By Matt Saccaro
Lambasting the UFC over the perceived lack of card quality has become posh over the last few years. Go to the UG or any other Internet MMA destination and you’ll see people chiding the UFC as the “Bud Light of MMA” due to the supposedly “watered down” cards.
These same people recall the Good ol’ Days™ when title fights were plentiful, guys like Elvis Sinosic and Wesley “Cabbage” Correira were in the cage and out of the unemployment line, and each match on the card was ten times more exciting than Griffin-Bonnar I.
We at CagePotato wanted to find out if these sentiments were true — if the cards meant more in the old days and weren’t loaded with filler — or if such thoughts were just the result of nostalgia-goggles that ultimately did nothing.
What we decided to do was this: Look at the amount of UFC pay-per-view events per year since Zuffa purchased the company in 2001. Of those PPVs, we counted up how many had title fights — and were therefore, in theory, worth paying for — and how many didn’t have title fights.
At the top of this post you’ll see a handy-dandy double bar graph to illustrate our findings. The blue bars represent the number of pay-per-view events with title fights, the red bars represent the PPVs without title fights.
Let’s break down the numbers…
Every UFC PPV from 2001-2003 had at least one title fight. UFC 33 had three title fights. The first non-title fight PPV in the Zuffa era was UFC 47, headlined by (of course) Dana White’s best buddy, Chuck Liddell.
The amount of UFC PPVs held each year was in the single digits until the post-TUF boom. The UFC held 10 PPVs in 2006 — the year after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter aired and when the show was starting to pick up steam. But even then, the cards weren’t “watered down” as fans would say. Only one PPV in 2006 didn’t have a title fight: UFC 60, main evented by Matt Hughes vs. Royce Gracie.
There were four PPVs without a title fight in 2007, although only three of them were by design (there was no title defense at UFC 67 because Travis Lutter couldn’t make weight for his fight against Anderson Silva). It’s likely that by 2007 the UFC was starting to experiment with their newfound popularity. Could they sell cards solely based on their brand name alone? Pay-per-view main events like Rich Franklin vs. Yushin Okami, Chuck Liddell vs. Keith Jardine, and Michael Bisping vs. Rashad Evans helped them answer this question — apparently in the negative, since 2008 had more PPVs with title fights and fewer without.
Things got choppy in 2009. Nearly half of the UFC’s 13 PPVs that year didn’t have a belt on the line. Unfortunately, this trend would continue for 2010 and 2011 — where 7/15 and 7/16 PPVs, respectively, had only “contenders” or guys that were “in the mix” rather than champions and challengers.
It’s also worth noting that the featherweight and bantamweight divisions made their UFC debut in 2011. These weight classes have since proven to be poor draws that can’t hold the casual fan’s attention. Of the seven PPV title fights in 2011, one of them was from those weight classes (UFC 132’s bantamweight battle between Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber). Also, to be fair to the UFC, there were two title fights given away for free in 2011: Dominick Cruz vs. Demetrious Johnson on Versus and Junior Dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez on FOX.
By 2012, the UFC apparently learned its lesson and realized that people didn’t want to pay for cards that had zero implications (you know, cards like UFC 161). Only two out of 13 PPVs in 2012 were without title fights. However, again, of the 11 PPVS that had titles on the line, two of them were titles from weight classes below 155 pounds.
We’re still in the middle of 2013 but, so far, we’ve had six PPVs. One (UFC 161) hasn’t had a title fight. Two have starred champions from the lighter weight classes (UFC 156 headlined by Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar and UFC 157 headlined by Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche). There have also been three free title fights, one in the lightweight division, one in the flyweight division and one in bantamweight division. There are five scheduled PPVs so far for the rest of 2013. They all have title fights on them; one of those title fights is in the featherweight division. There’s also a free flyweight title fight on FOX.
If there’s one concise narrative that can be drawn from all the numbers, it’s this: The UFC had more stacked cards in the beginning of the Zuffa era because it had fewer fighters and a smaller audience. With less shows being put on overall, it wasn’t a challenge to stick title fights on every one of them. When the UFC’s audience exploded after TUF and demand for the product increased, Dana & Company saw all the money that could be made from promoting more events, and began upping the number of PPVs. Eventually, they got greedy. There were three times as many non-title fight PPVs in 2009 than there were in 2008, for example.
However, fortunately, the UFC scaled back on Couture vs. Coleman-level PPVs (at least for the time being). Hopefully they’ll keep things this way until a new MMA bubble emerges.