With Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva out of action, it figured to be a lean pay-per-view year, a business with results that vary wildly based largely on the main event attraction.
For example, in 2013, a successful year which topped 6 million buys according to industry estimates, UFC had two shows that did less than 200,000, and two others that topped 900,000. One was headlined by St-Pierre, and the other by Silva.
The problem is, unless you are St-Pierre, or someone like Brock Lesnar or Chuck Liddell in their primes, the other part of the rule is that it takes two to tango.
To the surprise of nobody, UFC's two top remaining draws are Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones. But neither had much help in their fights this year. Rousey faced Sara McMann, who did have an Olympic silver medal and an unbeaten record, but had only fought once in UFC in a largely forgettable undercard win, and did little to build up the fight.
Jones had it better, with Glover Teixeira, who had gone 5-0 in UFC with four stoppages in UFC competition. But his most widely viewed fight was arguably his least impressive performance in a decision win over Rampage Jackson on FOX. And even with former training partner Liddell out promoting, most fans saw Teixeira as an interlude fight, waiting for Jones to face either Alexander Gustafsson or Daniel Cormier.
Both UFC 170 and UFC 172, headlined by Rousey and Jones, are looking at about 350,000 buys according to industry estimates. The latter, Jones' event, looks to have the slight edge, nor surprising with a better known contender and stronger undercard. It's also possible Jones' last two fights have been hurt by the proximity with the biggest pay-per-view draw of all, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Jones first fight with Gustafsson, which also did in the 300s, was a week after Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez. His most recent fight, on April 26, was a week before Mayweather vs. Marcos Maidana.
The number is well above UFC's pay-per-view baseline, which may be less than 150,000. But in Hendricks vs. Lawler, you had the fighter that most felt beat St-Pierre last time out, put in a match that promised action. It, on paper, figured to be the kind of title fight that St-Pierre was criticized for playing the percentages and avoiding during his lengthy second title reign.
Still, after four events this year, UFC is at an estimated 1.23 million buys, which isn't that much more than UFC 168, the last monster show, did on its own.
The next two months figure to test the baseline more than anything. UFC 173, on May 24 in Las Vegas, features Renan Barao vs. T.J. Dillashaw for the bantamweight title. The real main event is likely Cormier vs. Dan Henderson, which may play a big factor in if and how well a potential Jones vs. Cormier fight does. UFC 174, on June 14 in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, with Demetrious Johnson vs. Ali Bagautinov for the flyweight title may struggle even more with a largely unknown challenger.
The first truly big number would likely be UFC 175 on July 5, provided the injury bug doesn't attack and the top three matches stay in place. The show has the same two champions that led to the success of UFC 168, with Chris Weidman and Rousey. But Weidman is facing Lyoto Machida, not Anderson Silva.
Machida is the worst kind of opponent for Weidman, a stylistic nightmare who thrives on wrestlers, but one who is not a guy who gets fans as excited as Weidman's original foe, Vitor Belfort. Rousey faces Alexis Davis, who is riding a five-fight win streak, three in UFC competition, but struggled in her last fight with Jessica Eye. Most see her as a place holder, while waiting for Rousey to face Gina Carano, Cris Cyborg, Cat Zingano or Bethe Correia.
What could be the difference maker is Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva, the type of grudge match that has played out on Ultimate Fighter that has historically propelled pay-per-view numbers, in situations like Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock and Rashad Evans vs. Rampage Jackson. The season has been wildly successful in Brazil, with audiences ranges between nine and 12 million on Sunday nights, even with a start time past midnight. But Brazil is not a pay-per-view market, with UFC's buys largely from the U.S. and Canada. In those countries, the only viewers of the season are largely Fight Pass subscribers.
But a three-deep show, with two titles and the first show of its type since December should pop a 500,000 plus number, and perhaps significantly more. The second half of the year will also feature a Jones vs. Gustafsson rematch, perhaps a Rousey fight with an opponent people have been waiting for, and the return of Cain Velasquez in November.
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