The UFC is the envy of the combat sports world. Few, if any, companies have ever managed to monetize their audience quite the way the UFC has. When the promotion is at the top of its game, no one is better at convincing a fan to part with $55.
In recent months, the UFC has been put to the test. Injuries have nearly crippled the company, dashing many of matchmaker Joe Silva's carefully laid plans. For months, every UFC PPV has been little more than damage control, with Silva and UFC President Dana White making the best of bad situations.
The latest example is UFC 153, scheduled for October 12 in Brazil. The main event has seen Erik Koch give way to Frankie Edgar after an injury, only to see champion Jose Aldo forced to drop from the fight after a motorcycle injury.
Middleweight champion Anderson Silva, no doubt wearing a white hat, has come to save the day, filling in for Aldo in the main event. His opponent? Journeyman Stephan Bonnar.
Some fans, especially those with a sports fan's mentality, assume this is a huge step down. And as an athletic contest, it is. Edgar was the long-time lightweight champion, Aldo the kingpin at 145 pounds. The talent in the cage would have been mind blowing.
Others, those who like to analyze the UFC as a business, assume that Silva-Bonnar is actually a huge upgrade for the promotion. Silva, after all, is a major star. He and Chael Sonnen recently broke the million-buy mark for a PPV title fight. Surely that magic will rub off on UFC 153, too.
History, however, has taught us both of our fictional straw fans are wrong. Silva, on his own, has never been a huge draw.
Aldo and Edgar, despite their vast array of skills, are box office poison.
So, how will UFC 153 perform? It's nearly impossible to predict a PPV's financial success with any accuracy. But we do have an idea about what has worked in the past. The UFC has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams with two easy formulas: star power and good, old fashioned hate.
If you look at the UFC's most successful PPV events, one or the other is represented.Usually it takes both.
The stars, men who drew well every time out, are actually few and far between. There are five who really stand out over the course of UFC history—Ken Shamrock, Brock Lesnar, Georges St-Pierre and Tito Ortiz.
Others, like Anderson Silva and Quinton Jackson, are situational stars. In the right position, with the right opponent, they can have a major impact. But against opponents fans don't believe in, their box office powers fade.
For example, Jackson was a bust against Matt Hamill and Keith Jardine. And Silva failed to draw against Yushin Okami, Patrick Cote and Dan Henderson. His fight with Bonnar will likely fall into this same category—if betting odds are any indication, fans don't believe in Bonnar's chances. That will be reflected when it comes time to count coppers.
The other tool the UFC leverages well is the grudge match. When the promotion is capable of convincing fans that two fighters really hate each other, the result is box office gold. Even the biggest stars shine the brightest when the venom and trash talk start flowing.
Rampage had his greatest success against Rashad Evans. Ortiz against both Liddell and Shamrock. Lesnar made the most money against Frank Mir. Silva became a star thanks to his feud with Chael Sonnen.
Fans respond best to fights with the highest stakes. Those aren't always title fights. Sometimes personal pride is more important than any title belt. But with the exception of Shamrock, who remained compelling to fans long after he was competitive in the cage, success is the ultimate box office aphrodisiac.
Simply put, fans won't support a loser. Even the biggest stars, guys who drew big when they were winning regularly, couldn't maintain their box office power when fans stopped believing in them.
A good example is Forrest Griffin. When Griffin beat Rampage Jackson for the UFC title, fans rejoiced. They wanted to love Forrest, who was a funny guy and a game fighter. When allowed to believe in him, they embraced him with open arms.
His next bout, against Evans, put up a million buys (with a super strong card underneath). But Griffin lost badly, then looked even worse against Silva at UFC 101 where they were the main event in all but name. That show drew 850,000 buys (data estimates via MMA Payout).
Griffin's box office power was never the same. Fans simply couldn't believe in him after that. His next PPV bout only managed to attract 375,000 viewers and he was shifted into a supporting role. No one wants to pay to cheer for a loser, no matter how lovable.
Even Liddell and Lesnar, the biggest of big dogs, saw their appeal fade when the losses piled up. Ortiz faded into a non-entity as well.
That brings us back to Silva and Bonnar. Silva is still one of the sport's biggest stars. He has never lost a UFC fight. But he's still the kind of star that needs a dance partner. We saw with Yushin Okami, even after it seemed he had turned the corner with huge money fights against Sonnen and Vitor Belfort, that Silva can't do it on his own.
Bonnar is a beloved elder statesman, a fighter who has meant a lot to the UFC. But he has no PPV track record because he's never been able to earn a spot at the top of the card. Fans know this. And I don't believe they will buy this as a legitimate fight.
It's a fight that has only one of the two ingredients the UFC needs to mix up a really powerful box office attraction. While it might improve marginally on what would have likely been an Edgar-Aldo dud, there will be no economic boom at UFC 153.