Jim Kemper/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
It has been a long road for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which started without weight classes but now has no shortage of them. When Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson fight at UFC 152 on Saturday in Toronto, the promotion’s first flyweight champion will be crowned and the UFC’s eighth belt will come into existence. The UFC hopes the flyweight title bouts will soon help to sell pay-per-views and turn 125-pound fighters into stars. The question: How long that process will take?
There are a variety of factors that have influenced how quickly fans have taken to new championships, such as depth of the division, exciting fights, intriguing matchups and the frequency of title changes. First and foremost, it has been about creating stars, and there is no magic formula. Once a champion’s fights get hot, the UFC has shown an ability to maintain interest in that division even after the aforementioned titleholder loses. That has been most apparent in the light heavyweight division.
Some of the UFC’s titles have consistently meant more than others, and that difference has not been neatly mapped to size or how long a given championship has existed. Looking at the history of the introduction of previous Ultimate Fighting Championship titles provides instruction into what to expect from the flyweight division in the future.
UFC Heavyweight Title, Est. 1997
Traditionally, combat sports have strongly relied on heavyweights. Heavyweight was boxing’s glamour division for decades. In Japan, Pride Fighting Championships and K-1 put a premium on heavyweight fighters. When the UFC ran its first show on Fox, it headlined it with heavyweights. Many think of the heavyweight division as one of the UFC’s glamour divisions, but the truth is that for most of the promotion’s history the heavyweight title has struggled to capture the imagination of MMA fans.
The heavyweight title was formed at UFC 12 on Feb. 7, 1997, when tournament winner Mark Coleman fought superfight champion Dan Severn. It was expected to be a dominant victory for the younger, bigger Coleman, and indeed it was. The plan was for Coleman to then fight Vitor Belfort in a heavily promoted championship battle between the promotion’s two top young stars. That plan did not work out nearly so well. Maurice Smith’s win over Coleman to win the UFC heavyweight title was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.
At UFC 15 eight months later, Randy Couture upset Belfort. The UFC’s prized young attractions were upended by balding, older men who were not considered to be particularly marketable, and the heavyweight title picture was not off to a great start.
It only got worse in the years to come. A national backlash against the UFC diminished the financial coffers of parent company SEG. As a result, many of the promotion’s most marketable heavyweights left for the greener pastures of Japan. The top rising heavyweights went to Japan, as well. The UFC’s most marketable stars were in the light heavyweight division -- which was then known as middleweight.
Adding to the heavyweight title’s troubles was the fact that it was constantly changing hands outside of the Octagon. Randy Couture (left company), Bas Rutten (retired), Josh Barnett (failed drug test), Tim Sylvia (failed drug test) and Frank Mir (injury) were all stripped of the belt. Andrei Arlovski was viewed as a potential drawing card but could not find attractive opponents, and his fights against the late Justin Eilers and Paul Buentello remain the least purchased UFC pay-per-views since the start of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Arlovski’s bouts with Sylvia did much better but only because Tito Ortiz-Forrest Griffin and Ortiz-Ken Shamrock were on the cards.
All told, it ended up taking a full decade for the UFC heavyweight title to become a driver of business. Stranger still, it was because of a fighter who was around at the beginning of that decade without capturing the public’s imagination in the slightest. As Couture defied Father Time repeatedly, fans gravitated towards him more and more. When he came out of retirement to fight Sylvia for the heavyweight crown in 2007, it was to that point the most anticipated heavyweight title fight in UFC history. At more than 500,000 buys, UFC 68 was at the time the fourth most purchased event put on by the company.
When Couture defeated Sylvia by unanimous decision, it marked a sea change in the UFC heavyweight division. Apathy quickly became a thing of the past, and heavyweight title fights eclipsed the popularity of even the UFC light heavyweight title. Brock Lesnar was of course the catalyst for the greatest success, but the title has remained strong since Lesnar’s title run.
Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos drew a big rating for Fox, while Dos Santos-Mir did a very solid 560,000 buys at UFC 146. Dos Santos, Velasquez and Alistair Overeem are highly likely to continue the positive trend. It took a long time for the heavyweight title to reach its current stature, but it is unlikely to return to its previous lows.
UFC Light Heavyweight Title, Est. 1997
The title only picked up steam when Shamrock vacated it in 1999. Ortiz won the vacant strap and held it when Zuffa purchased the company. Zuffa made Ortiz the poster boy of the UFC, and his title fights would often draw double the buy rates of shows headlined by other champions. The ability of Ortiz-Ken Shamrock to draw 150,000 buys at UFC 40 helped to convince Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to stick with the UFC.
Ortiz’s run as the UFC’s frontman ended with losses to Couture and Chuck Liddell, but the light heavyweight title continued to generate big business for the UFC. Liddell became UFC’s top fighter, and his UFC 66 title rematch with Ortiz was the company’s first million-buy show.
After Liddell lost the light heavyweight title to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 71 in May 2007, the belt was thrown into a period of turmoil. However, even as the title bounced around from Jackson to Forrest Griffin to Rashad Evans to Lyoto Machida to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, fan interest remained. Every one of those shows did more than 500,000 buys, proving the championship meant a lot to fans, even as the faces fighting for it rapidly changed.
Jon Jones has not yet turned into the mainstream star many expect he will become. However, his fights against Rua, Machida, Jackson and Evans have consistently been among the UFC’s highest grossing events of the past two years. Jones’ stature is likely to grow if he continues to win, furthering the ubiquitous success of the UFC’s light heavyweight championship.
UFC Middleweight Title, Est. 2001
Arguably no title in UFC history was created with less fanfare than the 185-pound crown. UFC 33 was the only show in the company’s history with three title fights on the same card, and the 185-pound championship was the one with the least interest. The title fight pitted Gil Castillo, who had never fought inside the Octagon, against Dave Menne, who had only fought once in the UFC. The best 185-pound fighters in the world at that point largely competed in the richer 205-pound division. Menne and Castillo had a dull fight to get the title off to a weak start.
The UFC middleweight belt continued to struggle to capture general fan excitement during the reigns of Murilo Bustamante and Evan Tanner. The promotion hoped the charismatic and exciting Phil Baroni would work his way to the top of the division, but he failed to accomplish that level of success inside the cage.
The championship finally gained some momentum when Rich Franklin won it from Tanner at UFC 53. Franklin was a likeable fighter with an impressive record and a crowd pleasing style. His title bout with Nate Quarry at UFC 56 drew 200,000 buys, surprisingly beating the most recent light heavyweight championship matchup between Liddell and Jeremy Horn three months earlier. Of course, Franklin was soon usurped by the most dominant champion in UFC history.
It is easy to forget, given his current stature in the sport, but Anderson Silva’s early run as middleweight champion did not capture the greater public’s imagination. From the beginning of the promotion’s pay-per-view explosion at UFC 59 to the end of 2008, the UFC ran 31 pay-per-view events. Only eight of those fell below 400,000 buys, and five of those eight were headlined by “The Spider.” The other three featured main events of B.J. Penn-Joe Stevenson, Franklin-Yushin Okami and Matt Hughes-Thiago Alves. There was a portion of the UFC fan base that would order most every show, except those carried by Silva.
That changed when Forrest Griffin came along. Griffin’s popularity and vow to take the fight to Silva created tremendous interest for their fight at UFC 101. When 850,000 pay-per-view households tuned in, they witnessed one of the most impressive performances of Silva’s career. He simply toyed with a former light heavyweight champion in one of the most one-sided matches in UFC history. From that point forward, Silva and the middleweight title would not struggle to gain fan interest.
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