A lot has been made of the UFC’s business success over the last two years, or more specifically, adjustments to their booking philosophy that have helped facilitate some of their success. Most of that talk is centered around Conor McGregor, his road to the UFC Featherweight Championship, and most recently the incredibly strange road that’s lead to him challenging for the UFC Lightweight Championship. However, the UFC 204 main event featuring Michael Bipsing and Dan Henderson is by far the most salient example of the UFC’s shift in strategy to date.
Dan Henderson challenging Michael Bisping for the UFC Middleweight Championship in 2016 is weird. It’s weird because Michael Bisping is an unlikely champion, because Dan Henderson is an undeserving challenger, and because it’s still the most compelling championship fight on the table.
Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the fight is that it was put together despite the fact that it breaks all the rules and still isn’t likely to set the world on fire on pay-per-view.
The UFC is historically the most merit-based MMA promotion ever, but has always been willing to deviate from their more or less straight forward approach to booking title fights if there was a chance to do monster business. Brock Lesnar challenging Randy Couture for the UFC Heavyweight Title and Nick Diaz challenging Georges St-Pierre for the UFC Welterweight Title (despite coming off a loss) are examples of the UFC deviating from the norm in order cash in on what turned out to be two of the biggest fights in company history.
Michael Bisping vs. Dan Henderson II will not be one of the biggest fights in company history. It’s a fun fight with a story that will appeal to fans who remember and hopefully still care about the Ultimate Fighter season 9, the trash talk over the course of the season, and the eventual payoff at UFC 100 when Henderson clobbered Bisping in the second round. The event is in a foreign market, which usually hurts pay-per-view sales domestically, but because of the names and storyline involved, it could still sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000-400,000 buys.
What’s worth noting here is how much more attractive the Bisping-Henderson II option was to the UFC than potential alternatives.
When it comes to the public’s interest in buying pay-per-views, we’re in a period where the highs are higher than they’ve ever been and the same is true for the lows. Yoel Romero and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza are the two most deserving Middleweight Title challengers out there, but their star power unfortunately isn’t commensurate with their skill level. The fact is that after competing in the StrikeForce and the UFC for years, neither man has really ever caught fire or even said anything of note outside of a post-fight speech by Romero that actually offended people despite no one being able to understand what he was saying.
Generally, the contemporary mixed martial artist seems more skilled than ever, but also seems less capable of getting him or herself over with the pay-per-view buying audience. Luke Rockhold is an exciting fighter and can hold his own on a microphone, but he and Michael Bisping could only do an estimated 320,00 buys on pay-per-view. We’re living in a world where former Welterweight Champion Robbie Lawler, a man who seemingly couldn’t go without putting on a “Fight of the Year” contender if he tried, could only command an estimated 240,000 buys against Tyron Woodley.
Fights with similar dynamics to potential Bisping-Souza or Bisping-Romero matchups have unfortunately performed even worse. The UFC instead opting to give the title shot to a 46-year-old fighter who has lost six of his last nine fights speaks volumes about what the public is currently willing to pay for and the lengths the UFC will now go to adjust.