedules, the cupboards appear to be pretty bare as far as who can step up to fill their shoes. Let’s look at some of the potential main event draws outside of UFC’s “big two”:
Jon Jones: His last fight in April exceeded the company’s non-Rousey/McGregor average, doing 425,000 buys against the relatively unknown Ovince Saint Preux. His fight with Daniel Cormier last January did well due to the built-in story and known grudge. And if anything it seems that the MMA fanbase largely views Cormier as a paper champion and considers Jones the unbeaten, uncrowned king of the light heavyweight division. If he can get his outside issues in check, he can potentially come back bigger than ever.
Nick Diaz: Like Jones, Diaz has had his share of issues outside the cage and hasn’t fought in UFC since a bout with Anderson Silva in January of 2015. But he has one of those “loose cannon” personalities that you can’t help but pay attention to, and his skill inside the cage is undeniable. There are rumors that he may return to the Octagon in 2017 and he’s sure to put up numbers, even if it’s one-and-done.
Nate Diaz: His two matches with McGregor got him the most publicity of his career. However, it’s questionable whether he could carry a card by himself if his opponent is anyone other than Conor. And much like his brother, he doesn’t need to fight anymore and will only do so if it makes good financial sense.
Paige VanZant: Truth be told, Ronda Rousey - and Gina Carano before her - were given opportunities in large part due to their looks. Rousey’s judo background was unmistakable, but had she been less photogenic, it’s doubtful that UFC would have chosen to build the women’s division around her. VanZant now is getting opportunities for the same reasons, even appearing on “Dancing with the Stars” this year. But although VanZant doesn’t have the skillset of Rousey (at least not yet), she’s only 22, she has a 7-2 MMA record, and she has the physical characteristics that UFC looks for. If she can keep winning and improve her promo game, there is great potential here.
Cris Cyborg: She has been tearing up women’s MMA outside the UFC for what seems like forever, and easily defeated Carano in Strikeforce in 2009. She has finally made it to UFC and has made clear her intention to be featured as a “special attraction” at a 140 pound catch weight. Unfortunately, steroid allegations have followed her around her entire career, and her refusal to get to 135 for a superfight with Ronda Rousey has led to questions about her dedication and whether she may be ducking the former UFC champ.
Dominick Cruz: The current Bantamweight Champion, he’s an elite level fighter with a 22-1 record, and also a great talker, serving as an analyst for Fox Sports. The problem with Cruz has been injuries; he lost several years of his prime for that reason. But he’s set now to face a tough test in Cody Garbrandt in December and if he can pull off a convincing victory while talking the talk, he could be a face of the company next year.
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson: He’s not the greatest interview, but he’s a hell of a talent to watch with his creative offense and variety of kicks. He also has a likeable quality, and at UFC 205 he won over the tough NY crowd at Madison Square Garden by surviving what looked to be a very tight guillotine choke and getting a majority draw decision against Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley. He’s 13-1-1 and is sure to get a rematch with Woodley. If he can win the rematch decisively, he has the potential to rule that division for as long as he wants.
Daniel Cormier: Outside of the grudge match with Jon Jones (and arguably UFC 200 with Anderson Silva although he wasn’t “the” draw on that show), Cormier hasn’t been able to reach 400,000 buys on any show he’s headlined. He’s an Olympic athlete, a great talker and a personable guy, but he’s got the stigma of being a paper champion who never defeated Jones in the cage to win his title. Unless/until he gets Jones in a rematch and beats him, he may never shake that stigma no matter how successful he continues to be.
Georges St. Pierre: His comeback would do big numbers, especially in Canada where PPV buys have dropped off since he went on hiatus. But his status is up in the air and he may never fight again in UFC, which is why he’s on the “Honorable Mention” list.
Cain Velasquez: When he isn’t injured he’s arguably the best heavyweight in the world. His wins have been one-sided and decisive, and his losses haven’t been without controversy - he was injured against Junior Dos Santos, and he didn’t train for the altitude against Fabricio Werdum. The problem with Velasquez is that he’s too shy and too nice. He doesn’t talk up his fights and he doesn’t drum up controversy, and so much like Nate Diaz or Jon Jones he’s only done big numbers with a big time opponent, ala Brock Lesnar at UFC 121.
Mickey Gall and Sage Northcutt: I group these two guys together because their careers have followed a similar path so far. Both were featured on Dana White’s “Looking for a Fight” show. Both are young (Gall is 24 as of this writing, and Northcutt is 20). Both are relatively new to the sport and boast impressive records, although Northcutt has the advantage of having an extra year and a half of experience, and six extra fights. Both have a marketable look, both can talk, and both seem to understand the importance of showmanship in a successful fighter. They are also on a collision course and are scheduled to fight at “UFC on Fox 22” on December 17. Northcutt has been fighting recently as a lightweight while Gall has been a welterweight, and this will be a welterweight fight which could give Gall an advantage. Either way, both of these kids have the potential to become all-around stars with a couple more years of seasoning so long as the wheels don’t fall off and they stay the course.
There’s a reason why a large crossover fanbase exists between pro wrestling and mixed martial arts; in both categories being a skilled in-ring competitor isn’t enough to draw the large casual fanbase. You have to have the intangible qualities that make you a “total package” and both Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor have those qualities. But if they step out of the way, will there be anyone to fill the void? Time will tell.