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UFC 255 was a strange event. While numbers likely won't be released publicly, there is a good chance that it will supplant UFC 224, with its Amanda Nunes–Raquel Pennington headliner, as the lowest-selling Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view of the post-"TUF" era, going south of 85,000 buys. I've written before of the promotion’s weakening cards, but they usually cobble together a big, marquee main event, and sometimes even co-main, for pay-per-views. This wasn't the case here. Valentina Shevchenko and Deiveson Figueiredo are both superlative, exceptional world champions. Neither, however, is remotely a draw, and their opponents were a combination of lightly regarded and unknown to all but the most hardcore of fans.
The boring, simple question is, “Why was the card so weak?” To this we can ascribe poor planning on the UFC's part plus a little bad luck. The original plan was to have former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt face Figueiredo in the main event. The card still would have been weak, but it would have likely outsold Nunes vs. Pennington, or, for that matter, UFC 250, Nunes vs. Spencer, from earlier this year. Then, however, Garbrandt suffered an injury. Nevertheless, part of the blame is on the UFC for spreading itself out so thin with endless cards every weekend and not scheduling more big matches for UFC 255. If the card being even remotely attractive hinges on Cody Garbrandt—who has pulled out of big fights before—showing up, you've done something wrong.
The more interesting question here is what to do with Shevchenko and Figueiredo. Here we go back to a cornerstone of one of my earliest articles. There are three types of fighting; for entertainment, for sport, and for one's life. It's been a long time since there was any element of the latter in the organization—not since the 90s, at least—and the modern UFC is a mix of sport and entertainment, which is where the ambiguity comes in. If the UFC was only fighting for sport, then the answer would be simple. The UFC’s two flyweight champs are among the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in the world and thus should be featured in the main and co-main events of PPVs for as long as they retain that status.
And if the UFC were purely entertainment, then the answer would be equally clear. You banish Valentina and Figueiredo to the preliminary card—or possibly cut them altogether if their paycheck doesn't justify their drawing power. Don't scoff at this. After all, the UFC traded away Demetrious Johnson, maybe the greatest fighter of all time, for an unproven, but more entertaining personality in Ben Askren. And the UFC outright cut the third-best female flyweight on the planet, Liz Carmouche, immediately after she dropped a decision to Shevchenko, in large part because they considered her boring. Dana White also famously threatened to cut Anderson Silva for a lackluster performance in defending his championship against Thales Leites.
So what to do? Shevchenko and Figueiredo are great champions but they're terrible pay-per-view draws. Amusingly, the answer is something the UFC used to do but has increasingly gone away from: feature these champions on free fight cards. Not pay-per-view or ESPN+, but the few free cards on ESPN’s flagship channel. For one, this would vastly increase their exposure and possibly lead to them becoming PPV stars in the future. Figueiredo looked tremendous and unbeatable in securing a guillotine choke against Alex Perez, proving that there are no safe places against him. If you stand with him, he will knock you out, and if you go to the ground, he will submit you. But how many people actually saw it? An order of magnitude less than would have on free television. Additionally, it will improve ratings, for however much that is worth to the company. More importantly, there is so little upside here. How many additional PPVs are going to be sold by Shevchenko’s and Figueiredo’s names attached, compared to how many the UFC would sell based in its own brand name alone? Perhaps a few thousand, at most? Are such relative peanuts worth it? Pay-per-view main and co-main events should be reserved either for established stars like Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Jon Jones, or else others with a solid chance of getting there, like Israel Adesanya and Kamaru Usman.
Why has the UFC gone away from this tried and true strategy? After all, Johnson defended his title five times on free television. My guess is that ever since Endeavor bought the company in 2016 for a laughably inflated $4 billion, it has increasingly tried to squeeze as much money as possible from the company quickly, especially since the UFC is by far the most profitable piece of Endeavor’s portfolio. The pandemic has only made this reality more stark, given the havoc it's wrought on Hollywood. This in turn leads to very short-term thinking, where one prefers to make $10 today rather than $100 in a year.
Nevertheless, it puts world champions who aren't big draws in a tough bind, where they're stuck selling a few thousand additional PPVs in front of a small, increasingly shrinking audience. One hopes that these champions will be featured more on free television, but I won't hold my breath.
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