When Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem meet in the Octagon tonight at UFC 141, there will be a lot more on the line than just a shot at Junior dos Santos' heavyweight title. For one thing, the UFC's fiscal year is essentially riding on the pay-per-view (PPV) success of the card. For another, the outcome of the bout will determine the UFC's business prospects for 2012. And finally, the wrong combination of fight outcome and a failed steroid test could possibly be a PR disaster for a sport on the verge of mainstream acceptance.
Let's talk dollars and cents first. It's no secret that the UFC had a no good, terrible, awful year in 2011. Whether it was a Chael Sonnen failed drug test precluding an immediate rematch of his UFC 117 bout with Anderson Silva or Brock Lesnar dropping out of UFC 131 to have a foot cut out of his bowels, the UFC lost six planned PPV main events.
According to Dave Meltzer (subscription required) the UFC has only sold 66% as many PPV's over 15 events in 2011 as they did in 2010. If Lesnar and Overeem break the million buy barrier tomorrow night as many expect, that will dramatically improve the UFC's bottom line for the year.
Per Meltzer, the UFC sold 8,970,000 PPV buys in 2010 and only 5,950,000 so far in 2011. If Lesnar performs as well as he has in his last three UFC appearances, Dana White and company can expect to break the 7 million PPV buy mark for the year.
Three factors will make it harder for UFC 141 to reach expectations. First is the Friday night slot. UFC president Dana White spoke to MMA Fighting's Ben Fowlkes about the difficulty of promoting a Friday night UFC after years of holding all pay-per-views on Saturdays.
"To be honest, we're a little concerned about Friday night. Everybody's programmed for Saturday, Saturday, Saturday.
"The problem is, you can't put on fights in Las Vegas on [New Year's Eve]," White said. "They shut the strip down. You can't even get around here. It would be a nightmare."
A second factor making UFC 141 a harder sale than it might be is the timing. The UFC is locked into the final days of its three year Spike TV contract even though the relationship is no longer even amicable. That means the UFC is doing nothing whatsoever to promote the two preliminary fights being held on Spike TV. It also means the UFC 141 Countdown show played to less than 20,000 viewers on Fuel TV rather than the usual half-million plus on Spike TV.
Finally, Lesnar may be damaged goods in the eyes of many fans after his less than legendary performance against Cain Velasquez at UFC 121. That fight saw Lesnar repeatedly cowering after taking punches to the face and even spinning and falling across the cage at one point like a drunken grizzly bear slipping around on a hockey rink.
However, if Lesnar can redeem himself, the upside for the UFC is huge. Meltzer points out that a Lesnar win will automatically set up an absolutely huge heavyweight title fight between Lesnar and dos Santos. If Lesnar were to win that bout, a rematch with Cain Velasquez, the man who took Lesnar's belt, would be another box office smash.
An Overeem win would preclude any of those lucrative bouts, but Overeem has star potential himself. Meltzer points out Overeem has a surprisingly high Google search ranking which indicates a serious box office potential. Certainly because of his striking style, Overeem probably presents a bigger threat to take dos Santos' belt than Lesnar does and he would undoubtedly be more popular than the polite Brazilian champ. It's really a net win for the UFC either way, but a Lesnar win is more money in the bank in the short term.
The prospect of an Overeem title run brings up the third, and potentially biggest risk of UFC 141: what Meltzer calls "the steroids cloud."
Both Lesnar and Overeem have been dogged by accusations of steroid use throughout their athletic careers although neither man has ever failed a drug test. Nevertheless, in this cynical era its impossible for fans to see the rippling physiques that both men flaunt and not question their chemical regimen. MMA Mania's Geno Mrosko has an excellent run down of both men's controversial histories regarding "supplements" that's really a must read.
Essentially, there's no fire, but there's a hell of a lot of smoke, whether it's Lesnar's 2001 arrest for possessing a "large amount" of PEDs (all charges were dropped when the substances turned out to be legal "growth hormones") or Overeem's recent issues with the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Should either man fail a drug test after winning at UFC 141, the UFC will essentially be watching millions of dollars go down the toilet.
In short, there's a lot more at stake tomorrow night than just bragging rights in a non-title fight.