New UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones took the title Saturday at UFC 128 with an absolutely jaw dropping destruction of Mauricio Rua - a man some consider to be the best LHW of all time. Jones has been touted by the UFC as their next breakout star, possibly their first to truly transcend the sport. But based on the early estimates of the PPV buy numbers someone forgot to tell the fans.
We already knew that the gate and attendance numbers for UFC 128 were not incredibly strong.
Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer (subscription required) reports the numbers and does some analysis:
For all the talk of what Jones could be, he is not there yet. The TV shows he headlined did not do well. He seemed to have momentum coming off the Bader win, but it seemed to dissipate. By the last week before the fight, people had almost willed Jones to win. And he was already signing autographs a week before the fight as "UFC light heavyweight champion." And his friendship with Rashad Evans fell apart and people were more talking about Jones beating Shogun and then facing Evans, before the first part of the equation took place.
Our earliest PPV estimates, and keep in mind anything this early is just an estimate, have ranged from 415,000 to 470,000, with the average being 445,000. If those numbers hold up, that would be considerably lower than most estimates people had going in. Usually UFC outdistances the estimates people have going in based on strong late hype. This didn't have it. The Countdown special was very good, but it had less of an audience than usual. Plus, you have to look at the show from a PPV buyer perspective and going in it was known this was going to be a rebuilding year because of the lighter weight division additions. It did in the same range as when Rua challenged Machida, and Machida did have a unique appeal at the time of the first fight (the second fight did better, but there was controversy from the first fight, and Kimbo Slice was on the undercard). Faber was just being introduced to a new audience and his opponent meant nothing (although in the Countdown show they did a great job with both Faber and Wineland but again that show didn't seem to have the usual viewership). It was based around Jones winning the title and while he absolutely has potential to be the next GSP, it's happened so fast and nothing he's headlined has put up big numbers yet.
Some of the lack of hype was because ESPN never touched it beforehand, like most mainstream sports outlets, which concentrated on the NCAA basketball tournament. Still, GSP fought Dan Hardy during the same time period last year, in the heat of March Madness last year and did 770,000 buys.
It's important to note that Meltzer's numbers are very early estimates and may change quite a bit (the estimates for UFC 117, for example, were much higher than the actual figures).
But let's assume the numbers are reasonably accurate. The point of comparison most distressing to me is the fall from the last two events that Shogun headlined: UFC 113 (520,000 buys) and UFC 104 (500,000 buys). It's also notable that between 700 and 750K fans bought UFC 126 and saw Jones beat Ryan Bader and get the surprise title shot.
The weakness of the UFC's "second marriage" with Versus has also hurt Jones. His two headlining appearances on UFC on Versus 1 and UFC on Versus 2 drew 1.24 million and 990K viewers respectively. Had those fights been held on Spike TV, I have no doubt more fans would have been ready to order a Jon Jones headlined PPV.
The upside is that Jon Jones will unquestionably do better in his first title defense against Rashad Evans which is expected for August or September.
The UFC is still making money hand-over-fist at these buy rates, but their growth has unquestionably slowed. Only by investing in the promotion of new stars like Jon Jones can they regain their momentum.