Injuries, schedules force UFC to dig deep to draw fans

Wednesday March 26th, 2014

Demetrious Johnson (right) has shown intriguing skills but not an ability to win overs fans.

When the UFC asks you to pay $55 for an evening of high-definition televised fighting, the biggest promotion in mixed martial arts makes it difficult to say no. Between matchmaking and the hype that follows, Dana White and his merry band of carnival barkers sell each offering like a golden opportunity. Or at least a shiny brass-and-leather one.

Championship fights are what make pay-per-views must-see TV. Headlining UFC 171, less than two weeks ago in Dallas, was Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler for the welterweight championship, a title left vacant by the sabbatical of iconic Georges St-Pierre. The pay card prior, UFC 170 in Las Vegas, featured crossover star Ronda Rousey's defense of the women's bantamweight belt against fellow Olympic medalist Sara McMann. UFC 169, held earlier in February in Newark, N.J., had not one, but two title bouts, with bantamweight Renan Barão and featherweight José Aldo both defending the honor of their Nova União gym in Rio de Janeiro. And so on.

Going forward, the promotion has 11 pay cards between now and the end of 2014. Some are inked onto the schedule, such as next month's meeting between light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and Glover "Hasn't Lost in Eight Years" Teixeira at UFC 172 in Baltimore. Some are unannounced but expected, if only because they're annual occurrences, like the Party Like It's Almost New Year's In Las Vegas event that always comes the week after Christmas.

And then there's the pesky little title fight that's on the move. On Monday, the UFC announced that middleweight belt holder Chris Weidman had injured a knee, requiring "minor surgery," and his defense against Lyoto Machida was being postponed from the May 24 card, UFC 173, to another Vegas event six weeks later, UFC 175 on July 5.

On the surface, this shift is just a matter of erasing one item from the datebook and inserting another. But big picture-wise, it shines a light on an issue that has to concern the bean counters at UFC headquarters.

The UFC has nine champions. Four of them, Weidman and Hendricks as well as heavyweight Cain Velasquez and lightweight Anthony Pettis, are laid up in the sick bay, recovering from injury. Another belt holder, Rousey, is off shooting the Entourage movie and presumably unavailable to re-enter the octagon until Ari Gold gives the OK. That means more than half of the company's PPV headliners are out of commission.

Actually, it's more than half if you calculate not merely by body count but by drawing power. Aside from Jones, the only champs ready to go are Aldo, Barão, and flyweight Demetrious Johnson, amazing fighters all, but if history is an indicator, small enough to go unnoticed by much of the buying public.

Johnson has never headlined a PPV, and there's a reason for that. Before a rollicking two-minute knockout of Joseph Benavidez in December offered the promise of a higher profile, his two flyweight title fights prior to that were booed, despite being electrifying in their own way. "Mighty Mouse" is as skilled as anyone in the company, his lightning quickness purposeful and perplexing, yet fans have been slow to catch up to him.

Much the same could be said for Aldo, who has headlined three PPVs, all low earners. The UFC does not disclose revenue-related numbers, but a report by Dave Meltzer of estimated that UFC 142, with José vs. Chad Mendes on the January 2012 marquee, sold to just 215,000 households. Three weeks later, a Carlos Condit-Nick Diaz welterweight fight for nothing more than an interim belt did nearly double the business. Aldo's showdown with former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in February 2013 did a little better, selling 330,000, but it was outdone later that month by Rousey's first title defense. Then, in August, Aldo vs. Chan Sung Jung was seen in just 180,000 homes.

Aldo was in the co-main event of Barão's only turn at headlining a PPV, and the Brazilian teammates didn't combine for much that night in Newark. UFC 169 sold to just 230,000 households, the fight promotion's lowest number since Aldo's go with "The Korean Zombie" six months earlier.

Putting those numbers in perspective, consider that the card right before Aldo vs. Jung featured Weidman taking on then-champion Anderson Silva and sold to nearly four times as many homes. The middleweights' championship rematch in December -- about a month prior to Barão's PPV debut -- had a buy rate estimated at 1,025,000. The pay card following Renan's was Rousey vs. McMann, which drew 340,000. And the rap on "Rowdy Ronda" is that she's a star despite her PPV numbers.

None of this is hard to fathom. Georges St-Pierre PPVs have sold big because his star is big. Same with Anderson Silva, to an extent. Both are gone now, perhaps forever. But that's no reason for gloom and doom. Dana White is right when he reminds that there was a time when people thought the sky would fall once Chuck Liddell went away. "The Iceman" goeth away and his place in the consciousness of MMA fans was taken by GSP and Brock Lesnar. The UFC builds stars, the most notable of them being the UFC itself. There are fans who'll plunk down cash to watch fights just because they are UFC fights.

But the fights do have to be top-level fights, and that takes top-level fighters. Will there enough of them around for the rest of this year to pull nearly a dozen PPVs behind them? Let's do the math. Velasquez has targeted a November return from shoulder surgery, so that takes care of one show. If Jones escapes UFC 172 healthy, he's probably good for one more 2014 fight. Weidman goes on July 5 and might have one more in him, too. Hendricks is aiming for a fall return after biceps surgery. Pettis, recovering from knee surgery, also is being penciled in for a fall return, taking on Gilbert Melendez after the two coached a season of The Ultimate Fighter. So, if all goes well, these champions might account for six of the 10 PPVs that'll likely remain after Jones vs. Teixeira.

If all goes well.

Even in the healthiest-case scenario, the UFC will have to rely on Rousey and its littlest belted men -- Aldo, Barão, and Johnson -- to carry the load on the four other PPVs. When a UFC event is a toll road, it's almost always a champion in the booth collecting the cash. Of the company's 13 pay shows in 2013, only one was headlined by something other than a title bout. UFC 161 was scheduled to have Barão vs. Eddie Wineland in its main event, but the champ was pulled from the card and a light heavyweight co-main was moved up to the top of the bill. Rashad Evans was a former champ and Dan Henderson was a multiple-division Pride and Strikeforce belt holder, but together they sold to just 140,000 households, the worst PPV showing of the year.

So yes, injuries affect all fighters, from the bottom of the roster on up. But the ones that hurt the bottom line are the ones that allow a shiny belt to collect dust.

Of course, maybe expectations are different in the UFC's office these days. The company has grown into more locales and onto more platforms. Earlier this month, it put a light heavyweight No. 1 contender's bout on Fight Pass, its new streaming subscription service. In May, it will present events in Germany and Brazil on the same day. PPVs will always be part of the business model, White insists whenever one of these innovations is announced, but maybe pay cards no longer are asked to carry as much of the load as before. Still, there's nothing like the shimmer of a championship belt. It mesmerizes us, and fans pay to sit in its presence. And boy do we notice its absence.

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