Yesterday the UFC made an unprecedented move and canceled UFC 151, when Dana White confirmed Dan Henderson pulled out due to injury and Jon Jones did not want to fight Chael Sonnen even though Sonnen had accepted. Jones is now fighting Vitor Belfort at UFC 152 in Toronto, which is a huge positive for Toronto fans but a short-term disappointment for fans and evidently Dana White.
Whatever your moral or ethical opinion of Jon Jones turning down Chael Sonnen on a week's notice, the UFC set themselves up for something of this nature. They've played with fire over the last two years by having their big draws essentially be the only notable attraction on their Pay-Per-Views. Their previous worst case scenario happened at UFC 106 when Brock Lesnar's first bout with diverticulitis became public and his fight with Shane Carwin was off. It went from a guaranteed 1 million or higher buyrate to 375,000 because they elevated Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin II to the main event. But never before have they had to deal with either champion or challenger pulling out of a main event within two weeks of fight night.
With the increase in events over the last few years they have had to stretch their roster out more than ever before and it is evident in several cards. Instead of putting in a very solid co-main event (capable of headlining a PPV itself ) for their three biggest PPV sellers in Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, and Georges St. Pierre, they have now made a habit of putting the entire selling status of the card on those three names. For evidence, I've pinpointed several cards featuring Lesnar, Jones, and GSP and the weakness of the supporting cast drawing power.
Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem
Nate Diaz vs. Donald Cerrone
Jon Fitch vs. Johny Hendricks
Alexander Gustafsson vs. Vladimir Matyushenko
Jimy Hettes vs. Nam Phan
Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans
Rory MacDonald vs. Che Mills
Miguel Torres vs. Michael McDonald
Ben Rothwell vs. Brendan Schaub
Mark Hominick vs. Eddie Yagin
Mark Bocek vs. John Alessio
Time Span: July 3rd, 2010 - September 1st, 2012
While those bouts aren't necessarily terrible in terms of competitiveness, ask yourself if any of those other main card fights could headline a PPV. The common theme with these Brock-GSP-Jones cards is that there is minimal-to-zero star power below the main event. Sean McCorkle went from the prelims of a dreadful UFC 119 show to co-main of a GSP card.
Relying on singular name value is exactly what boxing PPVs get criticized for (and rightly so), but the UFC to some degree has done just that. What made their PPVs so great was that you were paying for the quality of the main card and not just the main event. Paying $54.95 when Jay Hieron, Che Mills, and Sean McCorkle are featured fighters is not going to sit well with fans anymore, and definitely not in this economy.
It's easy to vilify Jon Jones because he didn't accept the Sonnen fight, but this was not the only path to a card cancellation. Jones himself could have gotten injured with Henderson also unable to compete, for example. It already happened last May when both Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard pulled out of UFC 130 to injury. When the UFC puts Jones or GSP on pay-per-view, they cannot just half-ass their shows and let them sell themselves. Something could go wrong at any point, including losing a title fight less than 10 days before the show. They've cut it close with St. Pierre and Lesnar pulling out for health reasons and seeing their numbers plummet, but now there is no way back for the UFC this time and it's their own fault for actively not having a Plan B on that card.
Dana White can be angry at Jones and Greg Jackson until the end of time, but White should know that you always plan for the worst-case scenario, especially at a time when injuries are skyrocketing and it's become harder to accommodate other events whilst salvaging injury-plagued shows. Of their 9 PPVs this year, 6 of them have had the original main event or co-main event changed. It could be growing pains from trying to do 32 events for the first time, but early returns aren't promising. They've bombed on PPV this summer save for Silva vs. Sonnen 2, The Ultimate Fighter ratings are at an all-time low, and now they've had to cancel UFC 151 because there was nothing below a Jones or Henderson-led main event that would sell on PPV.
The UFC has gambled too many times with UFC 124 and 145-esque type of cards, and now they've hit one of the lowest points in their history. It'll be interesting to see what happens for future Jon Jones PPVs after his fight with
Lyoto Machida Vitor Belfort. At least if that fight is cancelled there's another title fight and Bisping vs. Stann as backup.