Boxing's Pacquiao remains the PPV king, so what can UFC do to compete?

Dave Meltzer
Yahoo! Sports

Manny Pacquiao became the third fighter ever to headline two shows in one year that topped one million buys, establishing himself as the pay-per-view king of 2011.

In drawing 1.41 million buys for his Nov. 12 fight with Juan Manuel Marquez, coming on the heels of 1.10 million buys for his May 7 fight with Shane Mosley, Pacquiao joins Mike Tyson and Brock Lesnar in the select group.

Tyson headlined three shows in 1996 that topped the one million mark: against Evander Holyfield, Bruce Seldon and Frank Bruno. Lesnar, as UFC heavyweight champion, did so twice in 2010, with his title defense against Shane Carwin and title loss to Cain Velasquez.

Pacquiao, who just turned 33, is likely to eventually set the record for most seven-figure main events. He currently has five main events that have topped seven figures and has established he can hit the mark any time he faces an opponent with name value. He's tied with Holyfield for second place of all-time, behind Tyson's record of six.

While boxing had the top three marks of 2011, the injury-plagued UFC remained the most consistent producer of pay-per-view numbers for the sixth straight year. Of its 16 events in 2011, it had five of the top 10 and 12 of the top 17 shows for the year.

While no early estimates are in for the Dec. 30 fight between Lesnar and Alistair Overeem, it is likely to have been the company's biggest or second-biggest show of the year. Through 15 events, UFC, which does not publicly release its numbers so it's figures are derived from a number of industry sources, is estimated at 5.95 million total buys, or an average of 397,000 per event. Even factoring in what would be expected for Lesnar-Overeem, UFC, which had shown consistent growth from 2005 to 2010, would end up with its lowest numbers since 2007, a year when it produced only 10 PPV shows.

The number was a steep decline from 2010, when Zuffa set the all-time record for any promotional company with an estimated 9.15 million buys on 15 UFC-brand shows and one WEC-brand show.

A number of factors contributed to the decline. The most significant is that the year was a succession of big fights that fell through, usually due to injuries. UFC had roughly 11 main events that had to be changed during the year. Unlike boxing, when the main event falls through and the event is canceled, or World Wrestling Entertainment, where in only rare occasions does any match or personality significantly change the number, UFC still will run the show and it often results in a major hit.

The frequency of training injuries, which reached epidemic proportions in 2011, is among the biggest headaches facing the organization. Was it simply an unlucky aberration or indicative of the reality of the sport? Maybe 2012 will provide an answer.

The leading culprit appears to be the intense level of training that goes with the higher level of competition. Reaching optimum fitness requires a level of training that puts body parts at risk of wearing out. Plus, the harder the actual fight sparring becomes, it inherently will lead to more injuries.

The company's two biggest drawing cards, Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre, each fought only once during the year. There also were no heavyweight title defenses on pay-per-view. Cain Velasquez, champion most of the year, was injured. When he did come back, his title loss to Junior Dos Santos, which could have been a top-10 level PPV main event, was put on free television as a way to kick off the UFC's relationship with Fox.

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A number of other fights that would have been among the biggest draws of the year, Lesnar vs. Dos Santos, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans, St. Pierre vs. Nick Diaz and middleweight champion Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, fell through because of injuries, illnesses and, in the case of Sonnen, a suspension based on the results of a 2010 drug test.

The news didn't get any better as the new year started. St. Pierre underwent reconstructive knee surgery that will keep him out until the latter part of 2012 and Lesnar announced his retirement after his loss to Overeem.

But if the results of the top two matches on Fox's Jan. 28 show from Chicago go a certain way and there are no major injuries, UFC could be looking at three major fights in the first six months of the year, with Dos Santos defending against Overeem, Jones defending against Evans and Silva defending against Sonnen.

A few months ago, UFC president Dana White said the UFC was planning on 13 pay-per-view events in 2012. The company's major challenge for the year is whether it can create new top-tier drawing cards to fill the void of Lesnar and get St. Pierre to fight at least once.

Overeem, Dos Santos, Nick Diaz, Jones and Sonnen all appear to be fighters with the potential to be top draws. But not only do they have to win their fights, they also have to be marketed well and connect with the public. The company will start heavy promotion of Diaz and opponent Carlos Condit with a series of primetime shows building up their Feb. 4 fight, starting Jan. 20 in FX.

While boxing's two monster draws are the size of UFC lightweights and featherweights, the UFC fan base has not supported championship fights under 170 pounds at anywhere near the level of those in the four heavier weight divisions since B.J. Penn lost his championship in 2010.

Besides the lightweight division posting significantly smaller numbers since Frankie Edgar beat Penn, UFC moved featherweights and bantamweights over from the WEC in 2011. Those divisions have yet to generate upper-echelon numbers. The introduction in 2012 of a flyweight (125 pound) division will add another championship belt that will have to be built from the ground up.

Boxing is star-driven by comparison. Its success isn't based on the promotional organization, championship titles or name of the event, but almost all falls on the shoulders of Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Of boxing's 13 biggest PPV shows in 2011, eight were believed to have done fewer than 50,000 buys. But the recent Miguel Cotto vs. Antonio Margarito fight, doing 600,000 buys, was a strong sign because it was the first fight since the Tyson era to put up numbers that high that didn't involve Pacquiao, Mayweather Jr. or Oscar De La Hoya.

The third major player in the pay-per-view game, the entertainment oriented World Wrestling Entertainment group, had its WrestleMania show April 3 from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta do 680,000 buys in North America. That was its best figure in three years. WWE has been declining in pay-per-view for a decade, but finished 2011 ahead of 2010 largely due to the return of one of its all-time biggest drawing fighters: actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, known from the sport's heyday of more than a decade ago.

Johnson's return as the show's featured attraction saw North American numbers for the company's flagship event increase 37 percent from the prior year. However, Johnson's first actual match, back on Nov. 20, did a disappointing 160,000 North American buys.

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The 2012 version of WrestleMania, set for April 1 in Miami and headlined by Johnson vs. pro wrestling's current biggest star, John Cena, will be promoted as the biggest match in the history of the organization and is expected to top last year's numbers.

Where pro wrestling differs when it comes to pay-per-view is that the name of the event is key. No matter what is being presented or who the featured stars are, its big events are WrestleMania in the spring, the Royal Rumble in January and SummerSlam in August. WWE also remains strong internationally. While UFC and boxing are heavily North American oriented when it comes to pay-per-view revenue, there were WWE events in 2011 that did more than 50 percent of total buys outside North America, with particularly strong numbers in Europe and Mexico. This most recent WrestleMania did 460,000 additional buys outside of North America.

The WWE is estimated to do 2.18 million North American buys in 13 events in 2011. That would be up from 2.05 million in 2010. As recently as 2008, the company, which peaked on pay-per-view in 2001 and has been on a steady decline, did 3.16 million.

Top 10 PPV shows of 2011 (estimated figures for Dec. 30 Lesnar vs. Overeem are not available)

1. Boxing: Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez, Nov. 12; 1,410,000 buys
2. Boxing: Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Victor Ortiz, Sept. 19; 1,250,000 buys
3. Boxing: Manny Pacquiao vs. Shane Mosley, May 7; 1,100,000 buys
4. UFC 129: Georges St. Pierre vs. Jake Shields, April 30; 800,000 buys
5. UFC 126: Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort, Feb. 5; 725,000 buys
6. WWE WrestleMania 27: Headliners John Cena, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, The Miz, April 3; 680,000 buys
7. Boxing: Miguel Cotto vs. Antonio Margarito, Dec. 3; 600,000 buys
8. UFC 133: Jon Jones vs. Rampage Jackson, Sept. 24; 520,000 buys
9. UFC 128: Jon Jones vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, March 19; 490,000 buys
10. UFC 140: Jon Jones vs. Lyoto Machida, Dec. 10; 480,000 buys.

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