What's this? A Saturday Night's Mania Event on a fight weekend?
Indeed, the UFC decided to hold an event on a Friday night (Dec. 30, 2011) to avoid having to leave Las Vegas for its annual year end event, and it brought a big one to town. Brock Lesnar headlined against Alistair Overeem in a colossal heavyweight showdown that would determine the next contender to Junior dos Santos and his 265-pound title.
All was grand heading into last night, save for a few minor worries that the show would do less than desirable business at the box-office thanks to the unusual day it ran, not to mention that it went back to the old 10 p.m. ET start time.
All things considered, the show had to be deemed a success ... until the main event.
Make no mistake, Overeem is a million miles ahead of Lesnar in the fight game. He's so far ahead, in fact, that he won last night's fight by landing 20 of his 25 strikes and easily shaking off Brock's one lone takedown attempt. He deserves all the accolades coming to him.
But let's be real, folks: this was a disaster for the UFC.
UFC President Dana White outright admitted during the post-fight press conference that he thought Lesnar was going to win. That's a rather telling admission. He is, after all, the man who set the fight up and he's got a vested interest in who the winner is. He would probably never tell you as much but he didn't just think Lesnar was going to win last night.
He wanted him to.
This past year was a down one for the UFC. They accomplished quite a few major feats, like buying out their chief competitor, Strikeforce, and striking a deal with a major network like FOX. But pay-per-view business was down in a big way. There are quite a few reasons for that but the biggest is that the two biggest stars of the promotion fought a combined two times. Now, one of them (Georges St. Pierre) has a knee injury that could signal the beginning of the end of his career and the other (Lesnar) just retired.
Where, oh where, have all the stars gone? And who is going to step up to pick up the slack?
Let's compare pay-per-view numbers from 2010 to 2011. It's a pretty bleak outlook.
UFC 108: Evans vs. Silva -- 300,000
UFC 109: Couture vs. Coleman -- 275,000
UFC 110: Nogueria v. Velasquez -- 215,000
UFC 111: St. Pierre vs. Hardy -- 770,000
UFC 112: Silva vs. Maia -- 500,000
UFC 113: Machida vs. Shogun -- 520,000
UFC 114: Evans vs. Rampage -- 1,050,000
UFC 115: Liddell vs. Franklin -- 525,000
UFC 116: Lesnar vs. Carwin -- 1,160,000
UFC 117: Silva vs. Sonnen -- 600,000
UFC 118: Edgar vs. Penn 2 -- 535,000
UFC 119: Mir vs. Cro Cop -- 295,000
UFC 121: Lesnar vs. Velasquez -- 1,050,000
UFC 123: Rampage vs. Machida -- 500,000
UFC 124: St. Pierre vs. Koscheck -- 800,000
That is one astounding year. 11 of the 15 pay-per-views broke the 500,000 buy mark with three going over 1 million. In all, the UFC sold 9,095,000 PPV buys in 2010. Here's how this past year looked in comparison.
UFC 125: Edgar vs. Maynard 2 -- 270,000
UFC 126: Silva vs. Belfort -- 725,000
UFC 127: Penn vs. Fitch -- 260,00
UFC 128: Shogun vs. Jones -- 445,000
UFC 129: St. Pierre vs. Shields -- 800,000
UFC 130: Rampage vs. Hamill -- 325,000
UFC 131: Dos Santos vs. Carwin -- 325,000
UFC 132: Cruz vs. Faber -- 350,000
UFC 133: Evans vs. Ortiz -- 310,000
UFC 134: Silva vs. Okami -- 335,000
UFC 135: Jones vs. Rampage -- 480,000
UFC 136: Edgar vs. Maynard 3 -- 225,000
UFC 137: Penn vs. Diaz -- 280,000
UFC 139: Shogun vs. Henderson -- 290,000
UFC 140: Jones vs. Machida -- 485,000
UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem -- Unknown
Quite the turnaround, no?
Of 16 events held, just three (assuming UFC 141 does at least 500,000 and it looks like it did) surpassed half a million buys and not a single one broke the 1 million buy barrier. In fact, only one event got up to 800,000 buys. After tallying them all up, the result is a paltry 5,905,000. Even if we add 500,000 for UFC 141, we only get up to 6,405,000.
That's a difference of 2,690,000 for all you math majors out there.
Now here's the really alarming part. Imagine the absence of St. Pierre and Lesnar. Without "Rush," you can wipe out 2,370,000 buys over the past two years. Not even including UFC 141, Brock accounts for 2,210,000. That number could very well reach over 3 million.
What's truly troubling here is that there seems to be no one to replace these men. St. Pierre could very well recover from his knee injury and go on to remain the mega-draw he is today but he'll be out for nearly the entirety of 2012. And with Lesnar gone, how low are the numbers going to go?
The first PPV event of the year is on Jan. 14, the UFC 142 event that will be headlined by Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes. It's entirely possible that fight card will become the first since UFC 55 back in Oct. 2005 to fail to crack the 200,000 buy mark.
The good news, though, is that the UFC's deal with FOX officially kicks in at the start of the new year as Dana White so gleefully tweeted:
"Happy New Year everyone! At midnight its official we r now on FOX, Fuel and FX."
Indeed, the first fight card held on FOX to start the new year is a big one. Rashad Evans will headline against Phil Davis in a bout that will determine the next challenger to Jon Jones' light heavyweight championship while Chael Sonnen takes on Mark Munoz in a middleweight title eliminator. That's all without mentioning Michael Bisping vs. Demian Maia, which is also being billed as a 185-pound number one contender bout of sorts.
Two of those men (Evans, Davis) have headlined highly successful PPVs, while another (Bisping) is going to be expected to going forward. And this is where we can truly determine the success of the FOX deal.
The UFC has maintained that it is a PPV company first. That means the fact that they are giving away three major fights for free is simply their way of doing what they can to maximize the future drawing power of those stars. If Evans headlines this FOX show, wins big and goes on to challenge Jon Jones for the title on PPV and it doesn't do great numbers, the FOX deal, at that point, can be considered a short term failure.
That's not to say that fight would do poorly, as the complete opposite is likely to happen if it does occur. But it's a risk the UFC is taking by giving away the milk for free and hoping audiences will still want to purchase the cow later on.
And with St. Pierre and Lesnar not around to bolster business, it's downright scary to think of what the numbers will look like if fight fans ditch the cow.
The sky isn't falling but at this point, it's worth keeping your head up.