Since the departure of Ronda Rousey from UFC one year ago, there has been a question as to whether a woman's fight could pull decent numbers as a pay-per-view main event.
Saturday's Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm fight was the third women's pay-per-view main event of 2017, and was expected to be the biggest draw of the three. Just as Holm looked on paper to at least have a chance at beating Cyborg, this fight matched two fighters who had at least proven to be able to draw above average television ratings when put as headliners. Holm, due to her being the first to beat Rousey, is probably the best-known of UFC's current crop of women fighters. Cyborg has been the most enduring women's star on the U.S. scene, unbeaten since her arrival and the winner of the most important woman's fight of the pre-UFC era with Gina Carano in 2009.
The previous two events, a Holm vs. Germaine de Randamie fight to determine the first women's featherweight champion, which de Randamie won and then vacated the title, and the Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko bantamweight title match, were believed to have done 200,000 buys or less.
The first indications for Cyborg vs. Holm look good. On Saturday, UFC 219, as well as terms related to the show like Holm, Holm vs. Cyborg and other things show related were the single-most searched for terms on Google, with more than 1 million during the day. Of all the metrics out there, including even television ratings of the prelims, Google searches are the closest to accurately predicting pay-per-view numbers.
Most UFC shows this past year have done closer to 500,000. The search number would be third-highest for the year, behind the company's two most successful events, the Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier fight and the Georges St-Pierre vs. Michael Bisping fight.
It is true that for whatever reason, searches are out of whack compared to buys for some women's fights, or at least for Rousey. Rousey's fights would garner more interest and attention than anyone in the company, often doubling that of Conor McGregor, while on pay-per-view, McGregor was the bigger draw. But when it came to the two previous shows headlined by women, the searches were in the range that would be expected for the pay-per-view numbers.
With Cyborg winning, increasing her winning streak to 20, the problem is back to square one. UFC has no quality women's featherweights to oppose her, and aside from Nunes, none of the bantamweights have enough size, power or skill to even be competitive with her.
Holm won the first and second rounds of the fight, to lose by 48-47 scores on the scorecards of two of the three judges, Dave Hagan and Chris Lee. The third judge, Derek Cleary, gave Holm only the second round.
But the stats were not nearly as close as the score.
In those two rounds that Holm won, Cyborg outlanded her 16-5 and 21-4. There were no takedowns. Cyborg's punches were landing cleaner and harder. Holm was able to clinch Cyborg and neutralize her during long parts of both rounds. But Holm did no damage while holding her against the fence. Cyborg maintained that edge for the next three rounds. But it is notable that if Holm could have squeaked out round five, she'd have gotten the win in a fight where she was greatly outstruck.
While the women were the draws, in many ways, the real star of Saturday night in Las Vegas was Khabib Nurmagomedov. His 30-25, 30-25 and 30-24 scores were as lopsided as any for a three-round fight in UFC history. The idea he was able to do that with Edson Barboza, one of the top lightweights in the world, and one with historically storing takedown defense, sent a message that anyone who had written Nurmagomedov off for any reason, needed to think again.
Between his performance on Saturday, and his 25-0 career record, Nurmagomedov is likely to be favored in a fight with any lightweight in the world right now. Some opponents have had brief moments of success, but really, the only tough adversary he's faced in his career is the injury bug. It is interesting that his relentless dominating style has similarities to Cain Velasquez, his teammate at AKA, who is known for hard training and frequent injuries.
Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of Saturday's event.
CRIS CYBORG - Cyborg (20-1, 1 no contest) is now clearly, since Joanna Jedrzejczyk lost her strawweight title, the top female fighter in the world. But like has been the story most of her career due to her being unable to make bantamweight, she has a dearth of potential opponents.
Cyborg talked about facing Megan Anderson (8-2) after the fight, who was her original opponent back on July 29 in a fight for the title de Randamie vacated. Instead, Cyborg beat Tonya Evinger, a much smaller bantamweight.
A fight with Nunes (15-4) would have the most interest. While putting champions in two weight divisions against each other is often not fair to the contenders, right now that isn't an issue. Nunes has no real contenders for her title. Raquel Pennington, who was the next in line for a title shot, remains out of action from a bad leg injury in October when an ATV tipped over, threw her and landed on her leg. Ketlen Vieira (9-0) looks to be the most logical next contender for Nunes off her win over Sara McMann, but that's not a fight the public is clamoring for as of yet.
HOLLY HOLM - Saturday's loss was the fourth in Holm's last five fights after starting her career with 10 straight wins. Still, with her name value, and the fact she wasn't blown out by Cyborg, there would still be interest in her facing Nunes for the title. But she'll need a couple of wins to do so. The fight that makes the most sense would be Sara McMann (11-4), which would be a battle of a Hall of Fame boxer against an Olympic silver medalist in wrestling.
Holm could also face Vieira if the Cyborg vs. Nunes fight is made next, because a win against Vieira could land her a title fight with Nunes down the line.
KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV - The destruction of Barboza, combined with his overall record, should clearly give Nurmagomedov a championship fight.
The problem is that Conor McGregor has so much money that he's probably in no rush to face such a nightmarish opponent. And even if McGregor will fight MMA again, the logical opponent is Tony Ferguson (23-3).
If McGregor is sitting out the first half of the year, Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson for the interim title is the only way to go. If McGregor is going to face Ferguson soon, then Nurmagomedov should face Eddie Alvarez (29-5) next.
EDSON BARBOZA - The one thing about the lightweight division is there is no shortage of opponents for a fighter like Barboza.
Barboza got nothing going on Saturday, but he's usually a great action fighter. The logical next fight, both based on where both stand and the type of fight they'd be expected to have, would be with Justin Gaethje (18-1). If that doesn't work out, Dustin Poirier (22-5) would also look to be a great fight.
NEIL MAGNY - Coming off the biggest win of his career against a Carlos Condit, who seemed way off normal form, Magny (20-7) has a large number of potential opponents. They include Jorge Masvidal (32-13), Colby Covington (13-1), Robbie Lawler (28-12), Darren Till (16-0-1) and Santiago Ponzinibbio (26-3). Really, UFC can mix and match these six fighters in a multitude of ways. Till should probably face Covington as a title eliminator, leaving Magny vs. Masvidal and Lawler vs. Ponzinibbio.