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Ratings report: UFC 165, UFC 166 PPV numbers are surprising

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Ever since the top matches were announced for both UFC 167 and 168, the feeling was that these were going to be two of the most successful events in company history. And from a live gate standpoint, they will be.

But for UFC, the big money and largest company revenue stream is in the pay-per-view arena. Georges St-Pierre has been a strong pay-per-view draw dating back to his first UFC welterweight title win over Matt Hughes seven years ago. When he headlines UFC 167 on Nov. 16 in Las Vegas, it will be riding the momentum of the company's 20th anniversary.

The combination of Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva and Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate on Dec. 28 is among the strongest 1-2 title match punches on the same show in company history.

Barring an injury, both shows will do very well. That's not in question. UFC President Dana White's prediction that 168 will be the biggest pay-per-view success in company history, beating UFC 100, is something that a promoter hyping a show is apt to say. But it seemed very reasonable to expect it to be the biggest show outside of the UFC's centennial event.

Right now, a UFC Nostradamus has to be feeling somewhat edgy about statements like that.

UFC hasn't had a blockbuster pay-per-view success since the first Weidman vs. Anderson Silva fight in July topped 525,000 buys. Nobody expected big numbers from the "smaller" guys who headlined in August.  Jose Aldo may be one of the world's great fighters but he's never been a North American draw.  Benson Henderson had also never pulled big numbers on pay-per-view.

But the last two months the big boys were playing. Jon Jones had been the company's consistent No. 3 draw behind St-Pierre and Silva, since he had won the light heavyweight title. He defended in September against Alexander Gustafsson. What could be reasonably argued from a pure talent standpoint, the biggest heavyweight fight in company history, Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos III topped the bill this month.

Of course, talent and fighting skill doesn't equal drawing power.

Jones vs. Gustafsson from Sept. 21 in Toronto is currently estimated at doing between 300,000 and 325,000 buys. The number looked shocking on the surface, since Jones has always pulled well over 400,000 buys, and hit 700,000 for his fight with Rashad Evans.

There is no question the fight was hurt by two different factors. The first and most important was it came a week after the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Canelo Alvarez boxing match. That fight did 2.2 million buys, the second biggest of all-time.

While UFC and boxing have different audiences, the Mayweather fight transcended boxing and became a cultural event like boxing has only seen a few times since the heyday of Mike Tyson. There is little doubt that a large number of UFC regular big event buyers had either paid $75 for, or gotten together with friends for the boxing match. Faced with another $45 or $55 bill a week later, and having already spent the prior Saturday watching fights with buddies, it's not just understandable, but expected that the UFC number would be down from usual.

And, no matter how great a fight the main event turned out to be, few gave Gustafsson much of a chance going in.

There was no grudge match aspect like Jones had with Evans, nor was Gustafsson close to as well known a name as any of Jones' prior opponents. Gustafsson is a lot bigger star today, and if a rematch was to take place, it should do substantially better.

It's UFC 166 that is more concerning. The early estimates on that show are in the same range, or very slightly up from 165. The Houston show did go head-to-head with the MLB playoffs, college football and HBO boxing.

Nobody should insinuate that Velasquez or Dos Santos are two of the biggest heavyweight stars in UFC history, not when history includes Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar and even Ken Shamrock.  But they are the two best heavyweight fighters the company has ever had. They've destroyed everyone in their path except each other, and were split 1-1 in two previous meetings. The Oct. 19 fight would and did determine the top dog of the era. And the show had a deep undercard.

More than 9 million people saw the first Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos fight on television in the United States alone two years ago in the company's debut on FOX.

It was Velasquez's only professional loss, a one-punch knockout in barely one minute. First impressions are the most lasting. It may be that no matter how dominant Velasquez has been since, that to millions of Americans who never saw him before, he's still that guy with all that hype they saw laying on the canvas and not getting up.  Perhaps they simply refuse to believe he's really that good.

What made this even more perplexing is that Velasquez in particular appeared to be a big-time superstar in Houston's Toyota Center, where the event sold out immediately and did the third-largest gate in the building's history.

Some would jump to a conclusion and say it's a rapidly changing business and people are far less apt to purchase pay-per-views, unless it's a big blockbuster event that really captures the sports world. But UFC's business from February through July contradicts that. The UFC had a great deal of success with shows headlined by fighters with more personality, but were not the same level of match ups when it comes to the inarguable top two in a division of the era.

But there is one thing clear. In most of combat sports history, the heavyweights and the big guys captured the imagination of the public. The heavyweight champ was the baddest man on the planet. Today it's very clear that big personalities who can fight reasonably well trump even the combination of skill, size and fighting ability at the highest level, and even heaviest level, when it comes to what gets people to spend their money.

Perhaps it's even the magnitude of the next two shows. People have known for months about 167 and 168, which on paper are the two biggest shows of the year. Maybe that weakened the past two shows, as people saw them as secondary. But that may also be grasping at straws for an excuse.

But don't be too quick to say MMA is on its way down. The UFC has six shows between now and the end of the year, not including Wednesday's Fight for the Troops show which is free to those in the military. Of those, four are nearly sold out already, the Nov. 9 show in Goiania, Brazil, the Nov. 16 show in Las Vegas, the Dec. 7 show in Brisbane, Australia, and the Dec. 28 show back in Las Vegas.

UFC 167 and 168, both at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, are each expected to top $5 million live gates, a figure the company has only hit six times in its history.

Overall, this was not a good week when it comes to MMA viewership on television.

The UFC show on Saturday on Fox Sports 2 did 122,000 viewers. Of the five shows FS 2, and its predecessor Fuel, have broadcast live from Europe in afternoon time slots, this did the fourth best. The biggest, in the same time slot, was the previous show, on April 16 from Stockholm, Sweden, when the Gegard Mousasi vs. Ilar Latifi fight did 236,000 viewers, nearly double.

From a public interest standpoint, Lyoto Machida vs. Mark Munoz should have killed that fight. Machida has spent years as a headliner and was a former light heavyweight champion. Munoz has been around for years on main cards and gotten exposure on FS 1 broadcasts doing analyst work. Mousasi had some exposure from Strikeforce, but had never broken through to any degree in the U.S. market. Latifi was a last-minute sub and a complete unknown.

The difference may be something as simple as seasonal. The only afternoon show on Fuel that did lower numbers live, a Sept. 29, 2012, show that did 111,000 live but another 140,000 for a replay later that day, also was during football season. But headliners Stefan Struve and Stipe Miocic on that show had nowhere near the name value of Machida and Munoz. All the shows that beat the numbers were not going head-to-head with the country's most popular sport.

The World Series of Fighting show later that night on NBC Sports, did 161,000 viewers in prime time, the lowest that promotion has done to date.

The night before, Bellator on  Spike did 520,000 viewers, its lowest number so far this season.

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