What UFC 168 needs to become the second-biggest show in company history

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With Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva for the middleweight title and Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate for the women's bantamweight title, UFC 168 on Dec. 28 in Las Vegas, is the company's biggest show of the year. But the question, can be one of the biggest in company history?

The decision to put the Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva rematch on the same show as the already announced Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate fight shows the UFC is making its strongest attempt to do its biggest show since UFC 100.

Dana White is already promoting Weidman’s first middleweight title defense against six-plus year champion Silva as the biggest rematch in UFC history. And he’s also predicted between 1.2-1.4 million buys for UFC 168, which takes place on Dec. 28 at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. The level of pay-per-view buys White was talking about is a number that no UFC show has ever approached except the aforementioned biggest show in company history four years ago.

Whether Weidman vs. Silva actually the biggest rematch in UFC history is debatable. Under the laws of promoter hyperbole, in that a statement promoting a fight can’t be viewed as so outrageous it becomes a joke, that statement cuts the mustard. At its worst, it is among the biggest rematches in UFC history.

The buys prediction, on the surface, also doesn’t sound unreasonable. But to do numbers at that level, a lot of different things are going to have to full into place. The key is having the talk of the show being a can’t miss sports event hitting the general sports fan. It has to break out past the usual UFC audience. They key is to hit the general interest fan hard enough that they, and their friends, see it as something special, and not to be missed.

UFC 100, the company’s record setting event, had that. The result was it was estimated at doing 1.6 million buys, blowing all records out of the water.

It had a ton going for it. It had the lineup, with Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir for the heavyweight title, Georges St-Pierre vs. Thiago Alves for the welterweight title and Dan Henderson vs. Michael Bisping in the coaches battle after a season of Ultimate Fighter that accentuate not just a professional rivalry, but a U.S. vs. U.K. rivalry.

But what broke it through was momentum at the end. UFC 100 was a celebration of the peak of a sport that most barely knew existed four year earlier, but had exploded in popularity. Even media members who didn’t know or care about UFC or MMA, recognized the obvious: that it was a major event.

The latter is the key in both UFC 168, as well as what will be an even bigger event, the Sept. 14 Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Canelo Alvarez boxing match, and if it can set records for that sport.

Both shows are a lock to do very well. But in both cases, the key to record numbers is the ability over the last few days before the fight to garner so much momentum that it becomes the talk of the sporting world.

There are a few keys to how it will do. Obviously, the most important in this day of frequent injuries and card changes, is having the show remain intact.

The only participant who can get hurt between now and fight time and not hurt the number drastically would be Tate. Silva vs. Weidman is still the main draw. Rousey, as the company’s media darling, will be able to garner attention no matter who she fights.

An injury to Rousey would hurt, although the show would still do well. If either Weidman or Silva gets hurt and isn’t fighting on Dec. 28, you can kiss any shot at being among the biggest UFC shows in history goodbye.

Weidman vs. Silva has a great story. It’s more than just a simple rematch, but it’s the nature of how it went down. The greatest fighter of all-time going down at the hands of a somewhat unknown only scratches the surface.

It’s the nature of the showboating, and the shocking knockout finish. Rarely do you have a champion lose the first round and get knocked out in the second, and have the majority of people still believing the loser is not just the better fighter, but will take the rematch.

Those who are Silva fans will spend nearly six months believing it was a fluke and all will be rectified in the rematch. They will cling to the idea, that Silva was making Weidman look silly at the end of the first round and the beginning of the second. They’ll say Weidman was already gassing, and it was about to turn into the second round of the second Silva vs. Chael Sonnen fight.

The finish, to them, was it was a once in a lifetime moment, akin to being struck by lighting. It happened with Weidman’s mentor, Matt Serra, against St-Pierre, with what was legitimately the biggest upset title change in UFC history. In that case, lightning didn’t strike twice, as St-Pierre dominated the rematch en route to regaining the title.

Fans who support Weidman have plenty they can argue. Weidman did hurt Silva and Silva never hurt Weidman. Weidman was ahead on the cards. Weidman knocked Silva out while standing, beating him at the strongest aspect of Silva’s game.

But between now and December, Weidman has to be taken by the public as a major star. It has helped Weidman a lot in that regard that the ending of the match ended up garnering so much talk after the fact.

Silva is a draw, but he’s a situational draw, not an automatic draw like St-Pierre. His numbers can vary widely, depending on how well he and his opponent hype the fight down the stretch.

Weidman isn’t Chael Sonnen when it comes to hyping a fight, but he doesn’t need to be, since he actually beat Silva. But the public does have to believe they are going to see a fight they can’t afford to miss, and believing that is based on the fighters’ ability to sell them on it.

As for Rousey and Tate, the two fought in early 2012 in Strikeforce. It was far lower profile than the rematch will be. But the two conveyed a level of genuine disdain for each other which saw the fight pick up tremendous momentum in its last few days. It was the fight that made both of them stars in the first place. It was also the fight that was the key in Dana White bringing women into UFC.

From September through December, they will be rivals during season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter.

TUF has proven to be a tremendous vehicle to build a fight when there is the right coaching dynamic where fans feel the hatred between coaches. Rival coaches like Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz, Rashad Evans vs. Rampage Jackson, Matt Hughes vs. Matt Serra and Georges St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck all led to strong pay-per-view numbers after their season was over.

Enough has leaked out that this was not a Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen season, which had the idea of building a television show where the coaches would be at each other’s throats, but the end result was something different.
But there is a big difference between the public being annoyed by two people and the public wanting to see two people who are seething at each other eventually fight. Until the finished product airs, you don’t know which this will be.

Another aspect is television exposure. Not just The Ultimate Fighter, but whatever television that will be put together to hype this show, Countdown shows, or a potential of a Prime Time series, will air on Fox Sports 1.

Because of that, the ultimate success of this show is to a degree, tied into the early success of the network getting up and running. A successful big launch and good ratings for TUF will greatly help the show’s prospects. If few are watching The Ultimate Fighter and the promotional shows, it becomes far more difficult.

The holiday season also works as a positive. This will be the eighth straight year that UFC has run a major Las Vegas event between Christmas and Jan. 2. The first three years did tremendous numbers, with both 2006-08 hovering near 1 million buys. Since then, the show has not delivered blockbuster numbers, but they haven’t had a show that would have been expected to do so. The feeling is if you have a great show, that week, a week people are used to congregating together, it works in your favor. But that doesn’t work for a mediocre show.

Another idea that would work, as shown by the success of UFC 100, is turning this into an historic milestone. In this case, promote it as the 20th anniversary show, so a key selling point is history, and doing something related to the past stars, matches or other history. Those type of events create another dimension of talk that makes the event seem special.

The first UFC was Nov. 12, 1993, and from a date standpoint, the Nov. 16 show, UFC 167, comes closer. But it’s only a month off, and it is the last show of what is essentially the 20th year.

The other key is to have publicity outside of the normal places. This is where the women being on the show can be a difference maker.

As a fight, Weidman vs. Silva is bigger than Rousey vs. Tate. However, the idea of two pretty girls who will talk up that they hate each other, and have been on TV for three months showing that to be the case, can open up media opportunities outside of the sports world.

Rousey already proved her ability to garner publicity outside of usual circles in February. With Tate, she has someone who can be promoted as her career rival, and play off what happened in their first fight. Rousey won that fight with an armbar, and Tate was so badly not wanting to admit defeat to that move that she ended up having her elbow torn up before tapping.

So the potential is there, but like what happened with UFC 100, all the pieces have to fall in place at the end to hit White’s predictions.

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