The age-old magic trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat has been applicable to the UFC many times over the past several years.
Due to injuries, illnesses or other problems, there have been pay-per-view fight cards with seemingly no viable main event.
And for years, somehow, someway, the UFC always pulled out the rabbit.
Because of that, in the 11 years that Zuffa has owned the company, there had never been a pay–per-view show canceled. There was once a date changed, when UFC 113 was moved back a week so as not to go head-to-head with Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Shane Mosley. And there was one notable location change when a television fight was scheduled for a Sunday in Salt Lake City (It was rejected by the public, so the bout was moved to San Diego).
There was a time at UFC 68 in 2007 when a contract issue occurred with then-heavyweight contender Brandon Vera, and it looked like the main event would be Tim Sylvia vs. Gabriel Gonzaga for the title, which likely would have been death at the box office.
But suddenly, and surprisingly, retired light heavyweight Randy Couture was brought out of retirement to face Sylvia. Not only was the show saved, but it ended up setting what was then the all-time U.S. attendance record for the sport. Couture's record-setting fifth and final title win – at the age of 43 nonetheless – made it one of the most memorable nights in UFC history.
The rabbits may not have always turned out as golden the one pulled on UFC 68, but there was always one to be found.
With a combination of so many shows in such a short period of time and so many fighter injuries, Dana White was forced to reach into the hat again this week for UFC 145 on March 24 in Montreal. For the first time, though, the hat was bare, and the pay-per-view date was canceled.
This will cause an eight-week gap between pay-per-view shows, from UFC 144 in Saitama, Japan on Feb. 25 until the April 21 show in Atlanta.
It's the longest gap since an 11-week pause between UFC 56 and UFC 57 more than six years ago. There also won't be full fight cards for the March 2 show on FX from Sydney, Australia and the April 14 show on Fuel from Stockholm, Sweden.
The issue is a numbers game. UFC can have 200 fighters on the roster, or 300, but those added 100 fighters are going to be fighters who mostly fill out the cards.
At any given time, there are only going to be a finite number of stars available. With an ever-increasing rate of injuries, and with more events being added to the current breakneck pace of shows, there are bound to be some casualties of planned big dates.
The increasing number of live cable television events isn't as much an issue because there isn't the pressure to provide superstar main events on those shows. The roster is loaded with depth, with plenty of fighters like Jim Miller and Melvin Guillard – quality fighters with some name value but hardly pay–per-view headliners – who faced each other in the main event of Friday night's FX show from Nashville.
But they have 18 shows – 14 on pay-per-view and four on Fox – that demand more. This is the most ambitious year in company history when it comes to major shows. And it comes during a transition period where the top stars are either gone or fighting infrequently, an injury rate is through the roof, and new major upper-echelon drawing cards are not yet established to replace them.
Plus, the company has three champions, lightweight titleholder Frankie Edgar, featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr., and bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who have not caught on as the kind of big-time draws most champions in recent years have been.
In that sense, the retirement of Brock Lesnar, the company's biggest draw of the past four years, couldn't have come at a worse time. But when you combine it with Georges St. Pierre, its second-biggest drawing card, being out until perhaps November after reconstructive knee surgery, and with Anderson Silva, No. 3 on the list, being plagued with back and shoulder problems, the pressure is on to create new stars.
This also comes at a time when the pay-per-view audience has become more selective, not necessary buying every show because it has the "UFC" name attached, but waiting for the big fights.
Plus, they have to draw acceptable ratings on Fox, and that's still uncharted waters long-term. The Jan. 28 show is big for a number of reasons, not just because the next opponents for Jon Jones and Silva will be determined based on what happens between the Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis and Chael Sonnen vs. Michael Bisping fights. Also important is the television ratings.
The game of booking Fox specials and pay-per-views can be the perfect promotional synergy, as it is currently designed on paper. You create stars by the masses when they impress on prime-time Fox broadcasts, which naturally leads to the winner's next big fight headlining on pay-per-view.
But that only works if there is a large enough television audience that wants to see fights to establish contenders as opponents for the few megastars, as opposed to seeing established stars fighting each other.
The biggest fights and the few upper echelon draws have to be on pay-per-view, because it is pay-per-view, not television rights fees, that fuel the company's cash coffers. There are 14 pay-per-view events scheduled in 2012. You can no longer headline with subpar fights and still do big numbers. And there are only so many big fights that will naturally happen in a year.
For fans who have this idea that the era of pay-per-view is over and the Fox contract will usher in an era driven by the network-television model, the reality is television revenue can't come close to paying the freight of an organization the current size of Zuffa. And with this deal in place, that is not going to change until 2019 at the earliest, when the current contract expires. But poor ratings in prime time on a network the size of Fox won't cut it either in a television business that quickly moves on to the next fad.
The first UFC on Fox show on Nov. 12 was a success from a ratings standpoint, but the show also featured a heavyweight title fight, giving away a pay-per-view headliner as a way to kick off the series in a big way. If they can come close to that number on Jan. 28, that's a strong sign. There is no better way to create the needed next generation of major pay-per-view players than having millions see them shine on Fox.
But if the fights on Jan. 28 don't draw enough eyeballs, the pressure will be on to deliver fights to get the ratings up. In doing so, you are sacrificing fights that otherwise would be on pay-per-view.
Under either scenario, there are still spots for 18 major events per year, a challenge the company has never faced. And they are in a year when they will only have two or three fights from the former big three money stars combined.
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