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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 189

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If Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor ends up being the biggest, or even just one of the biggest money fights in UFC history, it's almost apropos that it happening is the result of a huge gamble.

The entire company was built on high-stakes gambles by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, along with Dana White. The gambles started from just buying the company, as well as later decisions made to keep it alive through very lean times. After the company was established as a viable sports franchise in 2005 with its television deal with Spike, and the pay-per-view explosion of 2006, some of the biggest gambles taken have involved matchmaking.

Saturday was the biggest of all.

From his UFC debut just over two years ago, a 1:07 destruction of Marcus Brimage on April 6, 2013, in Stockholm, Sweden, two things were evident about McGregor. The first was that he had great mechanics and variety in his stand-up game. The second, and perhaps more important, is that he had a gift of gab and was overflowing with charisma, but even then, it would be hard to imagine the level of popularity, notoriety and drawing power he achieved in less than two years, and before he even challenged for a for a championship.

An added element to his package is being Irish. In boxing, historically, Irish fans both in Ireland and the U.S. have supported their own at a level most ethnic groups don't come close to. After that first win, the first decision made by the UFC braintrust was to bring him to Boston for his second fight, the hub of Irish in the United States.

From there, he was fast-tracked to a championship fight. That all worked well, as after four straight wins, he was given Dennis Siver, an older striker that was expected to give him an entertaining fight, but not to beat him. With that win, the stage was set.

It was not without controversy, as fighters like Chad Mendes and Frankie Edgar had proven far more against a much higher level of competition. The featherweight division had never drawn big in the past. No matter how great Aldo's record was, and his technical skill, he had never connected to the public.

McGregor, on the other hand, blew away all Fox Sports 1 numbers with his win over Siver. There are a lot of people who can fight and a lot of people who can talk, but moving numbers is a different game. On a show without a big name opponent, McGregor broke FS1 ratings records set by Chael Sonnen vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua by 55 percent.

The company earmarked a record amount of money to promote Aldo vs. McGregor, which then fell through. Because so many tickets were sold and so much money had been put into promotion, they had to deliver McGregor, even though the conservative bet was to just wait for Aldo to heal and do the fight they had built up then.

Or they could have picked an opponent for McGregor who wasn't as dangerous.

Instead, they put Mendes in, the top-ranked contender and the best wrestler in the division. The knock on McGregor's rise was UFC having kept him away from wrestlers. McGregor would have an edge, a full camp, which Mendes didn't have.

Financially, this was the company's greatest gamble on booking a fight in its history.

Even though Aldo vs. Mendes 2 was a classic fight, a third fight as a main event in Las Vegas would be doing about a $2 million gate and 200,000 buys on pay-per-view. If it was anywhere but Las Vegas or Brazil, the gate would be lower than that. Aldo vs. McGregor had already proven it would do a  $7 million gate. Given the publicity and circumstances of the pullout, if McGregor won, as he did, pay-per-view numbers could threaten all-time company records. Since we don't have even preliminary estimates on Saturday, any prediction for Aldo vs. McGregor is a shot in the dark. But if the next fight does 1 million, and that could even be a low estimate, just on gate and UFC's share of pay-per-view revenue, the difference in revenue to UFC is close to $30 million, and for the pay-per-view companies, it's another $24 million.

Factoring everything else in, the real difference to the UFC would be more than $30 million, with the boost in other revenue streams the fight will provide. For the Las Vegas economy, the difference would have been gigantic, with the Irish contingent of traveling fans that McGregor brings to the table.

This isn't the first time these gambles have been played, although none had so much money at stake. UFC has been lucky, or smart, or both, in the sense of the four biggest fight gambles, three have come in, and even the one that didn't ended up successful.

In 2008, Chuck Liddell had just come off a big win over Wanderlei Silva in one of the biggest fights in UFC history. Liddell had lost the light heavyweight title to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson the year before, but he was still, the company's most popular fighter. Forrest Griffin, who had beaten Jackson for the title, was also among the most popular fighters in the company. A title match between the two would have probably done record business. It was also a fight that Liddell at the time would have been strongly favored to win. Liddell as champion would have guaranteed big numbers every time he fought.

Instead, Liddell fought Rashad Evans, and was knocked out. But in that case, the gamble wasn't a complete loss. Griffin vs. Evans was on the loaded UFC 92 show, which ended up as one of the biggest events in UFC history, doing in the range of the elusive 1 million buys on pay-per-view. This was due to an undercard that included Frank Mir vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira coming off The Ultimate Fighter and with a version of the heavyweight title at stake, and Jackson vs. Wanderlei Silva. We should all wish our big stakes gambling losses turned out so well. But if Liddell was facing Griffin that night, they would have blown away every company business record.

The other two gambles came on the same night. Going into 2012, UFC had two huge guaranteed fights. Jon Jones vs. Evans had all kinds of storyline elements. Evans was scheduled for a light heavyweight title shot at then-champion Rua, but injured his knee a few weeks before the fight. Teammate and frequent training partner Jones stepped in on short notice, and won the title. Evans said he'd never fight Jones. Jones said he'd fight Evans. Evans considered it disrespectful and the fight was on. But instead, the UFC booked Evans against Phil Davis on the January 28, 2012, show on FOX. Jones vs. Evans was a lock to do a big number, while Jones vs. Davis wouldn't have come close. But Evans beat Davis and the big fight took place. Jones vs. Evans did 700,000 buys on pay-per-view, which was Jones' best mark ever until the Daniel Cormier grudge match earlier this year.

An even bigger fight was Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen 2. Sonnen had talked up the first fight, and then shocked almost everyone in dominating it for four-and-a-half rounds, before being caught in a triangle submission. It was among the most memorable UFC championship fights in history, and a rematch was a lock to do major business. Sonnen seemingly showed without a mental lapse, he could win, and he was tremendous as promoting fights. Sonnen ended up being suspended for a drug test failure, which could have impacted how the first fight went, and delayed a rematch.

When Sonnen's suspension expired, he scored a submission win over Brian Stann, so could have been plugged into a Silva fight.

Instead, UFC booked him against Mark Munoz first. While Munoz's career faltered late, he was a top contender at the time. Sonnen and Munoz both came from wrestling backgrounds, but Munoz was the better striker, with more power, and had the stronger wrestling credentials of the two. When Munoz got hurt, Michael Bisping was put in the spot, and Sonnen squeaked by Bisping in a fight that easily could have been judged in the other direction. Silva vs. Munoz wouldn't have done anywhere near the business a Sonnen fight would have. Bisping was a big enough star that he against Silva would have done well, but also not near Sonnen numbers (which were estimated at 925,000 buys). In the end, that gamble also paid off.

Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of Saturday's show.

CONOR MCGREGOR - For McGregor (18-2), the hysteria evident all week, particularly at the weigh-ins and the fight, combined with the win, has made him the biggest star in the company. And it's not just him, but he's elevated the profile of his top contenders. Aldo has never been close to as big of a star, nor has Mendes. If Frankie Edgar ends up in the picture, Edgar's name value will also increase.

It's an amazing accomplishment to do all that in two years, in a division that has never drawn big, and to do it before he's even won a title. McGregor, who turned 27 on Tuesday, has turned the corner in that every fight he's in will be big unless he suffers a series of losses in a row. UFC history has shown that fans don't abandon stars after one, or even two losses. But he won't threaten pay-per-view records unless he's in title matches.

To win the title, he still has to beat one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen in Aldo. The Brazilian has shown few weaknesses in racking up 18 straight wins over the last ten years. And Aldo isn't old, as he reached the top at a young age. He's less than two years older than McGregor. The title fight will probably be promoted as the biggest fight in UFC history. White said they were going to spend the money on it just like they did for the planned first meeting. While it could have been disastrous, particularly if McGregor didn't win, the injury to Aldo turned into a blessing for all concerned. Aldo and McGregor's fight is bigger, and both are going to make more money than they would have here. UFC had a huge event, setting records, even without Aldo, and will probably break them once the planned fight happens.

And even more, McGregor, in beating not just a wrestler in Mendes, but one of the best fighters on the entire UFC roster, went, using Aldo terms, from being the Court Jester in many people's eyes, to someone who it has to be accepted could be the heir to the throne.

CHAD MENDES - Mendes (17-3) is in a unique position. Just being involved in the promotion of such a big fight, even if it was only for two weeks, his name value and star power is much bigger. But his prospects are much tougher.

Mendes probably realized it as he pitched the idea that he'd like another shot with a full camp. He did UFC a favor, and they rewarded him financially with a $500,000 guarantee, far beyond what he's ever earned in the past. But this was his third loss in a title match. While teammate Urijah Faber is living proof that a third career title shot loss doesn't end ones career in being a viable star, he's a disaster to book right now.

The first option on the table in this situation would be to change weight classes. But Mendes is too small for the current elite lightweights. And he's so thickly muscled that it bantamweight may not be an option. And even if he could make the weight, his teammate, T.J. Dillashaw, is champion.

At featherweight, a question has to be asked. Do you put him against someone like the winner of the Aug. 23 fight with Max Holloway vs. Charles Oliveira, knowing he has a good shot at knocking off an upcoming contender? Or do you put him against a guy like Jeremy Stephens, a veteran coming off a big win on Saturday? Or do you risk Frankie Edgar's title shot at the Aldo vs. McGregor winner, by putting Mendes against him?

The UFC has to be torn between wanting to not hurt Mendes' career after he did a big favor, but also cognizant that he's in that rare position that a title shot may be tough to sell to the public, but he'd be good enough to beat any other contender.

ROBBIE LAWLER - Lawler (26-10, 1 no contest) paid the physical price of being in an all-time classic fight with Rory MacDonald, but is now in the strongest position of his career. His popularity has to increase with a win like that. Lawler was down 39-37 on all three cards going into the fifth round. That meant he was going to lose the title via unanimous decision unless he got the finish in the fifth round or dominated the round at a 10-8 level and would have ended up with a draw.

The obvious next contender is former champion Johny Hendricks (17-3). Lawler and Hendricks have fought twice, with each winning a decision. Both fights were tied 38-38 going into the last round. After ten rounds of fighting, they are dead even with five rounds apiece.

Still, it was notable that when talks about Lawler's next direction were brought up after Saturday's fight, White never mentioned Hendricks' name. There are only three other possible active contenders, Carlos Condit (30-8), Tyron Woodley (15-3) and Demian Maia (20-6). Hendricks, who beat Condit, clearly has the best case of the three contenders. And none of the three will do bigger numbers than he will.

But there's always the shadow over the division - Georges St-Pierre. St-Pierre, no matter how long he hasn't fought in, would walk back in and do double, or more, the business of anyone else Lawler could face. He's the greatest champion in the division's history and left the sport still on top.

Lawler just gave St-Pierre's training partner a terrible beating, so there is a storyline if UFC and St-Pierre are willing to play it. Whether St-Pierre wants that fight, or if he wins, the pressure of the championship, is the big question. But St-Pierre is not getting younger. The longer he's away, the less effective he'll likely be in a comeback. The UFC made its move on stricter drug testing, which was one thing he wanted before considering returning. If he harbors any thoughts of coming back, the time and situation is likely to never be better.

RORY MACDONALD - The big question coming out of MacDonald's loss is what the beating, between the broken nose and broken foot, will do to him mentally. MacDonald (18-3) doesn't turn 25 until next week. If this fight doesn't ruin him either physically or mentally, he could be back in the title picture easily next year.

Where he goes next is probably more dependent upon when he's ready to fight again and how the division shakes out.  Condit, Woodley, Maia, Neil Magny, Matt Brown or Hendricks would all be possibilities. But until the decision is made on Lawler's next fight, and when MacDonald is ready, there's no obvious match.

MATT BROWN - In continuing the welterweight theme, Matt Brown (22-13) turned around a show on Saturday night that had gotten lethargic underneath, and got the ball rolling in what ended up considered as among the best shows in company history.

As far as just a fight that on a paper looks to be a great one, you can't put odds on many fighters better than Brown vs. Condit. Both have similar attitudes, crowd pleasing styles, are coming off strong wins, and have never crossed paths. Unless Condit is going to face Lawler, a Condit vs. Brown fight makes sense for both men right now. .