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UFC 226 pay-per-view number and what it says about the sport

Daniel Cormier Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

According to industry sources, the current estimate for UFC 226 on pay-per-view is 380,000 buys, which is in line with how the early returns were trending.

It would put the July 7 show in line with January’s UFC 220 for the biggest number so far this year.

On one hand, the number feels disappointing. You had a rare champion vs. champion battle in the two heaviest weight classes, and a great story with Daniel Cormier’s quest to become a genuine legend of the sport.

But as we’ve seen with Demetrious Johnson’s going after the sport’s most impressive records, these type of things don’t connect with the casual fans as much as certain personality traits. As the last few years have shown, a fight like Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor, gigantic personalities but in many ways a joke of a fight as far as being competition at the highest level, captured the public’s imagination like no other fight. In fact, only one fight in the modern era captured the public like that one.

The big personalities trump sports history, or even the lure of monster knockouts, given the momentum Francis Ngannou had going into UFC 220 and his own challenge of Miocic that many expected to hit big. It also fell into the same range. The value of the visual of Ngannou’s knockout of Alistair Overeem, huge to the weekly UFC fan, didn’t translate to as many buys from the general public as expected.

Granted, UFC 226 was hurt significantly when the Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega featherweight title fight fell through. Still, it’s hard to believe that fight would have boosted the show to the 500,000 plus level that was hoped for. One could even surmise the audience Holloway vs. Ortega would have appealed to most was an audience that would also see Miocic vs. Cormier as a can’t-miss fight.

These results show why the UFC will overlook practically anything McGregor does, or why it will hand Brock Lesnar a heavyweight title shot at 41, without a sanctioned win in more than eight years. The promotion can try and hype what it has as best as it can. But in the end, the public is going to choose by their spending patterns what type of direction the sport will go in.

Of late, there is some questioning of if either boxing or MMA can make the larger-than-life figures that explode the sports out of their usual levels of popularity, and if the Mayweathers and McGregors and Rouseys and Pacquiaos just happen and based on timing, luck and personality.

The irony is that Cormier is a favorite of the MMA media, works hard at promoting his fights and understands that aspect of the game that many fighters don’t. And he has proven with the right opponent, people will invest in his fights, given big numbers he pulled for both fights with Jon Jones.

But the keys to those fights is the public believed there was legitimate hatred between the two. Jones himself is not an automatic draw, although he’s probably a bigger draw than any active fighter except McGregor, Georges St-Pierre and Brock Lesnar.

It’s not Miocic’s style to be like Jones. And Cormier couldn’t fabricate hatred for a guy that he clearly respected, as did most everyone. There was no great intrigue built on the season of Ultimate Fighter leading up to it, like classic seasons that led to megafights like Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock, Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans or Georges St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck.

One issue is that the value of championships has declined greatly. The same thing happened in boxing. The more championships, the less championships mean. The funny thing is for the betterment of the sport, and fair competition, more male and female weight divisions create more fair sports competition. But in doing so, you lose the era of the big five champions that everyone knows, and when they fight it’s must-see.

Some will argue that putting contenders that didn’t earn a shot, like Lesnar, into the mix is part of the reason titles are of less drawing value than in the past. Yet, when fans were given a quality fight with two legitimate champions, the public didn’t treat it like a special event.

Miocic had defended his title more times than any heavyweight in history, and had more than his fair share of knockouts. Going into the Ngannou fight, he had knocked out Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem and Junior Dos Santos, in a row. That’s a heavyweight run that should be looked at with awe. Cormier always had the shadow of Jones to deal with as far as being accepted as a real champion, but he was a legitimate contender with a lot of visibility, and with one of the sport’s most impressive records against top level competition.

While Miocic is far from a big talker, he’s also not an unknown. His Modelo beer commercial played during some of the biggest sporting events of this past year, and the commercial is a favorable portrayal as somebody who should be respected..

As people debate on Miocic vs. Lesnar as the next contender for Cormier, in many ways the argument is sad.

There is not a debate that Miocic deserves the shot more. While not a sure thing, all indications are that the public wants to see the Lesnar fight more.

There’s always the chance that isn’t the case. The MMA audience is far more sophisticated than it was eight years ago when the idea of a pro wrestling star with a great physical presence created intrigue. Today, people know that huge muscles don’t make a fighter, nor do NCAA championships from 18 years ago. MMA fans are long past the days of wanting to see one of their own prove superiority over a “fake” pro wrestler or a “limited” boxer, gimmicks that drew big years ago. Unless it’s someone like Mayweather, those type of fights probably wouldn’t mean a lot today.

Still, there is no evidence out there that the public would rather see Miocic get his rematch than see Lesnar get an undeserved title fight. As fans of the sport, the hope is that some day the reverse will be true. Unfortunately, evidence from three weeks ago indicates we aren’t there now, and may be even farther from it than hoped.

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