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Top 10 biggest draws in MMA: UFC's Conor McGregor owns No. 1 spot

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·7 min read
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It’s very difficult to define what makes a fighter a star, but one thing is certain, you know it when you see one.

Winning is a big part of it, but some fighters remain massively popular despite a string of defeats. A quick wit and the ability to engage the media in interviews never hurts, but there have been fighters such as boxers Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Alvarez who aren’t all that outspoken yet are massively popular.

That’s part of what makes identifying the biggest stars in a sport’s history a tough task. It’s easier with mixed martial arts, because it essentially began as a sport in 1993 with the founding of the UFC and so it has all happened in the modern era.

It’s not all about pay-per-view and ticket sales, although that’s a huge part of what makes someone a star. If people pay to see you compete in big numbers, it says a lot.

Fighters who cross into the mainstream, who are recognized by people who don’t necessarily identify as MMA fans, clearly are stars.

Then there’s the case of those like former Pride fighter Kazushi Sakuraba, whose fights would routinely draw more than 20 million viewers on Japanese television, but who is little known beyond the hardest of the hard core MMA fan base in the U.S. He’s clearly a mega-star in Japan, but is it fair to call Sakuraba one of the biggest MMA stars of all-time when you consider the rest of the world?

I took a stab at identifying the Top 10 biggest stars in MMA history, with a few I’ve added as honorable mention, who need to be considered.

I used five main criteria when making the judgment:

  1. PPV appeal since MMA has been a pay-per-view business for much of its existence.

  2. Ability to sell tickets to live events.

  3. Television ratings a fighter could generate.

  4. Mainstream appeal. If a particular fighter would walk down the street in New York, or Los Angeles, or London or Moscow, how often would he/she be recognized? When Muhammad Ali was in his prime, it was frequently said his was the most recognizable face in the world.

  5. Longevity of time at the top.

So let’s take a crack at this, starting with my honorable mentions and then going backward from 10 through one.

Honorable mention: Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping, Daniel Cormier, Randy Couture, Nick Diaz, Fedor Emelianenko, Matt Hughes, Kazushi Sakuraba, Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva and Chael Sonnen.

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 29: (R-L) BJ Penn squares off with Nick Diaz during the UFC 137 event at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on October 29, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
(R-L) BJ Penn squares off with Nick Diaz during UFC 137 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Oct. 29, 2011 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

10. BJ Penn

The former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion was one of the big names of the first decade of this century. He headlined a number of successful UFC PPVs and was a strong ratings draw for the UFC when he was on cable television.

His battles with Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre were as big as it got in the UFC’s early days and drew plenty of non-MMA media attention.

9. Tito Ortiz

Ortiz has been a fixture in the sport for more than two decades. He was involved in a memorable, and highly successful, pay-per-view series with Chuck Liddell and for several years, he was the biggest name in the sport.

Even after he left the UFC, he remained popular and a fixture in the news.

8. Nate Diaz

Diaz hasn’t headlined a lot of shows, but his two bouts with Conor McGregor and his fight with Jorge Masvidal did significant PPV sales as well as ticket sales.

Diaz doesn’t appear in the media often, but when he does, it’s usually newsworthy. And while he’s probably not as recognizable in the mainstream as, say, Ortiz, he does draw a crowd wherever he goes.

7. Chuck Liddell

“The Iceman” was the biggest star of the early part of this century. His rivalry with Ortiz and Randy Couture sold a lot of tickets and a lot more pay-per-views, and he was one of the first UFC fighters to do television commercials and appear on the late-night talk shows.

He’d be higher on this list if the UFC’s prime had been earlier.

6. Khabib Nurmagomedov

Nurmagomedov’s fight with Conor McGregor is the best selling bout PPV-wise in UFC history, and it attracted a paid gate of $17.2 million. He’s got nearly 20 million followers on Instagram and a million on Twitter, so he’s got a powerful social media presence.

When he appeared at the opening of a Reebok store in Moscow, a massive crowd showed up to see him and it created a security issue.

Nurmagomedov will probably move up this list several spots in the next year or two, but for now, he belongs just outside the Top 5.

Jon Jones goes through his pre-fight routine in the ring before a light heavyweight mixed martial arts bout against Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Jon Jones goes through his pre-fight routine in the ring before a light heavyweight mixed martial arts bout against Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

5. Jon Jones

He’s been the UFC’s light heavyweight champion for the better part of the decade and his name is frequently in the news. He’s not a massive PPV draw, but his fights do well and he’s headlined a lot of shows so he ranks among the UFC’s all-time leaders in sales.

With his two brothers having played in the NFL, he’s easily recognizable outside of MMA circles.

4. Ronda Rousey

Few fighters brought the kind of mainstream attention to MMA that Rousey did. And few sold as well as on PPV as she did. She was a phenomenon who starred in movies, appeared on major magazine covers, wrote a best-selling book and had several PPVs do in excess of 1 million.

Her career was relatively short, though she remains a mega-personality even now.

3. Brock Lesnar

Lesnar is clearly more known for his WWE success than he is for his MMA career, but he was a huge star in the UFC and is one of the biggest PPV sellers ever.

Lesnar is intensely private and didn’t appear in the public much other than when he was fighting, but few were bigger stories than the one-time NCAA wrestling champion.

2. Georges St-Pierre

Because he’s headlined so many events, he’s the UFC’s all-time PPV sales leader. And while he never had that 2+ million show like McGregor has had, St-Pierre’s fights sold well regularly over a long period of time.

He remains one of the most popular athletes in Canada and even with just one fight in the last nearly seven years, he’s among the sport’s biggest names even now.

Conor McGregor celebra su victoria sobre Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone en un combate de peso welter de artes marciales mixtas el sábado 18 de enero de 2020 en Las Vegas. (AP Foto/John Locher)
Conor McGregor celebrates his win over Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 on Jan. 18, 2020 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (AP Foto/John Locher)

1. Conor McGregor

McGregor owns nearly all of the major records related to ticket and PPV sales in the UFC. He’s a massive crossover star and is recognized well beyond the Octagon.

His popularity helped turn Nurmagomedov and Diaz into mega-stars, as well. That’s a testament to how big of a star McGregor has become, and he’s not nearly done yet.

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