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

July 1, 2008

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

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.

5. Ken Shamrock

Ken Shamrock was an important pioneer in the sport, and proved to be a tremendous drawing card for over a decade. Shamrock was responsible for the two best early UFC buy rates. His fights with Royce Gracie and Dan Severn each did in the vicinity of 260,000 buys. Shamrock likely would have continued as UFC’s top drawing card, but his success earned him substantial financial offers from the World Wrestling Federation in the United States and New Japan Pro Wrestling in Japan.

Following a three and a half year hiatus from the sport, Shamrock returned and again proved to be a boon for business. His first fight with Tito Ortiz was an important beacon of hope for Zuffa, as the 150,000 buys for the fight suggested that if the company kept at it, the sport could prove to be a cash cow. Shamrock also drew a surprisingly strong buy rate for his second fight with Kimo Leopoldo.

Shamrock had a third highly successful run with his second and third fights against Tito Ortiz. The second fight drew 775,000 buys on pay-per-view, the second highest UFC buy rate of all time. The third fight with Tito Ortiz drew one of American MMA’s largest audiences, 5.89 million viewers. Shamrock was a crucial figure in the growth of the mixed martial arts business.

4. Chuck Liddell

Liddell is the current face of mixed martial arts in the United States, and he has been the UFC’s biggest star during the company’s boom period. Because of this success, many forget that Liddell has only been a drawing card for about a third of his career.

Liddell’s breakthrough fight as a star was his first win over Tito Ortiz, which did 100,000 buys on pay-per-view. His second fight with Randy Couture broke all of UFC’s existing business records. It did the largest crowd to date (14,274), the largest gate to date ($2.57M) and largest buy rate to date (280,000 buys).

From there, all of Chuck Liddell’s fights became major attractions. He did a $2.33M gate for his second fight with Jeremy Horn. His third fight with Randy Couture did 400,000 buys and a $3.44M gate. His second fight with Renato “Babalu” Sobral did 500,000 buys and a $3.07M gate. The rematch with Tito Ortiz was UFC’s all-time biggest event, with a whopping $5.39M gate and 1,050,000 pay-per-view buys.

Liddell followed that with 675,000 buys and $4.30M at the gate for his second fight with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Chuck Liddell vs. Keith Jardine did 475,000 buys and a $1.98M gate, while Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva did 600,000 buys and a $4.99M gate.

There is a strong argument to be made for Liddell as the number one fighter on this list. He has proved to be an enormous box office attraction and is synonymous with the sport in the minds of many fans. Ultimately he falls a little bit short of first on the list because in my mind he wasn’t as much as a catalyst for business growth as the three men above him.

3. Tito Ortiz

Tito Ortiz was UFC’s poster boy when Zuffa purchased the company, and he kept hope alive for the UFC when the promotion was struggling. At a time when Zuffa was averaging in the 50,000 buy rate range, the Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock fight did 150,000 buys. Ortiz’s fights generally did significantly better than the average, and his fight with Randy Couture (90,000 buys) and first fight with Chuck Liddell (100,000 buys) were among the most purchased of the period.

When UFC exploded, Ortiz was at the forefront. 2006 was UFC’s biggest growth year, and Ortiz was the company’s biggest draw. He had three fights in 2006, and each broke UFC’s all time buy rate record. His fight against Forrest Griffin did a $2.19M gate and 425,000 buys. His second fight against Ken Shamrock did a $3.45M gate and 775,000 buys. His second fight against Chuck Liddell did a $5.39M gate and 1,050,000 buys.

Chuck Liddell’s subsequent fights against marketable opponents Quinton Jackson and Wanderlei Silva weren’t able to maintain that high, or even the high of Ortiz vs. Shamrock, which suggests Ortiz may have been the more important factor in drawing that record buy rate.

I suspect the fact that I am placing Ortiz above Liddell will be debated by some. After all, Liddell proved to be the better fighter and the bigger drawing card over the long haul. I place Ortiz above Liddell for two key reasons.

First, Ortiz was crucial to keeping the UFC alive during a period when things were going badly for the company. Without Ortiz, the company might not have reached the point where Liddell could do such great business. Liddell doesn’t have that credential at all.

Second, I think Ortiz was the more crucial figure to the UFC boom. If you removed Liddell from the picture, I think UFC would have had a stronger 2006-2008 than if you removed Ortiz from the picture. Obviously, Liddell became the bigger drawing card following his second victory over Ortiz. But I think Liddell wouldn’t have reached the level he did without Ortiz. Thus I think Ortiz was the more important figure for the business.

2. Kazushi Sakuraba

While Nobuhiko Takada was crucial in establishing Pride, the promotion was not in good shape following his losses to Rickson Gracie. The company likely would have folded without the rise of Kazushi Sakuraba. With Sakuraba, the company not only survived, but it grew into the most powerful MMA promotion in the world.

The fights that turned Sakuraba into a drawing card were his victories over the Gracie family. His victory over Royler Gracie did a sellout of over 10,000 fans. His win over Royce Gracie did 38,000 fans and is likely the most famous MMA fight in modern Japanese history. His win over Renzo Gracie did a sellout 32,919 and his win over Ryan Gracie drew a sellout 26,882.

Sakuraba’s first fight with Wanderlei Silva wasn’t a big deal at the time because Silva wasn’t yet a star. However, Silva’s victory over Sakuraba set up a huge rematch. The rematch was the first MMA fight to sell out the famous Tokyo Dome, drawing 53,246 fans and a $5.5M gate. Sakuraba then drew 71,000 fans and a $7M gate for his fight with Mirko Cro Cop. His third fight with Wanderlei Silva drew a sellout 35,400 fans.

Unfortunately for Sakuraba, years of beatings against much bigger world class opponents caught up with him. However, interest in Sakuraba remained even following his decline as a fighter. He drew solid ratings for New Year’s Eve fights against less marketable opponents Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ikuhisa Minowa, and a 25.0 rating against Yoshihiro Akiyama in 2006.

1. Royce Gracie

Royce Gracie was the fighter that put mixed martial arts on the map in
the United States. It was the story of the little Brazilian with the funny fighting style that created intrigue around the early UFC events. While other stars would rise up in the coming years, Gracie was central to creating a mystique about the sport itself.

UFC was an early hit, and Gracie was a big part of that. His superfight with Ken Shamrock broke UFC’s then existing buy rate record with 260,000 buys, but it was also the fight that made Royce Gracie decide to leave the UFC.

Gracie went to Japan, and there he again played a pivotal role in setting up the success of that country’s dominant MMA promotion. Gracie’s legendary 90 minute fight with Kazushi Sakuraba turned Sakuraba into a big star and elevated Japanese interest in Pride and MMA.

Gracie has also demonstrated enduring drawing power in recent years. In Japan, he drew a 28.7 rating against Hidehiko Yoshida, a 24.6 rating against Akebono and a 22.1 rating against Hideo Tokoro.

In the United States, his return to the UFC was a very important event on two different levels. First, it did strong business. His fight with Matt Hughes did a $2.90M gate and 600,000 buys. Second, it sent the message that the best fighters in the world were the next generation of UFC stars, not the generation of Royce Gracie. That realization helped to elevate the sport to heights it had never reached.

No fighter was more important to the business success of mixed martial arts than Royce Gracie, and he did it in both of the sport’s epicenters.

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