MMA's Biggest Stars

Adam Swift of MMA Payout has posted a list of the five most watched fights in MMA history:

  1. Kimbo Slice v. James Thompson - 6.51 million
  2. Quinton Jackson v. Dan Henderson - 5.93 million
  3. Tito Ortiz v. Ken Shamrock III - 5.89 million
  4. Robbie Lawler v. Scott Smith - 5.53 million
  5. Gina Carano v. Kaitlin Young - 4.68 million

These results aren't particularly surprising. We all recognize at this point that regardless of how we feel about the event, EliteXC on CBS was a success in the ratings.

To nobody's surprise, Kimbo carried the night, proving that, at least on a short enough time line that a compelling story is more important to the casual viewer than outstanding talent. Many observers, including the Miami Herald's Dan Le Batard   have suggested that Kimbo's appeal may diminish in light of his match with James Thompson. While that's certainly a possibility, I can say that anecdotally I have spoken to several casual MMA fans who were not only fine with the stoppage in Kimbo's fight, but they came away wowed by Kimbo. His drawing power will be put to the test in an upcoming EliteXC event on CBS, even if his abilities as a fighter are not.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the fighters included in the list is Gina Carano. On the one hand, her fight was viewed by nearly one million fewer viewers than the following match on the card, Robbie Lawler v. Scott Smith. On the other hand, the inclusion of Carano began the ratings spike leading up to Kimbo's match. Judging by the ratings breakdown for each half-hour of the show, Carano appears to be a bona fide star, sure due in no small part to her involvement in American Gladiators. The half hour in which Carano fought Kaitlin Young saw the largest gain in viewers from the preceding half-hour (1.02 million viewers) on the entire show. The next closest half-hour spike was for the Middleweight title match (0.85 million viewers), which immediately followed Carano v. Young.

It will be interesting to see what these numbers mean for Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith, who had an interesting fight in that it started out slow, ended up becoming a slugfest, and was ultimately stopped prematurely in most folks eyes. With so many eyes on their contest, will neither, one, or both fighters begin to make inroads towards mainstream popularity? If nothing else, it seems plausible that their rematch could headline the next EliteXC event on CBS.

As for the two UFC fights included in this list, three of the four fighters involved are among the biggest stars in the history of the organization. It seems a bit premature to consider Quinton Jackson one of the biggest stars in the UFC, but as far as his fights go, the numbers don't lie. Not only did Jackson v. Henderson earn what at the time was the highest rating for an MMA fight in history, but Jackson v. Chuck Liddell at UFC 71 earned 675,000 buys. The figure stands as the third highest buyrate in UFC history behind UFC 66 at 1.05 million and UFC 61 at 775k , and one of only five six UFC pay-per-views to top 600k buys. The other two are UFC 79 (600-675k) and UFC 81 (650k) [EDIT: UFC 60 earned 620k buys]. It should be pointed out that UFC 81 is actually the third highest grossing PPV in UFC history, as the cost to purchase the show was $44.95, up from $39.95.

It's no surprise that Tito Ortiz is on this list. In addition to earning what was at the time the highest rated MMA match in history, Ortiz also earned the top two buyrates in UFC history; UFC 66 against Liddell  and UFC 61 also against Ken Shamrock, respectively. Ortiz's value as a draw is not limited to main events, as helped to earn a 425k buy rate , the highest in company history at the time, at UFC 59 when he faced Forrest Griffin. As part of UFC 73's "Stacked" card, Ortiz again helped the event earn 425k buys when he went to a draw with Rashad Evans. The best indication of what Tito Ortiz means to the UFC and to MMA as a sport will likely come along with the buy rate for UFC 84, where Ortiz faced Lyoto Machida, who has the least mainstream recognition of any of Ortiz's opponents during the UFC boom period.

Absent from the list is UFC poster boy and former Light Heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. This is hardly an indictment on Liddell, as he has yet to fight on a live broadcast outside of pay-per-view. His appeal is well noted, as he has earned three of the five highest buyrates in UFC history (UFC 66, UFC 71, and UFC 79), and Liddell's involvement, along with Randy Couture, in the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter helped to establish the series as a staple of Spike's lineup. While Kimbo and co. were earning strong ratings on CBS this past Saturday, Chuck Liddell was featured on Spike, as both "The Ultimate Iceman: Chuck Liddell," and Chuck's fight against Wanderlei Silva at UFC 79 played opposite EliteXC's event. According to , the Iceman acquitted himself fairly well: has learned that Spike's broadcast of The Ultimate Iceman: Chuck Liddell drew a 0.9 rating (1.2 million viewers), while UFC Unleashed featuring Liddell v. Wanderlei Silva drew a 1.2 rating (1.6 million viewers). The programs aired Saturday night on Spike from 9-11PM EST in competition with EliteXC on CBS.

Of course, when comparing "Chuck Night," and even the two UFC matches on the list to EliteXC on CBS, some context is required. As a network station, CBS is available in 96.98% of all American households, reaching 103,421,270 homes in the United States as of 2003. Spike, on the other hand, is available in 93.6 million homes as of September 11, 2007. Additionally, while EliteXC was offering live, first run content, Chuck Night on Spike consisted entirely of pre-recorded programming.

By my calculations, these are the percentage of total possible viewers each match/show earned of its possible viewing audience.

6.3% Kimbo v. Thompson
6.3% Rampage v. Henderson
6.3% Ortiz v. Shamrock
5.3% Middleweight title match
4.5% Carano v. Young
1.5% Chuck Night (average of both shows)

When taking into consideration the 10 million viewer disparity along with the aforementioned factors, Chuck Night did a strong number. Somewhat surprising is the equality between the percentage of possible viewers who saw the top three most viewed matches, which speaks equally to the drawing power of a neophyte in the sport as it does to two of the biggest stars in the UFC.

While Kimbo's drawing power has been built largely on hype thus far, both Ortiz and Jackson have been the best in the Light Heavyweight division throughout their careers. Of course, they are also known for their antics and their pre-fight promotion, which absolutely plays a strong role in their ability to draw.

Carano's cross-over appeal seems legitimate. As the face of women's MMA, she is not only an undefeated fighter, but she is stunningly beautiful. As the old addage goes, women want to be her, and men want to be with her. In some ways, she is more important to EliteXC than Kimbo, as she can potentially draw women towards the sport, whereas Kimbo seems unlikely to do so.

Chuck Liddell has also tasted his share of cross over stardom, appearing in an episode on Entourage. The interesting thing about Liddell's drawing power is that is almost entirely based on his performance in the Ocatagon. Liddell doesn't have the charisma of Ortiz or Jackson, the back story of Kimbo, and while Liddell certainly has a unique look, he doesn't appeal to viewers in the same way as Gina Carano. On some level, that could lead one to conclude that Liddell is MMA's biggest star, as it speaks to the importance of sporting aspect and proves that story lines and gimmicks, while important and effective, are not the be all, end all of fight promotion.

These are the biggest stars in MMA today, for better or worst. While Kimbo and Carano have a lot of time left to define themselves in the sport (as does Jackson, though to a lesser extent), top stars such as Ortiz and Liddell appear to have a limited number of matches left in their careers. Will fighters like Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith, who put on a fine show in front of one of the largest audiences in MMA history be able to transition from "heavily viewed" to "stars?" Will young guns such as Georges St. Pierre, Forrest Griffin, and Brock Lesnar lead the UFC to new levels of popularity? While we do not know for sure what will happen, we can safely assume that it will be a lot of fun watching and finding out the answers to these questions.

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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