Conor McGregor continues to be a game changer as UFC heads to what looks to be its biggest show of the first half of 2016 on Saturday.
This Saturday night is not just a big show, but the ramifications of the two top fights greatly impact the potential of the two biggest fights in company history.
When featherweight champion McGregor (19-2) steps into the cage for the main event at welterweight, fighting 25 pounds up from his previous weight class, against Nate Diaz (18-10), it will break the Zuffa tradition by having a non-title fight be put in the top position above a championship fight.
McGregor already broke tradition twice last year, in the sense UFC had the rule if there were two championship fights on the same show, the heavier weight class would be the main event and go on last. But McGregor vs. Chad Mendes at UFC 189, for the interim featherweight title, was put on top of Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald for the welterweight title. At UFC 194, McGregor's unification match with Jose Aldo was on top of Chris Weidman's middleweight title loss to Luke Rockhold.
In the past, when UFC had highly marketable big fights that were far bigger in the fans' eyes than title matches on the same show, they still pushed the title fight as equal in promotion even though it wasn't and put it on last.
The best examples of that were UFC 61 in 2006, where Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock's second fight was the most anticipated UFC grudge match up to that point in history, and blew away all company pay-per-view records. However, Tim Sylvia vs. Andrei Arlovski heavyweight title fight went on last. Similarly, at UFC 79, a Chuck Liddell vs Wanderlei Silva match went on before the George St-Pierre vs. Matt Hughes welterweight title fight, although in that situation both fights had a lot of interest.
At UFC 81, Brock Lesnar's UFC debut against Frank Mir was clearly the fight everyone bought the pay-per-view to see, but Sylvia vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for the interim heavyweight title was billed as the main event. At UFC 97, it was clear that Liddell vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was the real main event, but the advertised main event was Anderson Silva defending the middleweight title against Thales Leites.
Perhaps the most extreme was at UFC 178, where at least three fights, McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier, Eddie Alvarez vs. Donald Cerrone and a prelim fight with Dominick Cruz vs. Takeya Mizugaki had more interest than the advertised main event with Demetrious Johnson defending the flyweight title against Chris Cariaso, a match fans were walking out on while it was happening.
Still, there are chinks to McGregor's armor that have come up right before he headlines his third major pay-per-view show. Those in Las Vegas have noted the overwhelming Irish contingent like at UFC 189 and 194 isn't there this time. There are also plenty of tickets available. When tickets were first put on sale, scaled at similar prices that created a more than $10 million gate on Dec. 12 for Aldo vs. McGregor, they were nearly sold out the first day. A significant percentage of the buyers were looking to unload the tickets on the secondary market at a major markup, because of how strong the demand was for McGregor's previous two fights.
But that demand wasn't there for live tickets for McGregor vs. Rafael dos Anjos, the original main event. And even with the increase in coverage and interest with Diaz put in the top spot, many used the change in main event as a way to get a refund and face value out of the tickets. So in the days before the fight, there are more tickets available now than two weeks ago.
The lesson here was that it was too quickly after December to ask fans to fly from Ireland, and expect them to pay the high ticket prices charged. UFC 189 was gigantic because McGregor going for a title was something new, and the Aldo fight had been promoted for months. Even when that fell through, the promotion of the show was so strong that interest was sky high. UFC 194 delivered a match that had been promoted for nearly a year.
Still, the gate will be monstrous judged against anything but previous McGregor standards. According to Dana White, in an interview with Yahoo! Sports, the advance is $7.4 million. So even with the unsold seats it'll be the third largest gate in company history, trailing UFC 129 (St-Pierre vs. Jake Shields) and UFC 194..
As far as pay-per-view goes, only once has UFC headlined with a non-title fight and hit the 800,000 buy mark.
That was for UFC 114, headlined by Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans. That pay-per-view was fueled by the two former light heavyweight champions being strong adversaries as rival coaches during the highest rated season ever of The Ultimate Fighter. It was among the best promoted grudge matches in UFC history.
While the McGregor verbal duels with Diaz have been entertaining, and have gotten a good deal of mainstream coverage, they pale in comparison to Jackson vs. Evans. But McGregor is also a far bigger star than either, and the show has strong support with Holly Holm's first women's bantamweight title defense against Miesha Tate.
Holm is also coming off a level of mainstream publicity that only McGregor and Ronda Rousey could match, with her whirlwind victory media tour in November after her win over Ronda Rousey.
There is no grudge fight lure in Holm vs. Tate. Both have been reluctant to say anything negative personally about the other. But they are the two best known names among the company's women fighters after Rousey. It will be a big test of the interest level a major women's fight will get after Rousey is no longer in the sport. But the real gauge will be impossible to tell since the show will do well on pay-per-view with McGregor, whether interest in Holm vs. Tate ends up big or not.
But whether this ends up in the 800,000 buy level like McGregor vs. Mendes, or goes well past 1 million buys like the Aldo fight, both main event fights can lead to multiples of Saturday's business if things go "the right way."
McGregor winning is imperative when it comes to breaking records for business. McGregor having a win at welterweight opens up the door for him to face either Lawler for the title, a fight he's been talking about, or perhaps even St-Pierre. A McGregor vs. St-Pierre fight, provided St-Pierre is interested in fighting again, would be the biggest male fight possible this year from a money standpoint, and McGregor is always talking and thinking money.
Not only that, but a win over Nate Diaz, even if McGregor were to lose to Lawler or St-Pierre, could leave a natural big money match with Nick Diaz on the table when Nick's suspension is up in late July. It would also leave open a dos Anjos fight for the lightweight title, but that would have less interest than either Lawler or St-Pierre.
But a loss kills all those plans. Depending on how the loss looked, it could force McGregor back to featherweight. It isn't the end of the world as he'd do big numbers with Frankie Edgar and for a rematch wth Aldo, but it greatly limits his options.
Tate vs. Holm is a no-lose for the promotion provided Rousey is serious about returning for multiple fights. The only fight UFC can produce that could rival or beat a McGregor vs. GSP number is Holm vs. Rousey for the title. That fight would likely be next if Holm retains, and would probably top 1.5 million buys.
If Holm loses the title, that's temporarily out the window. But Rousey in the comeback role facing Tate would push a lot of strong buttons. Rousey's comeback is a story. Rousey going for the title against someone she's beaten twice is a story. And Rousey vs. Tate is a natural grudge match that people will buy into, and Rousey opens up media doors to promotion outside the sports world that McGregor and St-Pierre can't.
That still leaves a follow-up Rousey vs. Holm fight. If Rousey wins and defends against Holm, it's still probably the biggest fight in UFC history. If Rousey loses, she and Holm can still fight, and it would still be big, although not as big as if the title was at stake.