The 10 Most Important Fighters to the Business of Mixed Martial Arts Part I

June 30, 2008

The mixed martial arts business has seen its ups and downs during its short history. This list is intended to capture the fighters who had the biggest influence in creating interest in the sport and drawing money.

This list is not intended to be a simple listing of the fighters who drew the most money. If that were the sole criterion, the list would look significantly different. Rather, this list is designed to capture the fighters who were most important in shaping the business. Fighters who sparked increases in business and paved the way for bigger things are given additional weight even if they drew less money at the time.

The four fighters who came the closest to making the list but fell short were Masakatsu Funaki, Wanderlei Silva, Matt Hughes and Kid Yamamoto.

10. Mirko Cro Cop

Mirko Cro Cop, Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira battled for supremacy as Pride’s top heavyweight fighter. While Cro Cop lost to both Fedor and Nogueira, he was the biggest attraction of the three. His style and cold demeanor created tremendous interest in his early MMA fights against Japanese pro wrestlers.

The highlight of this early period was the 71,000 fans and over $7 million gate for his fight with Kazushi Sakuraba. Later fights with Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko sold out the Pride home base Saitama Super Arena. Cro Cop also showed ratings juice, including a 22.9 rating for a fight with Mark Hunt.

9. Randy Couture

If Couture were younger, or if the UFC boom had started earlier, Couture would occupy a higher spot on the list. But the surprising truth is that for all Couture accomplished in the sport, he only had five big business fights.

The first was his fight with Tito Ortiz, which drew a strong (for the time) 90,000 buys. The second and third were his second and third fights with Chuck Liddell. The second Liddell fight drew a $2.57M gate and 280,000 buys, while the third drew a $3.44M gate and 400,000 buys. The fourth big fight was his return from retirement, where his victory over Tim Sylvia drew 19,079 fans, a $3.01M live gate and 540,000 buys. Finally, he did an impressive $3.30M gate and 520,000 buys for relative unknown Gabriel Gonzaga.

Randy Couture’s fighting improvement with age has been remarkable, but his rise as a drawing card was even greater. It will be interesting to see what kind of business he is able to do for a fight with Fedor Emelianenko if the fight can get made.

8. Hidehiko Yoshida

Many American fight fans don’t understand the Japanese fight business very well, and as a result Yoshida’s significance is generally overlooked. Yoshida is the second biggest Japanese drawing card in history behind only Kazushi Sakuraba.

Yoshida’s early wins against Don Frye and Kiyoshi Tamura and his strong performance against Wanderlei Silva in 2003 turned him into a star. From that point on he proved to be both a live attendance draw and a fighter that could move TV ratings.

Yoshida drew a 35,000 fan sellout for his fight against Rulon Gardner, a 43,000 fan sellout for his 2005 fight with Wanderlei Silva, a 35,000 fan sellout for his fight with Naoya Ogawa, a 43,000 fan sellout for his fight with Yosuke Nishijima, and a near sellout of 34,000 fans for his fight with Mirko Cro Cop. Box office figures are harder to come by in Japan than in the United States, but each of those shows are estimated to have done in the range of $4M to $6M gates.

Yoshida also drew a 28.7 rating for his Shockwave 2003 fight against Royce Gracie, a 25.3 rating for his fight with Mark Hunt, a 25.9 rating for his fight against Rulon Gardner, a 24.5 rating for his 2005 fight with Wanderlei Silva, a 25.5 rating for his fight with Naoya Ogawa, and a 22 rating for his fight with Yosuke Nishijima.

7. Nobuhiko Takada

Takada wasn’t much of a fighter, but that doesn’t diminish his importance to Japanese MMA. Following his success as the top star of the UWFI pro wrestling promotion, Takada was the key to the early Pride shows. While those shows didn’t do the business that later Pride shows did, without Takada there would have been no Pride Fighting Championships.

Takada also played a role in establishing the New Year’s Eve fighting tradition in Japan. He headlined the 2000 Inoki Bom Ba Ye show in a pro wrestling match teaming with Keiji Muto against Don Frye and Ken Shamrock. That show drew a sellout 42,756 fans and paved the way for Pride and K-1 to run New Year’s Eve spectaculars.

Takada even showed box office juice at the end of his career. His final fight against Kiyoshi Tamura drew a sellout 52,228 fans. That was well past the point where even the most die hard Takada faithful had confidence in him as a quality fighter.

There are many fighters who drew more money than Takada, but it’s hard to imagine what the MMA landscape would look like without him.

6. Bob Sapp

Bob Sapp is the biggest television ratings draw in the history of MMA. Sapp’s unique size and charisma created tremendous interest for his fights in Japan. His biggest fights in Japan drew viewership levels that dwarfed the highest MMA ratings in the United States, despite Japan being a significantly smaller country.

The rise of Sapp began in 2002, and an MMA fight against Yoshihiro Takayama drew a 24.5 rating. He continued to be a ratings bonanza in 2003, peaking with a 42.5 rating for a kickboxing bout against Akebono on New Year’s Eve.

Sapp’s ratings power continued in the subsequent years. An MMA bout with Sumiyabazar Dolgolsuren did a 33.2 rating. A mixed rules bout with Jerome LeBanner did a 28.6. Kickboxing against Tatsufumi Tomihara netted a 22.7 rating, kickboxing against Hong Man Choi did a 27.6 rating, and an MMA fight against Bobby Ologun did a 19.3.

Sapp was a pivotal figure in the rise of MMA as a major television attraction in Japan. However, the focus on freak show attractions like Sapp ultimately did harm to the industry over the long haul as well.

CONTINUED: The 10 Most Important Fighters to the Business of MMA Part II

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