The consensus is that UFC 216 was a top tier show, featuring exciting fights, a major record being set and a finish that will be talked about for years to come.
But the box office told a different story.
The announced crowd of 10,638 fans at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas is on paper is nothing surprising. However, the gate of $677,999.50 was nothing short of shocking. That number indicates either a substantial amount of free tickets were included in that attendance figure, or a large percentage of sales were at heavily discounted prices.
In the last 10 years, we could only come up with three UFC pay-per-view shows held in the UFC’s home city that did less than $2 million. The only one shy of $1.5 million was UFC 191, held at the smaller MGM Grand Garden Arena, where a card headlined by Demetrious Johnson defending the flyweight title against John Dodson for the second time did $1,362,700, or roughly double what Saturday’s show did.
There are a number of reasons that factored into this, although the key reason record lows happen is that the fights presented don’t interest the public that much. Some will blame the tragedy in Las Vegas from a few days earlier, but UFC tickets are usually purchased well in advance. The shootings likely did hurt the secondary resellers market, it wouldn’t have much of an effect on the primary market, and the live gate is determined by that market.
Others will note that there were two monster boxing matches in the same building over the previous six weeks. Most likely the Canelo Alvarez vs. Gennady Golovkin fight drew from a different audience, but no doubt with the high ticket prices, that Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather fight did this show no favors.
Johnson broke the Anderson Silva mark with his 11th consecutive title match victory, with a suplex into an armbar submission over Ray Borg, that looked more like it was out of fantasy fighting, something from a video game, a martial arts movie or an overseas pro wrestling match.
That is realistically one of the most important records in the sport. But Johnson’s run at the record has shown that this is a sport where statistics and records aren’t that important to the casual fan base. Tying the record meant little for business, and the business stats the night he broke it speak loud and clear. Also seemingly not important is the idea of interim championships. The Tony Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee main event was promoted for the UFC interim lightweight title, and in theory, the next shot at Conor McGregor, the biggest star in the sport, for the “real” lightweight title.
Fight quality isn’t either, because Ferguson, also on a long winning streak, almost always delivers when it comes to action. Johnson was a somewhat late add to the show. Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee is a fight that had hardcore fans salivating. But what interest level hardcore fans can have doesn’t indicate well what average fan appeal will be.
And with Johnson, while one could argue he was underpublicized in comparison to his ability, that is less than case now than it was two years ago. For the last year, he’s been pushed as either the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, or very close to it. He’s been promoted, justifiably so, as the best technical fighter in the sport. Of late, he’s been labeled as not only the best active fighter, but more-and-more, as the best fighter of all-time. While that moniker is debatable, with names like Fedor Emelianenko, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and Anderson Silva also in the discussion, none have gone so many fights without even being in a competitive scrap.
The fact is, you have to go back 10 fights and more than four years, to the first Dodson fight, to even find a fight where it wasn’t one-sided. And the Johnson of 2017 is far superior to the 2013 version in the first Dodson fight.
Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Nobody expected Borg to have a chance at winning going in. Nobody will expect that with anyone in the division until somebody at least comes close. But most of the time in this sport, when champions become more-and-more dominant, their drawing power increases.
Johnson vs. Borg wasn’t the title fight UFC originally wanted. There was a showdown a few months back when the company was pushing for Johnson to defend against former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, who would have cut to 125. If nothing else, that fight would have garnered considerably more interest.
Johnson fought at bantamweight through 2011. He was good enough to get a title shot at Dominick Cruz, and give Cruz an exciting fight. And while the bantamweight division is far tougher than it was six years ago, Johnson’s personal improvement as a fighter has been even more pronounced.
Let’s look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of Saturday’s show.
TONY FERGUSON – Ferguson’s 10-fight winning streak, moving his record to 24-3, is the seventh-longest in UFC history. By all rights, as interim lightweight champion, Conor McGregor (21-3) should be the next opponent. Ferguson started talking McGregor immediately after his win, and Dana White said after the show that’s the match they are looking to make, perhaps before the end of this year.
Such a fight has a lot of intrigue. Ferguson is clearly superior on the ground. Standing, McGregor would have a huge technical edge, but Ferguson is tough and gets stronger as the fight goes on. McGregor has struggled in longer fights. Ferguson can take shots and come back from adverse conditions, and he showed this past week he’s willing to do the talk necessary to make the most out of a McGregor buildup.
If, for some reason, McGregor chooses Nate Diaz, which still feels like the bigger money fight, Ferguson’s next opponent should be Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0).
KEVIN LEE – Lee (16-3), just turned 25, making him the youngest ranked fighter in the division. The question for him is more what division does he fight in. Lee barely made weight, and the heavy cut worked against him in the fight where he got tired first. And there is the evidence that Donald Cerrone, Jorge Masvidal and Rafael dos Anjos have done well moving up to welterweight.
If Lee stays at lightweight, a good next opponent would be Edson Barboza (19-4). If he moves up, a good first opponent in the new weight class would be Mike Perry (11-1).
DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON – Johnson (27-2-1) also has two choices. He can either come back and go for his 12th straight title defense, or move up, with the idea there are more money matches for him in a heavier division.
Johnson hasn’t had issues making weight at 125. So if he is to move up, it should only be for a heavily-promoted fight against the bantamweight champion. If he stays at flyweight, the winner of the Dec. 2 fight in Detroit with Sergio Pettis (16-2) vs Henry Cejudo (11-2), would be the logical next opponent. There is also perennial top contender Joseph Benavidez (25-4) to be considered.
FABRICIO WERDUM – Werdum (22-7-1) only needed 1:05 before finishing Walt Harris with an armbar. He immediately pushed for a heavyweight title rematch with Stipe Miocic, who knocked Werdum out to win the title on May 14, 2016, in Brazil.
Miocic isn’t fighting any time soon. It appears UFC is earmarking a fight between Alistair Overeem vs. Francis Ngannou on Dec. 2 in Detroit where the winner would get Miocic next.
Surprisingly, Werdum replaced Mark Hunt in the UFC Sydney main event Tuesday night. He will now fight Marcin Tybura on Nov. 19.
BENEIL DARIUSH – Dariush (14-3-1) went to a draw with Evan Dunham in a fight Dariush nearly won after a dominant first round, good enough to get a 10-8 score. Dunham came back to win rounds two and three. Usually a draw leads to a lot of controversy, but in this case, it appears most saw the draw as the right decision.
Dariush should next face either Al Iaquinta (14-3-1) or Rustam Khabilov (22-3).