Whether or not we should consider the rumored 150,000 to 200,000 purchases for Saturday's Jose Aldo-Urijah Faber bantamweight fight on pay-per-view a success might depend on what those households thought they were buying.
Stripped of all WEC identification -- everything but the compressed blue cage -- both the event and the hype leading into it took on the appearance of a major UFC broadcast. Dana White and Joe Rogan chatted about Faber's chances; the barker show was on Spike, the go-to destination for UFC programming; Rogan and Mike Goldberg narrated the bouts.
Saying it wasn't promoted as an "official" UFC event is slightly disingenuous: It was a UFC event in every way people have come to anticipate. Zuffa traded in on the familiar. And why not? It's a platform they built to sell fights.
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By the standards of UFC programming, those 175,000 buys (we'll call it the average of the speculation) would seem to be a massive collapse of interest: Even the bargain-basement tape-delayed shows notch closer to 300,000. But there's never been a UFC event headlined by bantamweights, a different breed of attraction with an entirely different set of expectations.
It was inconceivable, even a few years ago, that any major MMA card could be topped by lighter-weight fighters. In 2003, victimized by erratic quality and lack of interest, the UFC went so far as to eliminate the lightweight class entirely. If audiences were interested in mixed martial arts at all, they preferred to see huge athletes crash into one another. Even in Japan, Pride and K-1 placed most of their focus on animated, balloon-chested foreigners. (And God help you if you happened to be popular and midsized: Kazushi Sakuraba, who could have made welterweight in his day, was getting thrown in against heavyweights.)
That a pay-per-view card headlined by two 145-pound fighters can draw at all is a sensational thought. That it flirted with the low end of UFC's bottom-line number for events is an achievement that has to be appreciated relative to its difficulty level. As much as Dana White's ego needs no further massaging, his template for fight promotion is approaching a science.
Affliction, with a payroll in the millions, was rumored to be unable to crack 100,000 buys for events featuring Fedor Emelianenko and former UFC employees Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia. The pseudo-WEC might have doubled that number despite playing a financially conservative game. Benson Henderson made only $26,000; Aldo, $40,000.
Profit participation might send Aldo and Faber into new tax brackets, but it won't come at the (literal) expense of crippling the books. White has arranged the combat sports equivalent of buying soda syrup for a few cents on the dollar and then charging $2 for the carbonation.
There's a perverse pride in that kind of business acumen -- except when your product is a human being. Henderson, who works every bit as hard and appears every bit as talented as the major UFC lightweights, deserves more. (And he got more this time, in the form of a $65,000 submission-of-the-night bonus.) This is not necessarily Zuffa's problem: Fighting is an incentive-based profession, tailored to the tickets you sell and the results you produce. Fighters invite compassion because the idea of bleeding for a few grand is melodramatic and depressing. In reality, it's a career they chose. If you want St. Pierre's money, draw St. Pierre's business.
The success of Aldo-Faber, which appears modest, is really a daunting indication of the UFC's sway over a free-spending demographic. Sandwiched between two major UFC-branded events, two men who collectively don't weigh more than Brock Lesnar's offseason frame compelled fans to spend $45 for a peek at their future. In doing so, they may have helped contribute to it.