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The evolution of the UFC

There has been a lot of talk as of late about the lack of top box office earners in the UFC. And by “a lot of talk” I mean Greg Savage over at Sherdog. I think he’s the only one. Savage let his opinion be known fresh after UFC 97 — an event which was highlighted by the Chuck Liddell’s last fight and continued nonsense from Anderson Silva — so maybe we’ll let him slide due to the “extreme emotional disturbance” he was likely suffering from. Anyway, here’s a bit of what the guy had to say.

Don’t look now but there is a real dearth of main event talent at the top of the UFC roster. The days of five- or six-fight cards a year masked the fact that there were only a handful of guys who could legitimately headline a pay-per-view card. The post-TUF era, with its monthly (if not more) attempts to pry mixed martial arts fans’ wallets open, has clearly illuminated the fact that there just are not enough Georges St. Pierres, Brock Lesnars and Forrest Griffins to go around.

…With more and more shows being booked, more so because of contract obligations to the UFC’s swollen roster than anything else, the headline fights are getting tougher and tougher to come by. Add in injuries and unappealing matchups, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out there are going to be a lot more cards like UFC 97 than UFC 100.

…In a testament to the remarkable strength of the UFC brand, numbers have stayed relatively consistent even during these tough economic times. How long that will last is anyone’s guess, though.

Savage attempts to stress how the UFC is putting on more shows than it used to and how business could suffer because of it — but the organization has been putting on monthly shows for a good three or four years and has done just fine. When Savage points to the increase of shows potentially making the quality suffer, he’s thinking inside the box. First off, UFC 97 looked awesome on paper and only suffered because of the nonsensical main event. Secondly, more shows means more slots for fighters which means more room for guys to step up and become stars. Now, with Ultimate Fight Nights, TUF finales, and pay-per-view undercards, most of the time a fighter has to win a couple UFC fights in a row before getting a main card slot on a pay-per-view. If you look at every card over the next few months, the majority of main card bouts are either between contenders or are fights in which the winner will become a contender.

The point is that this is a sport that evolves constantly. For every Chuck Liddell that calls it quits, there is a Georges St. Pierre that steps up to become a dominant champion. For every Tito Ortiz that fades into the twilight of his career, there is a Brock Lesnar that comes along to become a box office powerhouse. For every Randy Couture that retires, there is a Forrest Griffin to fill the void of the underdog that always gives 110% and wins against the odds when you least expect it.

Another obvious thorn in the side of Savage’s analysis is that three UFC shows over the past few months — 91, 92, and 94 — have done a million buys or more. A million. While that won’t happen every month, it sure bodes well for the UFC business model. Savage alludes to this, but questions how long it will last. As such, I’ve piled together a list of UFC numbered shows for 2009. I’m listing the two biggest fights on each card, and based on what has happened already and what is already signed or rumored it looks like this:

UFC 93 Franklin vs Henderson / Shogun vs Coleman
UFC 94 GSP vs Penn / Machida vs T. Silva
UFC 95* Sanchez vs Stevenson / Marquardt v Gouveia
UFC 96 Rampage vs Jardine / Carwin vs Gonzaga
UFC 97 A. Silva vs Leites / Liddell vs Shogun
UFC 98 Evans vs Machida / Hughes vs Serra
UFC 99 Franklin vs W. Silva / Velasquez vs Herring
UFC 100 Lesnar vs Mir / GSP vs Alves
UFC 101 Penn vs Florian / Griffin vs T. Silva
UFC 102 Couture vs Nogueira / Hamill vs Vera**
UFC 103 Rampage vs Evans or Machida
UFC 104 A. Silva vs GSP or Hendo or Bisping
* aired on Spike, not pay-per-view
**will likely be replaced by something like Shogun vs Jardine

I don’t know about you, but that looks like a pretty fucking solid line-up to me.