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Lawler vs. Hendricks 3 could have been fueled by UFC 181 success

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The apparent decision to go with Johny Hendricks over Rory MacDonald for the next UFC welterweight title shot may have been fueled by the surprising success of the UFC 181 show.

Early estimates have the Dec. 6 show doing between 375,000 and 400,000 buys, well above what the company has done for any show since July. Estimates this early can vary significantly from the final numbers, and the UFC does not release pay-per-view numbers. Cable industry estimates have been roughly double that of UFC 180, which had been estimated at between 185,000 and 200,000 buys. 

Either choice as the next opponent for Robbie Lawler was justifiable.  MacDonald had been promised a shot at the winner.  Lawler vs. Hendricks was a close fight, with Lawler winning the last minute of the fourth and fifth rounds likely spelling the overall difference. Lawler also holds a win over MacDonald, while in the two Lawler vs. Hendricks fights, they are even at five rounds apiece.

As a hardcore fan, I'd have liked to have seen MacDonald get the shot, but right now, Hendricks is the bigger name of the two. The bigger name usually is going to pull better numbers. In a straight numbers match-up of who people would be wiling to pay to see more, Hendricks may have an edge, but I don't see it as being significant. But this wasn't the sometimes hard-to-make decision of when you have a fight more fans want to see, and have to decide on that against a fight that includes a contender who is more deserving of the shot.

In this case, the business at the end doesn't figure to be that much different, nor does Hendricks nor MacDonald have a clear-cut stronger claim to get the next shot.

The second show beat their first meeting in March, that did an estimated 300,000 buys, because of a strong double headliner than included Anthony Pettis vs. Gilbert Melendez for the lightweight title coming off The Ultimate Fighter.

Those were as strong a double feature of title fights from a quality standpoint this year  The success also shows that when people sense something is a strong quality show, that pay-per-view is still going to pull solid numbers, even without a standalone major marquee player like Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey, Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre fighting.

It's also a good sign going into UFC 182 on Jan. 3, since the Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier fight, by almost any standard, should be the biggest individual fight the company has presented in a long time. Jones vs. Cormier has everything going for it, essentially unbeaten top-shelf fighters who are legitimately the tops in their weight division, battling with strong grudge match implications.

In comparison to the UFC's prior two monster gates, both in 2013, the grudge aspect is stronger than it was with Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva, but UFC 168, also offering a very strong Rousey vs. Miesha Tate second main event, had a lot more help from the undercard.

Earlier in 2013, UFC scored its other most successful numbers ever for St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz. St-Pierre was historically a bigger pay-per-view draw than anyone since Brock Lesnar left. Diaz is a one-of-a-kind personality that drew people to the show with his unpredictable behavior that created tremendous tension in the days before the fight.

But Jones vs. Cormier feels like a bigger at the same stage. Pay-per-views are sold in the final week, because they are very much impulse buys. Jones-Cormier may be the strongest fight of 2015, and also will give a strong indication of what the current ceiling is for UFC right now. With the exception of a Jones vs. Cain Velasquez battle of champions, or perhaps a return of St-Pierre for a fight with Anderson Silva, it doesn't look like any combination of fighters on the UFC roster would capture more people's attention, and there has been virtually no talk of late regarding either of those potentail match-ups.

Since the summer, the UFC events have been hovering at a little above or below the 200,000 buy level.

The Sept. 27 show featured arguably the weakest main event the company has put on from a marquee standpoint in Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso for the flyweight title, but the show featured one of the strongest undercards of the year, with Donald Cerrone vs. Eddie Alvarez, Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier, Yoel Romero vs. Tim Kennedy and Cat Zingano vs. Amanda Nunes.

The general rule of thumb is that the main event, with a little help from the No. 2 fight, usually determines the level of interest. But with UFC 178, that main event would have been lucky to do 120,000 buys with a solid undercard. The strength of the undercard made a big difference on that night, but even with a strong undercard, it wasn't enough to do huge numbers without a bigger marquee title match..

At UFC 180, the number was probably hurt significantly by Bellator having a free show with Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar head-to-head.  While UFC had the better fight quality, and a solid main event with Mark Hunt vs. Fabricio Werdum for the interim heavyweight title, most of the talk that night was about the rival show, which was the most-watched show in Bellator's history.

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