When former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar meets former K-1 kickboxing and Strikeforce champ Alistair Overeem at UFC 141 it will be one of the biggest non-title fights in UFC history. And just in time too, the UFC is wrapping up a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year for pay-per-view (PPV) numbers. Well it wasn't really all that bad, but a long string of injuries, illnesses, suspensions and bad luck killed almost all of the big events they had hoped to put on this year.
Losing Brock Lesnar for most of the year was one of the biggest blows to the UFC's 2011 bottom line. Lesnar shattered UFC PPV records with two 2010 fights that both did more than 1 million PPV buys. Before Lesnar only one other fighter had ever put up those kind of PPV numbers: Mike Tyson in 1996.
When the UFC combines the return of Lesnar with the Octagon debut of the visibly fearsome man-mountain Alistair Overeem -- a K-1 kickboxing and Strikeforce MMA champion -- the UFC is sitting on PPV gold. In a year which featured 9 UFC pay-per-views headlined by a title fight, it's pretty wild that Lesnar-Overeem, a non-title affair, is highly likely to be the UFC's best-selling PPV event of 2011.
That stuck me as kind of unusual so I wanted to take a look back at the UFC history books and consider the other candidates for biggest non-title fight in UFC history. And by "biggest" I mean commercially successful.
Here are five non-title UFC fights that compare to Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem in magnitude (in chronological order):
- Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock
UFC Fight Night 6.5/Ortiz vs Shamrock 3 - The Final Chapter
October 10, 2006
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Hollywood Florida
5.7 Million Viewers On Spike TV
If there is a single UFC bout that can be credited with getting the promotion on Fox it's this one. The amazing numbers Ortiz vs. Shamrock pulled caught the attention of every television executive in America. They had set a UFC PPV record with 775,000 buys at UFC 61 but no one expected the rematch to be that big.
Shamrock and Ortiz had fought twice before, at UFC 40 and UFC 61. Both fights were one-sided blowouts but after a quick stoppage at UFC 61 Shamrock complained enough and had enough fan support to get the UFC to give him one last shot at Tito. The fight was just as bad as the first two, but Shamrock and Tito proved that fight fans love to see fighters they care about throw down, regardless of how weak the fight may be as a sporting proposition.
- Royce Gracie vs. Matt Hughes
May 27, 2006
Staples Center, Hollywood, California
620,000 PPV Buys
This fight was a classic bit of fight booking by Joe Silva and Dana White. It was a perfect follow up to the Ortiz vs Ken Shamrock feud and continued the theme of re-exposing fans of the 1990s UFC with the modern, post-The Ultimate Fighter promotion.
Taking place in Hollywood, it served as a coming out party for the Zuffa UFC as a draw for lots of movie and television personalities. The fight itself was a bust, but Hughes' performance helped make him a star and Royce Gracie got a nice push from Zuffa.
- Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva
December 29, 2007
Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas, Nevada
750,000+ PPV buys
I've got to note right up front that this fight was "only" the co-main event of UFC 79. George St. Pierre's interim title welterweight title fight with Matt Hughes was the top of the card.
Nonetheless, Chuck vs. Wandy was a huge fight that fans had been waiting for years. If it had been held only 18 months earlier, before both men took some tough losses, it would have been possibly the most important fight in MMA history as it would have united the UFC and Pride Fighting Championship belts.
Despite all that, Liddell vs. Silva meant a lot to a lot of fans and was a huge part of UFC 79's success and UFC's great 2007.
Not only that, its an incredible fight. Both of these warriors left it all out there and fought like they had nothing to lose. The only complaint about this fight from a sporting perspective is that it was only three rounds and not five.
- Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Rashad Evans
May 29, 2010
MGM Grand Garden Arena
1,050,000 PPV Buys
An absolute monster of a bout, this feud ender was supposed to happen at UFC 108 in Memphis on January 2, 2010. Instead of fighting in his home town to cap off his coaching tenure on the 10th and highest rated season of The Ultimate Fighter, Rampage elected to star in the A-Team movie.
That decision led to a lot of drama with UFC president Dana White and a nearly six month delay in mounting Rampage vs. Rashad. Any worries that the wait would kill interest in the fight were put to rest by the big time PPV numbers this fight posted.
This is easily the second biggest ever non-title fight in UFC history after Tito vs Ken 3 but if Lesnar vs. Overeem lives up to its potential, expect this fight to slide to 3rd place.
- Randy Couture vs. James Toney
August 28, 2010
TD Garden, Boston, Massachusetts
570,000 PPV buys
This was another co-headliner, underneath Frankie Edgar's rematch with B.J. Penn. But it was also one of the most heavily hyped bouts in UFC history.
Toney, a former champion boxer at both cruiser- and heavyweight, spent a few years loudly trash talking MMA and the UFC and stalking Dana White to get his chance. Well he got it and boy did the fans get it.
Couture made short work of Toney in the cage with a first round submission. Even worse, the event way underperformed expectations. The problem was boxing fans knew that Toney was old and likely to come into the fight out of shape. Not only that, but even the most retrograde boxing columnist knew by 2010 that a boxer with no wrestling or grappling skills had little to no chance in the Octagon.
You've probably figured out by now that I'm going to say the Lesnar/Overeem bout will be the second biggest non-title bout in UFC history after Ortiz vs Shamrock 3. A strong case could be made for Rampage vs. Rashad or Hughes vs. Gracie being the second. It's pretty clear that Liddell vs Silva and Toney vs. Couture were just not fights of the same magnitude or significance. They didn't even headline their respective fight cards.
Additionally, Lesnar vs. Overeem has huge implications for the future of the heavyweight division in a way that Ortiz vs. Shamrock 3 just didn't. Sure Ortiz got a title shot after beating Ken for the third time, but there was no chance of Shamrock getting a title shot even had he won. At UFC 141, the winner of Lesnar vs. Overeem will be the first challenger to Junior dos Santos' heavyweight title and potentially on their way to being the biggest star in MMA.