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UFC 203 pay-per-view numbers bring up tough questions about CM Punk's future

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The question of what's next for C.M. Punk has become even more interesting because early indications are that he drove millions of dollars in new revenue to the company.

Current early estimates for Saturday's UFC 203 have it doing in the range of 425,000-475,000 buys. While not monster numbers, that would be the UFC's best pay-per-view numbers so far this year for a show not headlined by Conor McGregor, or UFC 200.

One would have figured a show headlined by Stipe Miocic vs. Alistair Overeem for the heavyweight title to do around 250,000-300,000 buys. That's based on UFC 198, where Miocic challenged Fabricio Werdum for the title, with a far stronger undercard, which is estimated at doing just under 300,000 buys.

In other words, Punk probably brought in anywhere from 125,000-225,000 extra buys, meaning he generated added revenue of somewhere between $3.75 million and $6.75 million for the company. So for all the criticism of the $500,000 base pay Punk earned for his debut, along with a possible percentage of pay-per-view that was Punk's deal ended up being a financial bargain.

What's notable is that is far more added buys than Punk ever drew when he headlined pro wrestling pay-per-view shows. Most likely the majority of that added audience was pro wrestling fans, either showing loyalty to Punk as a star, or just had an interest in seeing a top wrestler fight.

There were some, including myself, who thought that the two-and-a-half year gap between Punk's quitting the WWE, and not being the monstrous looking freak Brock Lesnar was, that he wouldn't bring nearly as much of that audience to his new endeavor. In addition, Punk's mic work, which was the major key in him becoming such a great star in pro wrestling, didn't translate into MMA. He refused to play his pro wrestling character, and didn't even promote himself to his base wrestling fans.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the buildup is that somebody like Dominick Cruz, one of UFC's best fighters, whose promotional work for his recent fights was far superior to that of Punk, couldn't touch having this kind of drawing power. It's a significant reality check that a television personality walking into UFC would have more people willing to pay to see him fight than all but the top tier of UFC fighters.

Granted, you can point to the precedent set by Brock Lesnar, who became UFC's biggest drawing card in 2009 and 2010. But Lesnar's fights were strong grudge matches and his opponents like Frank Mir and Randy Couture in particular, were longtime UFC champions and top stars. Lesnar was a featured main eventer in the biggest championship matches of his era.

In addition, in 2008, when Lesnar debuted in UFC and had an even greater affect on the numbers, the UFC was only a few years removed from its main television audience coming from pro wrestling when Ultimate Fighter aired directly after WWE Raw on Spike TV. It gave the UFC its first mass weekly viewership.

Now, it's been more than a decade and the UFC has long since grown its own distinct audience, and the popularity of UFC has also greatly changed the dynamic of the pro wrestling audience. It was thought the two audiences were far more distinct now, with wrestling fans being more entertainment oriented than ever. Questions wrestling fans asked for a century about its stars like who would be the toughest if it was real, a staple until recent years, are virtually never asked nowadays.

Punk got no meaningful offense in and there was a valid reason why Dana White's gut reaction, and the gut reaction of most watching the show is that Punk wasn't a UFC-caliber fighter.

There were those who believed Punk should have started, like most fighters do nowadays, working on small shows and if he did well, then UFC should bring him in. But that's economically stupid because the biggest money was likely to be the first fight. For him to fight under the radar would mean his drawing power would be wasted. That's why he was put on a pay-per-view and promoted hard.

Granted, since he didn't look good, it's doubtful that a second fight would drive anywhere near the revenue of the first. But a significant interest level would still be there.

Punk signed a multi-fight deal, but UFC has the right to cut anyone after a loss.

So does UFC cut a fighter who can drive revenue and bring eyeballs to the product? Every winner at UFC 203, from Miocic to Werdum to Jessica Andrade, benefited by being on the same show with Punk, economically in some cases, and exposure-wise in all cases.

The question, harder to answer, is it worth $500,000 to UFC for Punk to help television ratings for a second show? And while the UFC would only need Punk to be able to drive 17,000 added buys to make it worth their while on pay-per-view, a figure he'd easily surpass, there is a question of putting him in a pay-per-view slot after his first performance.

Or does UFC cut him and allow Bellator to reap the rewards?

UFC did cut Kimbo Slice after two fights, but Scott Coker's Strikeforce, known for great action fights, wasn't a good fight and Slice never went there. Coker's Bellator is a different animal, one where Slice was the company's biggest draw until his untimely death, and one where you can't deny the evidence, even if you'd want to that it's the freak show fights that bring the eyeballs.