The hottest star in the company was slayed. The biggest fight in promotion history, scuttled.
Conventional wisdom, at least from mainstream media types last week, was that Conor McGregor and Holly Holm both losing equaled financial disaster for the UFC.
ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted immediately after the event that UFC 196 had cost the organization "tens of millions of dollars." Sports Illustrated's estimable L. Jon Wertheim penned a short article for the magazine about how the UFC took a big gamble on the card and lost in a huge way.
The UFC lost tens of millions of dollars tonight.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) March 6, 2016
Rovell, Wertheim and all the rest saying the sky is falling aren't pulling their premises from nowhere. There is no doubt that McGregor losing hurts business. "The Notorious" is currently the biggest pay-per-view draw the UFC has and, if he had beaten Diaz, his next fight -- likely against Robbie Lawler or Rafael dos Anjos for a title -- would have been monumental.
It's probably safe to say that UFC 200 headlined by McGregor on a winning streak against a current champion would have been the biggest UFC PPV ever, especially since UFC 196 might have pulled in more revenue than any of its predecessors.
There is also the likelihood that the penciled-in rematch between Holm and Ronda Rousey, which would have taken place later this year, will be delayed. And maybe that lost a little juice, too, with Miesha Tate now the UFC women's bantamweight champion and Holm no longer being undefeated.
Overall, though, will the UFC really take a bath at the box office due to the results from UFC 196? Highly doubtful. In fact, it's probably the opposite.
"I think they made a lot of money," said Jim Ross, the legendary pro-wrestling play-by-play man and executive.
Ross, who spent more than 20 years with WWE and is now broadcasting New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS TV, follows mixed martial arts very closely and calls MMA fights from time to time. With his lifetime of experience in sports entertainment, Ross has a great understanding of what sells in this space and what does not. And he thinks the UFC will be just fine -- actually better off -- after UFC 196.
"Dream booking is irrelevant in a real sport," Ross told MMA Fighting. "Dream booking is really ideal if you're in a sport like WWE or your outcomes are pre-determined and there's a show-biz presentation."
McGregor, Ross said, will be just as big of a star as he was before, if he and the UFC promote his return properly. Ross said McGregor already started that marketing rehabilitation process in the post-fight press conference after UFC 196.
"He didn't apologize, he didn't whine, he didn't kick the slacks off the cradle," Ross said. "He manned up and I think people like that. He said, 'I'm not gonna change a thing,' which shows the defiance that he's known for.
"He knows how to sell tickets. He's the best talker the UFC has had since Chael Sonnen, without question. And I always thought Chael Sonnen was just a genius at it with his promo ability. I still do."
Ross thinks McGregor's mouth will continue to make him a massive draw, like Sonnen was even after multiple big losses. The key to McGregor's style is that it's believable, likely because it's mostly real, Ross said.
"He's not doing a fictitious promo," Ross said. "He's telling you how he feels and he's amping it up. 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin was the same way. He's a lot like Austin. He says what's on his mind, he says some outlandish things, but he's so convincing in his delivery that you think that he believes every word he says."
McGregor will likely fight again at UFC 200, defending his featherweight title -- yes, he's still a champion -- against either Frankie Edgar or Jose Aldo. Maybe that event won't be as gigantic as it would have been if McGregor came in on a victory, but it'll still be big.
The women's bantamweight division, meanwhile, is more compelling than it has ever been with three viable draws: Tate, Holm and Rousey. A year ago at this time, there was only Rousey and even she wasn't doing massive pay-per-view numbers until UFC 190 against Bethe Correia. For a long time, the storyline was all about who could challenge the unstoppable Rousey. Now there are potentially two people.
"If anything, I think Miesha Tate winning made the UFC's women's 135-pound division so much more marketable, so much more interesting," said UFC heavyweight Josh Barnett, Ross' broadcast partner on AXS TV and a veteran of pro wrestling himself. "It's shown that it has always had depth and styles make fights."
UFC president Dana White said Tate will likely make her first title defense against Rousey when Rousey returns from filming movies in the fall. Rousey has already beaten Tate twice, but the rivalry between the two is extremely heated and grudge matches sell. Add in the fact that Tate is the probably the best she's ever been and Rousey has a ton of question marks around her (Hollywood, personal life, etc.) and you're looking at a million buys on pay-per-view easily.
"I think what you turn your attention to is, can Ronda Rousey do something very, very challenging, and that's to beat a fighter three times in a high-level environment?" Ross said. "That's what you got here. Now you got a new Miesha Tate.
"She's not that little girl that comes and gives her great effort, but comes up short both times to Ronda Rousey. It's a different Miesha Tate. If I'm marketing Miesha Tate, I'm gonna market the new Miesha Tate. Now she's coming in, she's got the belt, she's got the title."
Barnett actually thinks the right move is to do the Holm vs. Rousey rematch right away and have Tate defend the title against someone like Amanda Nunes. That might fly in the face of traditional promotional strategy, but Barnett believes if you want to maintain the sanctity of being a sport that has to happen. Plus, Holm-Rousey is still "the fight that has to happen," he said.
"Ronda doesn't deserve a title shot yet," Barnett said. "I think that in terms of money, the money fight is still Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm. People want to see if she can overcome her obstacle in Holly Holm. That's what they want to see. They want to see if Holly Holm can prove that she is not a one-hit wonder, so to speak. That storyline in and of itself will sell greatly. And it still exists."
Whatever the UFC does next, that rematch will still be a big one regardless of timing or circumstances. Then there's the eventual Tate-Holm rematch, which is obviously interesting since Holm was winning the fight at UFC 196 before Tate pulled off a rear-naked choke submission in the fifth round. No challenger has ever won a UFC title with a finish in the final round after being down on the cards before Tate did it.
We also can't forget Diaz, who has always been popular up until this point, but never a true pay-per-view headlining draw. That could change now with a win over the UFC's top male star and open up even more avenues for big fights.
"It's just the matter of how do you market a person," Barnett said. "You gotta do [the Diaz brothers] a little differently and with Nate, you don't need him to come out with a bunch of flash and cut a bunch of promos and all that. You just need that guy to get the best opportunity to fight. The more you let him fight, the better off he's gonna be, the happier he's gonna be and the better off your sales are gonna be. Everybody knows he's going to fight. He's going to bring you a fighter's heart without any quit. Whether he's winning or he's losing, he's coming after you and he's fighting with everything he's got. That's absolutely an admirable thing and the kind of athlete that you want to see get into the ring."
The point is, the beat will go on. McGregor sells himself and his fights better than arguably anyone in UFC history. His bout against Diaz was a barnburner and no one has ever complained about the entertainment value of a McGregor fight. Diaz's next fight, no matter against who, will be a must-see for many fans.
Meanwhile, Rousey, Tate and Holm now make up the most fascinating triumvirate at the top of a division since Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture presided over light heavyweight in the late aughts.
"It's always a matter of when one door closes, another door opens," Ross said. "And it's a matter of how smart the promotion is and what the story is they're telling."
There are plenty of stories to be told after UFC 196. The one about the UFC losing absurd amounts of money is assuredly fiction.