Saturday's UFC 158 may wind up being the biggest pay-per-view event UFC's top draw, Georges St-Pierre, has done on his own with preliminary indications that the show will top 800,000 buys.
The show was expected to be the company's most successful show since July's UFC 148 with Anderson Silva's return match with Chael Sonnen. St-Pierre had done numbers in the 750,000 to 800,000 range in previous fights with B.J. Penn, Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck and Jake Shields, but this show is expected to finish slightly ahead of those fights.
St-Pierre vs. Thiago Alves was the co-headliner at UFC 100 in 2009, which was by far the most successful event in company history, doing an estimated 1.6 million buys. However, that number was drawn on the combination of the number of the event, St-Pierre, and a heavyweight title grudge match with Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir.
The difference maker is that the public found Nick Diaz to be St-Pierre's most intriguing opponent to date, Diaz was coming off a loss to Carlos Condit and a one-year suspension for a second marijuana test failure in Nevada. But in playing up the grudge match aspect, public interest in the match up was strong all week with near-record numbers watching the press conference and the weigh-ins.
Diaz's unpredictability made him a uniquely compelling opponent for St-Pierre. Historically, personal issues, whether real of contrived, involving the biggest stars are going to draw the biggest numbers. In this case, it was a match the public had been primed for since 2011. The fight had fallen through twice, once when Diaz was pulled over missing two press conferences, and a second time when St-Pierre went down with a torn ACL. Diaz had spent years as a headliner for rival promotions, Elite XC and then Strikeforce, and headlined a number of nationally televised events and captured the Strikeforce welterweight title.
As it turned out, his no-showing the Wednesday public workout in its own way focused more attention on the fight, as did his rambling monologues at the press conference that appeared to get under St-Pierre's skin. The feeling this would be a different St-Pierre also helped sell the event, even though as soon as the fight started, it was clear St-Pierre was fighting his usual best strategic fight to win as opposed to fighting with emotion leading to a wilder battle.
When UFC acquired Strikeforce in early 2011, with Diaz as welterweight champion riding an 11-fight win streak, a bout with St-Pierre seemed an obvious major event. The loss, hiatus and delay in making the fight didn't seem to cool off interest with the public, which peaked in the final few days after Diaz took over the press conference and stated he believed St-Pierre was using steroids. An incident at a Las Vegas hotel in 2011 between the two was played up, and the normally calm St-Pierre appeared to lose his cool on several occasions.
Even Diaz's assertions that the UFC and St-Pierre were selling "wolf tickets," and warned the public not to fall for the hype, created more talk, while UFC President Dana White defended the legitimacy of the buildup.
The success of the show is even more impressive since it was achieved without a three-week Primetime series as Penn, Hardy, and Shields had to build up their title challenges. The Ultimate Fighter season with Koscheck and GSP had weekly tension between the coaches.
Diaz presented a unique dichotomy, in the sense his ability to promote a fight naturally ranks with the best, but his showing up to do so ranked with the worst. His fight style, with the high punch output usually makes for an entertaining fight, it's the idea that you have no idea what he will do next at any time that is his real calling card. But that has its flip side of promoting fights, with his no-shows of press conferences and a number of interview sessions, leaving the company with minimal usable footage for television hype specials.