In July of 2016, as the UFC’s 200th numbered event approached, the Ultimate Fighting Championship went to almost unprecedented lengths to ensure the event was a massive success. That makes sense; even if the exact numbering was arbitrary, there was an understandable pride in reaching such a milestone. Add in that the UFC was just days away from announcing its long-rumored sale to a group headed by talent agency WME-IMG, and the motivation to pull out all the stops was obvious.
What’s more interesting to examine is what “pulling out all the stops” entailed for the UFC of four years ago. Its two biggest stars, Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, were both fresh off the first losses of their UFC careers, but of the two, only McGregor was clamoring to get back into the cage. Thus, the main event was a rematch between the Irish superstar and Nate Diaz, who had stepped up on short notice and choked him out in March. However, an apparent game of chicken between McGregor and the UFC, which played out over Twitter and a McGregor-less press conference, ended in the organization summarily pulling its headliner from the card. McGregor, who had apparently expected the UFC to blink first, tried backtracking, but to no avail; he and Diaz would settle things at UFC 202 in August.
The UFC then plugged its next biggest active star, interim light heavyweight champ Jon Jones, into a new main event: a title unification bout with regular champ Daniel Cormier, whom Jones had beaten once before. What the card lost in star power, it gained in competitive heft, as “DC” and “Bones” were two of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. That is, until just three days before the event, when Jones was informed of a positive drug test and forced to withdraw from the bout.
Fortunately, the UFC had hedged its bets a few weeks before by contacting its biggest inactive star, Brock Lesnar, and booking him for a one-off bout at UFC 200. Lesnar obtained a leave of absence from World Wrestling Entertainment and an exemption from the normal USADA drug testing window in order to be able to face Mark Hunt on July 9. A reasonable case can be made that the UFC saw the inadequately-tested Lesnar—who looked in better physical form than he had for his last MMA fights five years before—knew he was very likely to fail his in-competition tests, but pushed the match forward anyway, so desperate were they to make sure it was a blockbuster. (Note that after Lesnar’s tests did in fact come back positive, Hunt’s unsuccessful lawsuit against the UFC alleged exactly that.)
As if to underscore how badly the UFC wanted to stack the deck, it even booked a last-minute fight between Cormier and Anderson Silva, who was in town for International Fight Week, had not been training and simply offered to step up. The matchup was an amusing idea, completely pointless from a competitive standpoint, an all-win proposition for Silva and practically a no-win proposition for Cormier, but it was as if the organization was refusing to leave a single potential seat or pay-per-view unsold.
However bizarre and tortuous the road by which it got there, UFC 200 was indeed ridiculously loaded. Of the 24 fighters on the card, a whopping 11 were current, former or future UFC champions, and the balance of the lineup was stacked with some of the organization’s most beloved action stars, including Diego Sanchez, Joe Lauzon and Jim Miller. Topping off this embarrassment of riches was a bantamweight title fight between Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes; despite its relentless attempts to fortify the card with bigger fights, the UFC stuck by its longstanding tradition that a pay-per-view should be headlined by a championship fight. It was actually charming, a moment of tradition and normalcy in the midst of one of the most chaotic events the promotion ever assembled.
In the end, it all worked. UFC 200 packed the new T-Mobile Arena, establishing it as a future destination for the UFC’s bigger Las Vegas cards. Reported pay-per-view numbers broke the million-buy mark, and as a bonus, bumping Diaz-McGregor 2 to UFC 202 ended up netting the promotion two million-selling cards in the space of a month. They could hardly have planned it better.