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With McGregor, Rousey, UFC Experiences Best Year Ever in 2015

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterDecember 30, 2015

Conor McGregor reacts after defeating Jose Aldo during a featherweight championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 194, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

It closed not with a whimper, but with a bang.

It closed with the sight of Conor McGregor, the UFC's chosen future megastar, standing in the middle of the Octagon, a real (not interim) UFC title strapped around his waist. In the final Ultimate Fighting Championship event of 2015, with all of its chips on the table, Zuffa's biggest gamble since purchasing the Ultimate Fighting Championship back in 2001 finally paid off, and it did so in the biggest way imaginable.

But let's rewind things a bit, back to January, back when McGregor wasn't the UFC's biggest star, back when Ronda Rousey was still undefeated. The landscape looked a whole lot different back then, and it's hard to imagine that we'd eventually end up where we did.

Promoting is a difficult thing, but then so is being a fan. Most of the time, you half expect things to go south, just because you've been conditioned to believe things won't work out the way you want them to.

A big fight gets announced. They start rolling out those fancy videos and graphics and tweets, and we start getting that feeling in the pit of our stomach, the feeling of great anticipation mixed with just a little bit of dread. And then that thing we're dreading actually happens, and someone gets injured and the fight is called off. We're unhappy, but we knew it was going to happen anyway, so the blow is softened a bit.

And there was a bit of that this year.

2015 wasn't perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. We lost Aldo vs. McGregor at UFC 189, and down the drain went all those advertising dollars and money spent spiriting the two men around the planet for a tour to promote it. And we lost a bit of ourselves there, too, because we'd been there before. We'd seen big fights go down in flames and then, for a lot of different reasons, never happen.

But UFC 189 was perhaps the first sign that the sun was shining on Zuffa, that the dark clouds of the past few years were floating away. The promotion decided to bet on McGregor. Instead of pulling him from the card and waiting for Jose Aldo to heal up, it put Chad Mendes in the Octagon.

Mendes, the American wrestler, the test McGregor had never faced, the one who would stop the hype train.

Instead, McGregor planted Mendes on the canvas.

McGregor knocks out Aldo at UFC 194
McGregor knocks out Aldo at UFC 194John Locher/Associated Press

The dice rolled Zuffa's way with everything on the line, and then it happened again in December when McGregor sent Aldo sprawling to the canvas in just 13 seconds.

That's the way things went for the UFC in 2015, mostly. You have to say "mostly" because there is Rousey, of course, and you can't have a conversation of this sort without mentioning Rousey.

Rousey, the biggest mainstream star this sport has ever seen, was on magazine covers and talk shows and TMZ and everywhere, really, until Holly Holm reminded us that multiple decades of striking experience will nearly always beat someone who just learned how to punch and kick a few years ago.

Rousey after being knocked out by Holm
Rousey after being knocked out by HolmAndy Brownbill/Associated Press

Rousey's star was dimmed a little bit on that night—but not extinguished. Her old story was about dominance, about beating everyone and retiring undefeated. Her new story includes a loss, but it is no less interesting and, in fact, might even make her a bigger star in 2016. Because as much as we like seeing arrogant people humbled, we enjoy watching them trying to rise from the ashes even more.

Those two stories, the stories of McGregor and Rousey, helped drive the UFC to great heights in 2015. Company CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told CNN Money via MSN.com (h/t MMAMania.com), the UFC generated roughly $600 million in revenue, a record high for the company.

For years, industry insiders have predicted the coming death of pay-per-view. But the UFC's business in 2015 indicates otherwise; through the first 12 pay-per-view events of the year (not including UFC 194, which is expected to be a massive number), the promotion averaged 537,500 buys, according to estimates from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter's Dave Meltzer.

That's a big uptick from recent years.

YearTotal Estimated Buys (No UFC 194)Average Buyrate
20135,050,000420,833
20143,200,000266,667
20156,450,000537,500

This success is almost entirely due to McGregor and Rousey, of course. If you take their PPV events out of the equation, the UFC averaged 425,000 buys for the year. That's a higher number than 2014, of course, but 2014 was a terrible year for the promotion by almost any metric. And it's higher than 2013, but not by much.

The point of 2015 is that stars can still be created. Even if McGregor and Rousey are the UFC's only current dependable, bankable stars, it still has two of them. For now, at least, the UFC knows it can put on fights headlined by both of them and count on depositing a lot more money in the bank than it's used to.

But the two biggest news stories of 2015, at least when it comes to the long-term health of the company, had nothing to do with the fighters.

The announcement of a random drug screening program, run by the outside agency USADA, will have far-reaching effects that should change the future of the sport, and it is the most important (and best) thing that happened in fighting this year. Mixed martial arts is a sport long tainted by the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs, and for the first time, the world's leading promotion decided to step up and do something about it.

The UFC's willingness to turn control of the program over to USADA is not a small thing, and it must be applauded. It put USADA in charge even when it might mean that its biggest and brightest stars can potentially fail drug tests and be put on the shelf for two or more years. That was not an easy decision, but it was an important one.

Former middleweight champion Chris Weidman
Former middleweight champion Chris WeidmanJeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

And the clothing deal with Reebok has had its share of hilarious gaffes. To say things have not gone smoothly would be an understatement.

But despite the hilarity of things like "Giblert" Melendez, I do believe it was an important step toward making the UFC look more like a real sporting league and less like something you watch on late-night cable. An even more important next step is making sure the fighters who are forced to wear Reebok in the Octagon are fairly compensated.

All told, this may have been the most important year in the history of the UFC. The effects of the random drug-testing program and the Reebok deal will likely be felt for years to come. The continued rise of McGregor and Rousey—or perhaps even Holm, Luke Rockhold, Daniel Cormier and others—will help fuel those long-term plans.

And in the meantime, 2016—with UFC 200 glimmering like a beacon on the horizon—appears to be another big year for the world's largest fight promotion.

Jeremy Botter is a veteran journalist who covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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