By Ryan Busuttil:
Jones-Evans. Silva-Sonnen II. Cruz-Faber III. These 3 fights are all main eventing UFC Pay-Per View events in the next few months. The fights also share the fact that they are all title fights. But, perhaps the biggest similarity, which sets these fights apart from other main event title fights, is that they are all fights in which the two combatants don’t like each other very much. For Jones and Evans, it’s about a rivalry that has been brewing for over a year of wither former teammates fighting for bragging rights. Silva-Sonnen II, probably the most looked-forward to fight of 2012, has the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter against his greatest adversary and the man who pushed him the farthest and talked down to him the most in the last 6 years, set to take place in the champion’s home country. And Cruz and Faber’s rubber match will culminate a feud that all started out with the current Bantamweight Champion signing his name over the then-Featherweight Champion’s face years ago, which has since developed into a competition on the Ultimate Fighter Live. Yes, the next few months will be fun. But, will these 3 fights deliver what the UFC values most: Pay-Per View buys?
If you look at past Pay-Per View main events that have a back story of the two fighters having a well-known rivalry, the events tend to get higher buy rates. For example, 2010’s second most purchased UFC Pay-Per View event was UFC 114, headlined by the long-awaited match of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Rashad Evans. The two coached opposite each other on the Ultimate Fighter the previous fall, a season which garnered the reality show’s highest ratings ever. The only event with more buys that year was UFC 116, which had Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin as the main event. It never mattered who Lesnar fought. If he was on the card, the buy rate was going to be high. The fourth highest buy rate in 2010 was for UFC 124, headlined by George St. Pierre and Josh Koscheck for the UFC Welterweight Championship. St. Pierre and Koscheck hyped the fight for months on the Ultimate Fighter with Koscheck talking trash about the champion the second the fight was announced and it resulted in just fewer than 900,000 buys. In 2010, most other UFC events received between 250,000 and 600,000 buys.
It doesn’t seem that fans care if the fight is a rematch as much as if there is a grudge between the fighters. An example of this is Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard’s two title fights that headlined UFC 125 and UFC 136 in 2011. There were no verbal jabs between the two fighters leading up to both events other than them expressing their confidence. Their second match at UFC 125 was a classic that ended in a draw. One would think that fans were looking forward to the conclusion at UFC 136. But, UFC 136 actually received less buys than UFC 125, making it the least purchased UFC event in 2011. Also, a title fight doesn’t guarantee a lot of people watching, as evidenced by UFC 134, where Anderson Silva defeated Yushin Okami. The event had 335,000 buys, which was only slightly above UFC 130, headlined by Rampage and Matt Hamill. While Cruz and Faber’s second battle at UFC 132 didn’t register the half a million buys or more that other “grudge matches” seem to generate, it was Cruz’s first fight in the UFC and Faber’s second. Casual fans were probably not aware of their bad blood. After 13 weeks on FX, I’m sure it’s expected that their third fight will do better.
If you do the math, it’s pretty clear that a good rivalry piques fans’ interest. When you don’t like someone in your life, you’ve probably fantasized about punch them in the face more than a few times. So, when two fighters who badmouth each other and talk about how they can’t wait to beat their opponent, we want to see it. For all the criticism lobbed at Chael Sonnen for his “pro-wrestling” style promotion, he’s gotten enough people interested in his fight with Silva to incite a whole country. MMA fans, both hardcore and casual, will be watching that fight. The UFC has the opportunity to cash in on these feuds starting at UFC 145. Whether or not the fights themselves live up to the hype is a different story. Because while a feud may equal big money, it doesn’t always equal a good fight.
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