The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has been steadily ramping up their expansion efforts year after year. What began as a sloppy, almost campy martial arts organization has created a bona fide new sport, mixed martial arts, which it then introduced successfully to the mainstream sports audience. Though the organization encountered harsh criticism and litigation, and was initially outlawed from most of the United States, they persevered. When the Fertitta brothers purchased the company in 2001, they made it a point to expand outside of the organization’s home base of Las Vegas, Nevada. The strategy has paid dividends, as the UFC has promoted events across the United States (with the exception of New York State, where MMA is still illegal), Canada, Brazil, Japan, England and Australia among other places. 2014 will be the year the UFC enters Singapore and China, and they’ve stated their main objective in the near future will be to develop their international presence in an attempt to become a truly global brand.
While most of their money is made through PPV sales, attendance at the events themselves still brings in a substantial amount of money. They have an interest in keeping the stadiums full since it’s a significant revenue stream, not to mention the fact that empty seats look terrible on a live broadcast. Although Vegas has been home to more UFC events than any other city, its venues are composed of casinos with capacity limits in the 10,000 – 15,000 range. In fact, when you break down the numbers and examine which events have had the biggest crowds, we find that only 10% of the UFC’s top 10 most attended events have taken place in the United States. Canada, meanwhile, has been host to 70% of this top 10 list. To get a better understanding of where the most successful UFC events in terms of attendance have been, let’s go through them one by one.
10. UFC 115: Liddell vs. Franklin – Attendance: 17,669
UFC 115 was held in Vancouver, which was the first event to take place in British Columbia, and the 4th in Canada. The main event was a showdown between company veterans Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddell and Rich Franklin. Liddell had been the face of the UFC just years prior, but had won only one of his last five fights, and was desperately searching for a win. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. 17,669 people watched Franklin send Liddell into retirement with a knockout in the 1st round.
9. UFC 110: Noguiera vs. Velasquez – Attendance: 17,431
The Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia was the location for UFC 110, and it proved that Australia had real potential as a serious market for MMA. All 17,431 tickets were sold out on the very first day they were made available. In the main event, MMA legend Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera squared off against relative newcomer Cain Velasquez, with the winner getting a shot against Brock Lesnar for the UFC Heavyweight Championship. Velasquez stunned the MMA world with a first round knockout that heralded the rise of a new titan in the heavyweight division.
8. UFC 127: Penn vs. Fitch – Attendance: 18,186
We return to the Acer Arena in Sydney for UFC 127, which sold out even faster than UFC 110. 18,186 people filled the arena to watch BJ Penn and Jon Fitch square off in a welterweight match, with both men wanting one more crack at longtime UFC Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, having both failed in their previous attempts. Instead of a definitive answer to who was the better fighter, 18,186 people bore witness to a relatively rare occurrence in MMA, a draw. After five rounds, the judges decided that the fight was too close to award the win to either man, and they both left without another chance at the title.
7. UFC 140: Jones vs. Machida – Attendance: 18,303
UFC 140 was the second UFC event to take place in Toronto, Canada, and was the last event of 2011. Anyone who follows MMA knows the UFC likes to end the year with a bang, so it’s not surprising that 18,303 fans in the Air Canada Centre were treated to a stacked card that featured the Noguiera brothers, Tito Ortiz and Frank Mir. The main event was UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones defending his title against former champion Lyoto Machida. In a stunning display of technique, Jones became the first man to submit Machida in MMA competition. Jones caught Machida in a standing guillotine choke, which Machida refused to tap out to, but would eventually make him lose consciousness and the fight.
6. UFC 68: The Uprising – Attendance: 19,079
UFC 68 has, to this day, the highest attendance at an MMA event in the United States, which is fitting because it was the setting for one of the most unlikely victories in MMA history. 19,079 witnessed a special main event between Randy Couture and Tim Sylvia. Couture, aged 43, was a bona fide legend in MMA. He had been around since the early days of the UFC, had previously been both Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight champion and was a member of the UFC Hall of Fame before coming out of retirement. UFC Heavyweight champion Sylvia, aged 30, had been on a tear in the Heavyweight division and was preparing for a lengthy reign. Couture defeated Sylvia by unanimous decision to once again become the UFC Heavyweight champion at 43 years old, making him the oldest person to ever win a major MMA championship and the only man in UFC history to win a championship after being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
5. UFC 158: St. Pierre vs. Diaz – Attendance: 20,145
As we’re about to demonstrate, Canada loves MMA. The top five events on our list all took place in the Great White North, and it’s all thanks to one man: Georges St. Pierre. 20,145 rabid fans filled the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada to watch their hometown hero GSP defend his championship against the abrasive and trash talking Nick Diaz. Two years of bad blood finally came to a head in front of a crowd that adored GSP and was extremely hostile to Diaz. It must have affected Diaz on some level, since he failed to tap into the fire that usually drives him to victory. GSP won by unanimous decision and defended his Welterweight Championship yet again.
4. UFC 83: Serra vs. St-Pierre 2 – Attendance: 21,390
Matt Serra had shocked the world at UFC 69 when he defeated Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre to become the new champion. Afterwards GSP made comments alluding he hadn’t been in the mental state necessary to compete at full strength, which Serra took exception to. He was adamant to prove that he wasn’t a fluke champion and was determined to make lightning strike twice, this time in front of GSP’s hometown of Montreal. The two exchanged shots over the media in the months leading up to the fight, but when the door to the octagon closed, all uncertainty was put to rest. GSP commanded the entire first round, and finished Serra in the 2nd with a barrage of knees to the midsection. GSP won back his Welterweight championship in front of 21,390 people, a title he held until he vacated it in December 2013.
3. UFC 97: Redemption – Attendance: 21,451
UFC 97 took place in Montreal, but without hometown hero GSP. Instead, 21,451 fans were treated to an appearance by UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, who was defending his title against Thales Leites, and a match between Chuck Liddell and Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua. Despite the potential for excitement on paper, both fights ended up being rather dull. Rua defeated Liddell early in the first round, while Silva defended his championship against Leites in a relatively unexciting fight.
2. UFC 124: St. Pierre vs. Koscheck 2 – Attendance: 23,152
Montreal always turned up to show support for GSP, and with 23,152 people in attendance, this time was no different. Longtime welterweight contender Josh Koscheck finally got a shot against St. Pierre, who he had lost to previously in 2007. Although Koscheck wanted desperately to be champion, he ended up as just another statistic in the book of GSP. St. Pierre won the fight by unanimous decision after five rounds to remain the UFC Welterweight Champion.
1. UFC 129: St. Pierre vs. Shields – Attendance: 55,724
The #1 entry on our list is almost double the attendance of #2. 55,724 people packed into the Rogers Center in Toronto to watch GSP defend his Welterweight championship against Jake Shields. This event was the UFC’s debut in Ontario, which had only recently legalized the sport of MMA. UFC 129 pulled in $11 million from live attendance alone, shattering all previous records. The company put together an exciting card for the event, which also featured UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, successfully defending his title against Mark Hominick. GSP defeated Shields by unanimous decision after five rounds in front of the massive Canadian crowd, adding the win to his record in front of more UFC fans than any other main event in company history.