UFC 168 garners huge interest, but nothing on the horizon can match it

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Early signs indicate UFC 168 had interest at a level of the top shows in company history. But with Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva out of action, it's hard to see what the next giant fight to the public will be.

All early indicators are that UFC 168 was a major business success. While it's too early to get a strong pay-per-view estimate, particularly with the holiday season, numbers that usually correlate with success in that field have been strong.

The weigh-ins drew 275,000 viewers, the largest since UFC signed up with FOX. That does have to be clarified because they aired on Fox Sports 1, which is in 88 million homes, compared to 36 million homes for Fox Sports 2, so it's no surprise the number was well above usual levels.

The prelims on Fox Sports 1 did 1,554,000 viewers, up from 988,000 for the prelims on UFC 167. It was the fifth most watched show ever on FS 1, and the second highest rated UFC broadcast on the station, trailing the opening night Chael Sonnen vs. Shogun Rua fight. The 313,000 viewers watching the post-fight show was a record, and the 7:30 p.m. airing of UFC Flashback on the first Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva fight did 412,000, the most watched replay of a UFC show of its kind.

The belief is also that sports bar attendance was the highest in recent memory. That's based on a lot of feedback from all over the country with reports of lines going out the door and consistently being bigger crowds than at UFC 167, the company's second biggest event before Saturday. We had feedback from people who were planning on watching it at a sports bar, and with all the usual locations packed, decided to go home and order the pay-per-view instead.

There were more than 5 million searches at Google for UFC 168 and UFC related terms, mainly Anderson Silva, Anderson Silva's broken leg, Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate and Chris Weidman, in the United States alone. Most UFC pay-per-views garner less than 500,000 searches, and only the biggest will hit 1 million. That 5,000,000 figure was equal to the Floyd Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez fight, and bigger than nearly any sports event other than the Super Bowl. That also has to be qualified because more than 2 million of those searches were specifically looking for video of Silva's ghastly injury. But even before the main event started, it was outpacing any UFC event this year.
The $6.2 million live gate was the third largest in company history, trailing only UFC 129 at Rogers Stadium in Toronto, due to stadium size, and UFC 148, the second Silva vs. Chael Sonnen show.

The thought Silva's career could be over, and the visual of one of the most graphic injuries in company history, put a damper on what had been a great show aside from all the business success. Fortunately, the post-operation news on Silva has been positive although the jury is still out on whether he would want to or even could return.
For that reason, there's a flip side of looking at UFC as it enters 2014. They will enter the new year without both Silva and Georges St-Pierre, the two fighters who have carried its pay-per-view business the past few years. The two headlined what will almost assuredly be the four biggest shows of 2013.

In addition, for the first time in a long time, there is no monster match anywhere on the horizon, the one you can point to and say this is going to be a big one. There are fights that look exciting, like Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler for the vacant welterweight title on March 15. Whenever Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort are put together for the middleweight title, it's a major match, but the jury is very much out on how strong it would do on pay-per-view. There is a seemingly endless supply of compelling middleweight, lightweight and featherweight fights, But there isn't one fight already announced that looks to put big numbers on the board.

There is nothing on the horizon for 2014 that compared to what UFC had from a business standpoint when 2013 started, with St-Pierre vs. Diaz and Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen already booked, Silva vs. Weidman expected, and Cain Velasquez vs. Alistair Overeem (which ended up curtailed when Overeem was knocked out by Antonio Silva) a strong possibility. And there was always talk of the big stadium superfights involving Anderson Silva against either Jones or St-Pierre. Right now, when you think of that caliber of potential match, the only thing that pops up is Jon Jones vs. Cain Velasquez. Between Velasquez's shoulder surgery and time off, he'll almost have to defend his title in what would almost surely be his only 2014 fight, late in the year. He would likely face the winner of Travis Browne vs. Fabricio Werdum. So any thoughts of the elusive superfight won't be until 2015. And by then, so many things will have changed.

The closest thing to a fight of that caliber in the foreseeable future would be a Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson rematch. And that's only happening if Jones gets past Glover Teixeira in April, and Gustafsson puts Jimi Manuwa behind him in March. And even though Gustafsson made himself a name in a losing effort to Jones in September, their first match was a major disappointment as far as pay-per-view numbers went, with estimates barely topping 300,000 buys.

This year not only has the two big draws out, but Velasquez won't be back until late in the year and lightweight champion Anthony Pettis won't be ready until the midpoint or later of the year after knee surgery.

Matching 2013 on pay-per-view looks difficult, so next year will be more about expansion and building the sport to new territories, creating new stars in a rebuilding year, and about taking advantage of new technologies to expand revenue streams.

The real keys will be whether Ronda Rousey (8-0) will be able to draw on her own, without being part of the strongest double title show in years, nor against her most marketable opponent. It's clear that Ultimate Fighter has changed the dynamic of Rousey, who came in as the blonde All-American Olympic star, and is now viewed very differently by the public. But being the villain is what a lot of very successful boxing and prior MMA draws have done. Those who bet against Rousey, both in her fights and against her being a viable headliner, lost big this year. Her next fight, with Sara McMann, headlining UFC 170, on Feb. 22 in Las Vegas presents two major challenges for the women's bantamweight champion.

The first is going against easily the best overall athlete she has faced. McMann (7-0) is not the most experienced foe Rousey has faced. But Rousey's superior athletic ability will be tested by an Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling. It will be a major test of bases, as Rousey is used to being able to use her judo skills to get fights to the ground. McMann's wrestling base would on paper make her the hardest foe for the usual game plan.

The fight has an interesting hook. It would be the first time in UFC history that two fighters, either men or women, have ever faced off that both own an Olympic medal, with Rousey capturing a bronze in judo in 2008. The fight is also taking place during the Winter Olympics, which is tough for competition, but the title fight may garner more attention since Olympic interest will be peaking in the country. However, McMann is largely an unknown to the UFC fan base, with her lone UFC fight a first-round win over Sheila Gaff in a fight that wasn't memorable.

Rousey drew big against Liz Carmouche in her debut, and Carmouche was not any kind of a star when the fight was first announced. But there were two distinct differences. One was the novelty of the first woman's fight in UFC history. The other was Rousey riding a wave of popularity and media interest like few fighters have ever had in their UFC debuts. Whether Rousey's drawing power will be hurt by a decline in popularity is one of the questions that will be answered on Feb. 22.

Right now, it appears that the biggest fight the company could make would be Rousey vs. Cris "Cyborg" Justino, but Cyborg is in a different weight class and fighting in a different organization.

It's pretty direct where the big winners from Saturday are going.

Weidman (11-0) vs. Belfort (24-10) faces a number of sets of intrigue in a battle of two of the strongest candidates for 2013 Fighter of the Year. One of 2013's biggest news story, the controversy of testosterone replacement therapy for someone who had a prior steroid test failure, will become an even bigger issue since this will be one of the year's premier fights. Athletic commissions are going to be put in a situation where ethics and dollars are going to be weighed, and whatever decision will be subject to massive criticism.

The most logical direction for Browne (16-1-1), after finishing Josh Barnett in scary fashion in 1:00, would be Werdum. The winner of that fight would be the clear-cut logical contender for when Velasquez returns,.

After his win over Fabricio Camoes, Jim Miller (23-4, 1 no contest) has no shortage of potential foes in the deep lightweight division. If TJ Grant (21-5) can recover from his serious concussion issues, that would give Miller the best shot at upward mobility. Other strong potential foes would be the winner of the Jan. 25 Donald Cerrone (21-6) vs. Adriano Martins (25-6) fight, as well as Michael Johnson (15-8) or Edson Barboza (13-1).

The other main card winner, Dustin Poirier (15-3) made it clear who he wants next, bringing up Cub Swanson (20-5) in the post-fight press conference. Swanson beat Poirier via decision on Feb. 15 in London, England. Stylistically, an opponent that would also make for a good fight of youth vs. experience would be Tatsuya Kawajiri (32-7-2), provided he beats Sean Soriano on the Jan. 4 show in Singapore.

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