In the latter half of the last decade the UFC catapulted the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) into the consciousness of mainstream sports fans around the world. It was an entirely new breed of combat sport that combined elements of boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, muay thai, and kickboxing, among other styles of fighting. It was explosive, engaging, and most importantly, different. The UFC made MMA into a pay-per-view juggernaut, generating sales numbers to compete with both boxing and professional wrestling.
The sport that had been banned across most of the United States at the turn of the millennium (with the exception of Nevada and New Jersey) was brought into the 21st century under the guidance of Dana White and the Fertitta brothers, who created the corporate entity Zuffa, LLC and purchased the failing company in 2001. They got to work by rebranding the UFC from ‘human cockfighting’ (to quote senator John McCain) into a legitimate sport. Knees and kicks to a downed opponent were banned, as were downward elbow strikes, to lessen the more gruesome elements of MMA. Rounds were introduced, a proper scoring system was set in place, and the company began to subtly distance itself from its past. The rebranding was extremely successful, and by the late 2000s the UFC was pulling in gargantuan PPV numbers thanks in large part to company stars like Georges St. Pierre, Brock Lesnar, Anderson Silva, and Rashad Evans. MMA, like boxing, is only as big as the drawing power of the men and women who are promoted as the main event. The drawing power of this generation of fighters was responsible for the best years of UFC pay-per-views, with most of these events falling between 2008 and 2010. These are the 10 most successful fight cards the company has ever promoted on pay-per-view.
Disclaimer: UFC is owned by Zuffa, LLC , who do not publicly release their financial information. Therefore all estimates of revenue are based on the reported number of pay-per-views sold multiplied by 50$, which is the average price when weighing the cost of the HD PPV (54.99$) and the standard PPV (44.99$) equally.
10. UFC 121: Lesnar vs. Velasquez – $45 million
Brock Lesnar, love him or hate him, was a sensational addition to the UFC’s bottom line. All of his promoted fights became big business for the UFC and he was arguably the biggest draw in MMA history. Coming into UFC 121, Lesnar was the UFC heavyweight champion. His opponent, Cain Velasquez, was then relatively unknown to the casual fans of the UFC. On October 23, 2010, in front of 900,000 buyers at home and around the world, Velasquez forced his way into the spotlight by demolishing the seemingly insurmountable Lesnar, finishing him in the first round by TKO with a barrage of punches and giving Lesnar his first defeat by referee stoppage.
9. UFC 94: St. Pierre vs. Penn II – $46 million
On January 31, 2009, UFC 94 featured the first champion vs. champion bout in company history, with welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre defending his title against lightweight champion BJ Penn. The two had previously met at UFC 58, with St. Pierre edging out a very close decision victory. The fight was heavily promoted, with Penn looking to be the first man in UFC history to hold championships simultaneously in two divisions. Fans paid to see Penn try and make history, but instead witnessed a successful GSP title defense that resulted in Penn’s corner requesting the ringside doctor to stop the fight in between the 4th and 5th rounds, as he had taken too much damage from GSP’s dominant ground-and-pound. The fight sold 920,000 pay-per-views.
8. UFC 148: Silva vs. Sonnen II – $46.25 million
During his UFC middleweight championship reign from 2006 to 2013, Anderson Silva was considered by many to be the pound-for-pound greatest fighter on the planet. The only man to endanger the reign of the king was Chael Sonnen, winning four rounds of their initial meeting at UFC 117 before Silva miraculously squeaked out a submission victory late in the fifth and final round. The rematch generated massive amounts of hype, thanks in large part to Sonnen delivering several charismatic rants belittling Silva, his friends and family, and his home country of Brazil. On July 7, 2012, 925,000 televisions tuned in to see if the only man to challenge Silva could finish the job. Instead, a fired up Anderson Silva exploded and won the fight by TKO in the second round, leaving many to question if the reign of ‘Spider’ would ever be broken.
7. UFC 158: St. Pierre vs. Diaz – $47.5 million
On March 16, 2013, UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre met former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz in the main event of UFC 158 in Montreal. The pair were originally booked to fight in 2011 at UFC 137, but the fight was scrapped after Diaz, displaying the Diaz brashness he and his brother Nate are infamous for, ditched major promotional events the UFC had booked. St. Pierre later sustained a knee injury requiring major surgery, putting him on the shelf for over a year. Nick Diaz spent the next year and a half trash talking, publicly accusing GSP of faking an injury in order to duck their bout. After returning and defeating Carlos Condit, GSP reportedly ‘begged’ UFC president Dana White for a fight with Diaz. The bad blood between the two headliners was enough to generate a reported 950,000 buys, and the main event saw GSP win by unanimous decision after five rounds.
6. UFC 114: Evans vs. Jackson – $50 million
Nothing sells a fight quite like real hatred. To say Rashad ‘Suga’ Evans and Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson were two men who didn’t like each other would be the understatement of the century. The two former light heavyweight champions had both worked their way back into contention, and the winner of their bout would get a shot at current champion Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua. Their disdain for each other became apparent when they starred opposite each other as coaches of The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights, in a season loaded with threats of violence and verbal abuse. With the tension reaching a fever pitch, 1,000,000 PPV’s were sold to fans who watched Rashad Evans pull out the victory by unanimous decision on May 29, 2010.
5. UFC 92: Evans vs. Griffin – $50 million
The UFC ended 2008 with a huge card that featured UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin defending the belt against then undefeated Rashad Evans. Griffin was the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 1, while Evans was the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 2. It marked the first time two TUF winners would co-headline a major UFC event. Clearly, the presence they built on the television show translated into drawing power. Evans remained undefeated and became the new UFC light heavyweight champion, defeating Griffin by TKO in the third round. The December 27 card proved successful as UFC 92 sold 1,000,000 PPV’s.
4. UFC 91: Lesnar vs. Couture – $50.5 million
The UFC had also hit the 1,000,000+ mark just 1 month earlier, with a main event that featured UFC legend and heavyweight champion Randy ‘The Natural’ Couture defending his title against the freakish strength and drawing power of Brock Lesnar. Couture was 45 years of age and the only person to win a UFC championship above the age of 40. Lesnar, 31, was carrying momentum from a victory over Heath Herring. The challenge that Lesnar presented proved too much for even ‘The Natural’, and he succumbed to a TKO in the second round by a barrage of punches. UFC 91 marked the beginning of Lesnar’s first and only championship reign. The fight took place on November 15, 2008 and was purchased 1.01 million times.
3. UFC 66: Liddell vs. Ortiz II – $52.5 million
UFC 66 was by far the their biggest success to date when it aired on December 30, 2006, becoming the first PPV to generate 1,000,000+ buys. The main event featured UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddell defending his championship against former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz. Ortiz had run rampant through the division as champion in the early 2000s, setting the record for most consecutive title defenses. Liddell was in the prime of his career and represented the beginning of the new era in the UFC. The hype for the clash between two of the biggest MMA stars of the period set the fight world ablaze, but the fight itself proved to be more of a one-sided affair. Liddell won by TKO in the third round, successfully defending the UFC light heavyweight championship.
2. UFC 116: Lesnar vs. Carwin – $53 million
In late 2009 Brock Lesnar became seriously ill with diverticulitis, a condition that affects the stomach. In his absence, Shane Carwin fought for and won the interim UFC heavyweight championship. Their bout therefore became a title unification match. Lesnar was, at this point, a hype machine. Every time he stepped into the octagon it meant big money for the UFC. Still, given the seriousness of his illness, many didn’t expect him to be 100%. Lesnar surprised everyone by foregoing his usual barrage of strikes to take the victory by submission with a vicious triangle choke using his arms in only the second round. The July 3, 2010 fight sold 1.06 million PPVs.
1. UFC 100: – St. Piere vs Alves/Lesnar vs Mir – $80 million
The 100th pay-per-view the UFC promoted for July 11, 2009 was a blockbuster, star-studded night. The organization went all out, putting their two biggest draws – Georges St. Pierre and Brock Lesnar – in co-main events on the same card, both defending their championships. GSP faced Thiago Alves and defeated him by unanimous decision to defend his UFC welterweight championship for the third consecutive time. Brock Lesnar had to contend with the man who handed him his first defeat in MMA and had also become interim UFC heavyweight champion in his absence, Frank Mir. Lesnar’s appetite for revenge was sated when he stopped Mir in the second round by TKO, once again becoming the undisputed UFC heavyweight championship. The UFC sold 1,600,000 PPV’s that night, crushing their previous record by over 500,000. No event promoted by the UFC has ever come close to the numbers brought in by UFC 100, and we may have to wait years to see that record broken, if it ever will be.
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