- The UFC is counting on Conor McGregor’s much-hyped return at UFC 229 to boost its struggling PPV ratings.
- Brock Lesnar’s rumored comeback is also drumming up huge interest, showing that name-recognition is more important than talent.
- Will Dana White prioritize business over quality and bring more celebrities to the octagon?
The UFC has learned over the years that elite mixed martial artists don’t necessarily translate into pay-per-view buys. Personalities and storylines sell tickets better than sheer talent ever will.
That’s why four of the UFC’s five biggest PPVs of all time were headlined by one Conor McGregor, according to Tapology. The other, UFC 100, featured WWE star-turned-heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar avenging a loss to Frank Mir and a Georges St-Pierre title fight.
Best Selling UFC PPVs
|EVENT||NUMBER OF PPV BUYS|
|UFC 202: McGregor vs Diaz 2||1.60 million|
|UFC 196: McGregor vs Diaz||1.32 million|
|UFC 205: McGregor vs Alvarez||1.30 million|
|UFC 100: Lesnar vs Mir 2; St-Pierre vs Alves||1.30 million|
|UFC 194: Aldo vs McGregor||1.20 million|
|UFC 116: Lesnar vs Carwin||1.16 million|
While McGregor is a talented fighter, pound for pound, he doesn’t stack up to, say, former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson or even heavyweight and light-heavyweight king Daniel Cormier.
Yet, try to find a PPV headlined by Johnson on the list of best-sellers and you’ll come up dry.
Mighty Mouse doesn’t have a brash personality. He doesn’t throw down at press conferences. He doesn’t attack busses in underground parking lots. And, as a result, he doesn’t have much allure for casual fans, which is what you need to set PPV records.
McGregor’s return at UFC 229 (Oct. 6) has the chance to break the current PPV mark held by UFC 202. His fight with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has all the elements of a best-seller: the most recognizable face in MMA; a long-standing feud; and, of course, pre-fight “antics” …
With Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones potentially returning to the sport early next year, UFC president Dana White could have arguably his three biggest stars all active at the same time.
That’s welcome news for the company, who’s bottom line has been hurting during McGregor’s hiatus.
It may also lead to something MMA purists don’t like but the public absolutely loves: celebrity fights!
As Dave Meltzer wrote in July after the disappointing commercial performance of UFC 226, “[t]hese [poor PPV] results show why the UFC will overlook practically anything McGregor does, or why it will hand Brock Lesnar a heavyweight title shot at [age] 41, without a sanctioned win in more than eight years. The promotion can try [to] hype what it has as best 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.”
You can be sure that the UFC accountants noticed the PPV performance of McGregor’s boxing match with Floyd Mayweather (4.3 million PPV buys) and the viewership of the celebrity boxing match between YouTube stars KSI and Logan Paul (~2 million).
Those fights demonstrate that any fish-out-of-water element is completely overshadowed by name-brands and public animosity.
Luckily for Dana White, myriad celebrities have shown interest in fighting in the UFC over the years. Below are some of the biggest names that could feasibly end up in the octagon over the next 18 months.
Odds Celebrities Fight in the UFC
|FIGHTER/CELEBRITY||ODDS TO FIGHT IN THE UFC IN 2019|
|Jean-Claude Van Damme||200/1|
It’s not disingenuous to label Brock Lesnar a “celebrity” at this stage. He’s been out of the game for years, focused on WWE showmanship instead. But by all accounts the Beast Incarnate is going to make one last run at the heavyweight belt.
While Greg Hardy isn’t exactly a household name, the former Dallas Cowboy has done something few others have been able to: transition from being a professional athlete in a non-combat sport into a successful mixed martial artist. Dana White took notice, giving him a UFC contract after just one professional fight.
Given how well Floyd Mayweather‘s boxing match with Conor McGregor did commercially, a rematch in the cage has long been hinted at. Sportsbooks even have odds up on who would win, with the stipulation that the fight must happen in 2019 for the bet to have action. But “Money” is 41 years old, has no wrestling or grappling experience, and jealously protects his undefeated boxing record. Now we’re getting into longshots.
Logan Paul has no MMA experience, either, but a lack of experience didn’t stop him from getting in a boxing ring with fellow amateur KSI. And Paul didn’t look half bad as a pugilist.
Now Paul is talking about an MMA salvo, and he actually has some wrestling pedigree to back it up. White gave kudos to Paul’s business acumen, stating, “[Paul and KSI] did 800,000 [buys] at $10 for two guys that fight fans have never heard of. He’s built a great business for himself, great for him, it’s awesome.”
While the UFC president poured cold water on the idea of Paul fighting in the UFC — “That guy would get murdered here. He would get hurt badly. If I ever let him fight in the UFC, I should be arrested” — that comes across as hilariously hypocritical given that White already let WWE star CM Punk get destroyed in the octagon … twice.
The celebrities that would draw the most attention from casual fans are also the biggest longshots. Steven Seagal wasn’t always the caricature of a martial artist that he is today. He actually gave some pointers to Anderson Silva once upon a time and was a seventh-degree black belt in Aikido long before he was an action star. Now he’s a recognizable face who probably needs some money. It’s kind of the perfect storm for a celebrity UFC fighter. But also, it’s never going to happen, because life is never that fun.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
As for Jean-Claude Van Damme, the star of Bloodsport turned sensei back in 2017, passing on some of his martial-arts wisdom to former UFC champion Cody Garbrandt and hall-of-famer Urijah Faber.
JCVD later got a little too rambunctious with Garbrandt at the dojo, kicking him in the face and nearly feeling Garbrandt’s wrath as a result.
“I was like ‘I’m going to rip his head off,’ but it’s Jean-Claude what are you supposed to do?” — Cody Grabrandt after being kicked in the face by Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Why is Eminem on the list? His ongoing feud with Machine Gun Kelly — which dates back to a gross tweet from MGK about Eminem’s daughter, Hailie, back in 2012 — needs a resolution.
— YANDHI (@LordTreeSap) September 3, 2018
If Dana White won’t let Logan Paul fight in the UFC, he’s sure not going to let two scrawny rappers into his octagon. But again, he may have a change of heart on all of the above when the revenue projections come in.
Let's have fun and keep it civil.