The 5 Biggest Cash-Grab Fights in UFC History
The UFC is a business above all else.
Don’t ever get that twisted.
While there are overtures into the realm of true athleticism, and they do happen pretty regularly, if the promotion sees a chance to make a quick buck there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to take it.
Champion vs. champion fights, big names from other sports getting UFC fights, or pretty much any other idea that might generate some interest and cash is on the table at UFC headquarters at any given time. While they don’t operate with a script the way pro wrestling does, the goal remains the same: butts in seats, orders on pay-per-view, keep the train rolling for another month of events.
That’s why the next big heavyweight fight is going to see Brock Lesnar return from the world of pro wrestling to fight Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight title. Brock equals bucks, and the UFC loves its bucks.
It’s part of MMA’s give-and-take with fans, this idea that, so long as we get the fights we want in the name of athletic merit, we’ll look the other way on the nights the UFC is obviously lining its pockets with a booking.
Some fights stand out as being particularly cynical cash-grabs though. The goal of the UFC is so obvious when booking them that one can’t help but cry foul. Sure, you’ll probably still buy it, but it’s a poorly kept secret what the promotion is doing when they announce the bout and it goes so far as to offend your sensibilities.
What follows is a list of five such fights:
Georges St-Pierre vs. BJ Penn II
Back in 2009 there were arguably no two bigger names in MMA than Georges St-Pierre and BJ Penn. Thought by most to be the best fighters of their generation (Anderson Silva was at a mere four title defenses then), they were rugged and athletic and skilled in ways that few were but that would foretell the sport MMA is today.
They also fought in different weight classes, with Penn holding the lightweight title and St-Pierre holding welterweight gold. Penn, in particular, wasn’t a big guy for his weight class even after having been welterweight champion and fighting as high as heavyweight in his career.
St-Pierre was dense and technical and had no issues mauling 170-pounders as his pastime, and there was no need or particular appetite to see him fight Penn. Yet, as the first “champion-versus-champion” bout in UFC history, the money was too much to pass up.
The UFC made the bout.
In it, St-Pierre mugged Penn for four full rounds before the Hawaiian quit on his stool before the final round. It was an ugly beating, but it drew nearly a million buys on pay-per-view and cleared four-million dollars at the gate—an obvious success by any financial metric.
James Toney vs. Randy Couture
Interestingly, a little over a year later Penn was challenging Frankie Edgar for the lightweight title in the UFC’s debut in Boston. In need of a good co-feature for the evening, the UFC went well outside the box: They booked former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Randy Couture in a fight against boxing legend James Toney.
Toney had never fought in MMA, but he’d run his mouth incessantly in hopes of cashing in on a UFC payday. He hit a sweet spot between being comically uninformed on MMA and legitimately dangerous thanks to his boxing credentials, so Dana White threw him a bone.
On fight night, Couture swiftly scored a takedown and pounded Toney to a pulp before submitting him. It looked exactly as everyone expected, but it still made Toney $500,000 in flat-rate pay (a near unheard-of figure in the UFC in 2010) and helped push UFC 118 to over 500,000 buys on pay-per-view.
Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Couture
Poor Randy Couture—for one of the all-time greats of MMA, he sure did find himself in some weird fights as a UFC property.
Years before he demolished Toney, Couture was the heavyweight champion. He’d returned to MMA after a brief retirement to snatch the strap from Tim Sylvia, and defended it for the first time a little after his 44th birthday. He was near the peak of his powers then, but a protracted contract battle with the UFC sidelined him until late 2008.
While he was out of action, the promotion signed WWE superstar Brock Lesnar to a contract. He entered the UFC at 1-0 in his career, then went 1-1 inside the octagon. Given his name and stature, it was enough to land him a title shot against Couture at UFC 91.
Though he was incredibly green, Lesnar was simply too big for Couture to handle. Couture hit him with some good shots and defended the behemoth well for as long as the fight lasted, but eventually Lesnar landed a ham hock right hand that wobbled the aging warrior. It was academic from there, and Lesnar improbably became heavyweight champion.
While it proved competitively meritorious in its outcome, make no mistake about the objective of the booking. It was cash-based above all else. The bout sold over a million units on pay-per-view and netted almost five times that at the gate—both staggering figures for the UFC at that time.
CM Punk vs. Mickey Gall
Oh, CM Punk. Probably the cash-grabbiest of the cash grabs to ever take place…inside the octagon.
The story is so well known at this point that it could be a bard’s tale: Punk was a WWE star, he had a falling out with that company, he decided he wanted to try his hand in MMA’s biggest promotion because he’d been a recreational jiu-jitsu practitioner for years.
Because of his name and the potential for dollars, he was signed to a UFC deal in late-2014 and found his footing at the esteemed Duke Roufus Academy for his training. And, to his credit, by all accounts he trained very hard and was a model teammate as he began his professional martial arts journey.
After some setbacks and other rigmarole pushed his debut into 2016, Punk was predictably obliterated by young upstart Mickey Gall at UFC 203. The event landed roughly 450,000 pay-per-view buys—a decent number in the UFC’s modern era—and a $2.6M gate, while Punk cashed a $500,000 cheque for the beating he took.
Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather
Likely the biggest cash grab in the history of the UFC came outside of its unilateral control. They still had their fingers in the pie though, as they allowed their biggest star to leave MMA for a night to box all-time great Floyd Mayweather at an event that was literally dubbed “The Money Fight”.
Complete with a garish green title belt, the boxing match was Mayweather’s 50th and McGregor’s first. That didn’t stop the UFC from backing it though, and they happily went along for the ride as McGregor toured the world behaving wildly and drumming up interest for the glorified exhibition.
The fight itself—a fairly entertaining affair that married spectacle and sport nicely—became the second-most purchased pay-per-view event in history and was the talk of the world in the summer of 2017. McGregor made more in a night than he had in his entire MMA career, and the UFC got a cut for themselves as well.
It did come at a cost though: McGregor hasn’t fought in the UFC since 2016 and has shown no outward signs that he’ll be returning any time soon.