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Ranking the top UFC PPV draws of all time from McGregor to Mighty Mouse

Conor McGregor

For a while, I've wanted to answer the question of who the biggest pay-per-view draws in UFC history have been. The problem is that there are many different ways to look at tackling the answer. An example: 500,000 buys in 2016 may not be quite the same thing as 500,000 buys in 2008...or maybe it is.

So, here's what I did:

- I decided on a “rolling average”. Rather than simply looking at the average for a calendar year, I looked at the total PPV purchases for the previous year, the total for the current year, and the total for the next year so the “rolling average” is the average of those three years. As you might expect, each year has a different rolling average.

The reason I chose this method is that using a single year to determine a base leaves things open to fluctuations based on key talent not being available. It makes the product seem colder than it actually is when, in fact, it’s just a case of none of the key top draws fighting during that time period. 2014 is a perfect example of this as at a quick glance, you might think UFC was dying a fast death on PPV given that the average number of buys was 200-300K less than in any year since 2005.

Using the rolling average, the number is relatively the same as it was in every other year between 2011 and 2015, although it was on a slight decline. That slight decline does seem to be turning around. A big part of that is the emergence of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, but what the rolling averages show is that the base is up as well from recent year. As the saying goes, “a rising tide raises all boats”.

- The next step was to compare each PPV buys total to the rolling average for that particular year. Key fighters on each show included whomever was fighting in the main event, as well as other big names on the show that would have been key to a buyer's decision to either purchase or to not purchase a show. It should come as no surprise that certain individuals seemed to always be on shows that performed considerably higher than that year’s rolling average and others were on shows that performed considerably lower.

It may surprise some to see that McGregor is already at the top of this list despite the fact that the results for UFC 178 (when he fought Dustin Poirier in a non-title fight) were included in here. The totals of his three subsequent PPVs pushed him to the top of the list, although with a small sample size. Here is the list of each year’s PPV totals including the yearly average, number of shows, total PPV buys for the year and the rolling average:

Chris Weidman

Using those figures, here are the top 20 scores in UFC history as a % over the rolling average for shows those fighters appeared on:

Based on the math, McGregor tops the list followed by Brock Lesnar and, interestingly enough, Chris Weidman.

Here's a bit more on the names on this list:

  • Chris Weidman: That he's got the 3rd highest score in history seems ridiculous at first glance, and easy to dismiss as a statistical fluke. However, Weidman has been in a key position on five shows, four of which drew over 500,000 buys and two which did over 1 million. In each of those shows, he was in a title fight. Is he this generation’s Tim Silvia? Perhaps, or maybe he is a key draw in a secondary position. So while he can’t be expected to headline a show that is going to do big business, he is someone you want as a secondary star to help bolster an already big show.
  • Paul Verelans: This name from the UFC past surprised me which I think was a statistical anomaly. He was on three shows that averaged 224,000 buys during a time period in which the rolling average for shows he was on was just 151,000 buys. Ken Shamrock was on all three shows he was on and he’s also very high on this list while Tank Abbott and Dan Severn were also on 2 of those shows each.
  • Tito Ortiz: It’s notable that Chuck Liddell is not on this list while his rival is. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. For Tito, he was a big draw in the years when UFC exploded, so shows he was on seemed really high at the time but they weren’t all that much higher than the shows he wasn’t on.  With the right opponent, he did big numbers but he didn’t seem to be that much of a draw on his own. For Liddell, much of his career was in the pre-TV era and also when UFC didn’t have full PPV clearance. As it is, his score is 14.0 and he just misses making this list. If you eliminate the pre-2005 years from his totals, his score jumps to 16.0. He makes the list, but just barely. A lot of the numbers on shows he did seemed huge at the time but many shows did numbers that were close. I believe that the big numbers that Tito and Chuck did for “normal” shows were more due to the fact that UFC itself was really hot.

Demetrious Johnson
Photo: Sherdog

Another reason why I wanted to tackle this project was to look at who the people were at the bottom of this list.

To qualify for this list, a fighter had to be in a key position on at least 3 PPVs. The names at the bottom are for the most part who you’d expect them to be. And when you look at the disaster that was 2014, you see a lot of these names as key fighters on those shows which is no coincidence. Here are the bottom 25 fighters in terms of percentage below the rolling average on shows in which they were fighting in key positions:

No surprise that the reigning flyweight champion resides at the “top” of this list. Bader being right behind is probably no surprise either. Really, most of the names on here are popular to fight fans but for whatever reason, they’ve just never connected as those in which people are willing to plunk down money for. Rumble Johnson being at #6 probably helps explain why his challenge of Daniel Cormier for the light heavyweight title did a disappointing number for that show. And it gives pause to the idea that he may be the biggest challenger to Jon Jones, should he defeat Cormier.

You'll notice there are several light heavyweights on this list which may help explain why Jones hasn’t been as big a draw as people thought he should be. It’s the challengers for the belt that have been poor draws for the most part. When put with someone whom he had a big grudge with (Evans, Cormier), he did big numbers. Otherwise, he did what he should be expected to do.

Silva vs. Weidman

There are some names missing. Where are they?

  • Anderson Silva (10.4): For many years, shows that he was on didn’t do anything special. It was really only after the feud with Chael Sonnen that he became a really big draw, but even that wasn’t enough to overcome years of PPV mediocrity. That said, he was still 10% over average and with that rolling average being in the 450-500K range most years, it's still really solid.
  • Nick Diaz (9.7): Diaz has been on shows almost from day 1 that have consistently performed above the rolling average, and it isn’t just a recent phenomenon. Even in 2006, the three shows that he was on were at or above the rolling average.
  • Jon Jones (6.2): He’s been very slightly above average, just below Silva but above everyone else except for the really big draws. In many ways, he’s the modern Anderson Silva. Time will tell if he takes it to another level with his time away from the sport having seemingly increased his popularity.
  • Urijah Faber (-27.4): There are a lot of lighter weight fighters in the negative numbers including Donald Cerrone, Chad Mendes, Frankie Edgar, Jose Aldo and more. Benson Henderson and Renan Barao even crack the bottom 20. For whatever reason, lighter weight fighters have just never really been a draw which makes the rise of McGregor even more amazing. Brock Lesnar emerged from a time in which heavyweights were already drawing big. Conor and Ronda took divisions that were nothing and became the biggest draws in the sport in spite of that. In some ways, that’s even more impressive than what Lesnar did and this list shows that.

Names for the future that are not anywhere on either the top or bottom list are Miesha Tate, Holly Holm, and Nate Diaz. Tate and Holm have been on two shows each and Diaz just one, but all 3 names would be at the top of this list if their numbers were included. Again, that’s a small sample size but the potential is there for one, two or all three of these names to become a really special draw that could take the place of a potentially departing Rousey.

And, of course, you have Weidman, who is near the top of this list but is probably best used in a supporting role. Names at the bottom of the top 20 such as Diego Sanchez and Andrei Arlovski could potentially also be used even lower on the card for a big show in an attempt to boost those shows a bit. Michael Bisping is at a 6.7 and he’s headlining June's UFC 199 which could bode well for that show's buyrate.

For the complete list of all fighters who were on at least 3 shows in key positions and their scores, available check it out here.