Casual fans love few things more than heavyweight fights. If they cannot have a heavyweight fight, they will settle on a light heavyweight fight.
There is no getting around this. Fans love to see big dudes punch each other in the same way they want to see Godzilla throw King Kong through the Sears Tower. In recent years many have extrapolated from this that, since fans love to see big guys fight, they must then not care as much about seeing smaller guys fight. This idea, however, is not entirely accurate.
It is important to point out that recent buyrates certainly seem to indicate that bigger is better. The two highest-selling cards of 2012 so far have been UFC 145, which featured a light heavyweight title bout with Jon Jones and Rashad Evans (which garnered 700,000 buys), and the all-heavyweight UFC 146 (which drew 560,000 buys).
Cards headlined by smaller fighters have not had nearly as much success. Just take a look at UFC 136.
The event featured two title bouts, with Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard III for the lightweight belt and Jose Aldo vs. Kenny Florian competing for the top spot in the featherweight division. On top of that, it had two likely-top-contender bouts in Chael Sonnen vs. Brian Stann and Joe Lauzon vs. Melvin Guillard. Also? Nam Phan vs. Leonard Garcia II.
Five exciting fights. One of the most stacked cards in UFC history. It drew 225,000 buys, not even one third of UFC 145.
UFC 136 was no anomaly, either. UFC 142, headlined by Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes, drew only 235,000 buys. UFC 125, headlined by Edgar vs. Maynard II, had just 270,000 buys. Because of this pattern, the UFC has had very little faith in the drawing power of anybody smaller than a welterweight.
They had a Dominick Cruz title bout relegated to cable TV.
They are yet to have part of their flyweight championship tournament on pay-per-view.
Twice, they had Jose Aldo defend his belt in a co-main event before making him a featured fighter. His first time headlining a card was the aforementioned UFC 142.
While all that sounds very, very bad this is likely only a temporary problem. Why?
Well, the main thing is that there have been highly successful lightweights in the past. BJ Penn headlined UFC 84 against Sean Sherk and drew 475,000 buys. A year and a half later, BJ Penn vs. Diego Sanchez had top billing at UFC 107 and attracted 620,000 buys.
It is frequently said that the UFC's lightweight division is staggeringly deep. This is entirely true and, unfortunately for the UFC, that means that no lightweight fighter has strung together enough wins to be an especially great draw.
Frankie Edgar was on the right track. While he generated lukewarm interest in his first two times as a card's main man, he had a solid turnout for UFC 144, which scored 375,000 buys. It is possible, however, that this number got a boost from the hype surrounding the UFC's return to Japan. Regardless, the UFC may be back to square one, since Edgar lost his fight there to Ben Henderson.
While it is possible that fans just want to see dominant champions, what of Cruz and Aldo? The featherweight and bantamweight champs are two of the best fighters in MMA today, and have had very little difficulty keeping their belts.
That is difficult to peg, but there are a few possible explanations.
Cruz and Aldo have a combined five UFC fights. Even though few would deny that they are top-five pound-for-pound fighters, both of them rose to fame in the WEC promotion. Back footage of WEC events, unfortunately, is unavailable for any sort of UFC Unleashed-type show, meaning a strong majority of new or casual fans have never seen bouts like Jose Aldo vs. Urijah Faber or Dominick Cruz vs. Brian Bowles.
On top of that, the WEC was never a consistent draw on Versus TV. Ratings for events were occasionally amazing (especially surrounding Urijah Faber) but even high-profile events like WEC 50, headlined by Cruz vs. Benavidez II, drew just 316,000 viewers.
Furthermore, Cruz and Aldo also only have one finish between them in the UFC (Aldo beat Chad Mendes with a scary knee at UFC 142). While neither fighter is boring by any means, nothing turns a fighter's status around like a highlight reel knockout. Even though Aldo ended his most recent fight with a fantastic KO, it did not generate the buzz that Barboza vs. Etim or Silva vs. Belfort did.
Similarly, neither fighter has really gotten much publicity with the UFC until very recently. Dominick Cruz had a great deal of spotlight on him, courtesy of his time coaching The Ultimate Fighter: Live, but the hype surrounding his rubber match with Urijah Faber died when he suffered a knee injury that will keep him from competing for a long while. Aldo, meanwhile, remains in relative obscurity in the states, and promotional opportunities will continue to elude him until he learns to speak English.
Last but not least, neither has had anything out of the cage to be interested in. The featherweight champ has no serious threats to his throne, and nobody has called him out in any particularly interesting way. The same was true for Cruz until Urijah Faber became a full-blown rival (which, again, is now on indefinite hold).
BJ Penn was an absolutely dominant lightweight champion, but he had more than his fair share of rivals. Anderson Silva, obviously, has Chael Sonnen. GSP had his foils. Aldo and Cruz, though, have not had an opponent to get excited in years and that has been a serious problem for the UFC.
Whether it is one of these things, specifically, or a combination of all of the above, the problem is not a complete disinterest in fighters who weigh under 170 lbs. The top fighters in the lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight divisions are simply yet to grow roots in fans' wallets. This will change one day. Maybe not this year. Maybe not even with these fighters.
The thing is, aficionados love to see great fights. If somebody puts together enough of them, they will take notice regardless of their weight class.