One of the greatest sporting events in modern history occurred a fortnight ago in one of the world’s most idolised venues, and it went largely unnoticed. Madison Square Garden, usually home to regular ice hockey and basketball games, saw its best-selling gate record smashed by a sport that was only legalised in New York State in 2016.
UFC 205 brought in $17.7m in ticket sales, breaking the previous record held by the $13.5m achieved by the 1999 Lewis vs Holyfield Boxing Match. While the Garden’s capacity is less than 20k, the sales process of tickets, immense marketing, and recent exclusivity of ‘front-row’ seats due to a new-found celebrity following of the sport meant a premium that reportedly inflated the best seats to prices of $10k upwards.
Mixed Martial Arts and more notably the Ultimate Fighting Championship organisation has grown astronomically in the last 2/3 years, and the mainstream interest is no doubt attributed to the big names and bigger egos. Many people know the names Connor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, but only a proportion know what they actually do for a living and more than likely only a fraction of those actually watch their fights. There is a (valid) argument that they are becoming too big for the sport, that their demands aren’t proportionate to what they yield for the UFC as a company. Rousey has already had several movie roles and is known to want to actively pursue a career in Hollywood relatively soon, while McGregor has demanded shares in the company that contracts him, while also alluding to side-tracking to either a boxing bout with Floyd Mayweather or a WWE career.
— DanielTHEbest (@DanHitEmUp28) November 23, 2016
For all the bravado and arrogance that both may exude, they have been invaluable to UFC President Dana White, as they have acted both as fighters and promoters for the fight cards they appear on. Not only did 205 break MSG gate records, but for all McGregor’s antics, he headlined the card that has reported a figure shy of 2 million pay-per-view purchases if reports are to be believed. The previous record PPV holder with an approx. 1.65m purchases was UFC 202 in August this year, which was headlined by the Notorious, highly anticipated revenge grudge match bout with the self-proclaimed renegade Nate Diaz.
A succession of well stacked fight cards, headlined by self-made stars in the last few years, has culminated in the reported 2016 sale of the UFC for approximately $4bn to a consortium of talent agencies led by WME-IMG. The Fertitta brothers along with Dana White originally bought the company in 2001 for $2m when it was still widely considered nothing more than a blood sport. They have both retained some shares, while interestingly the Abu Dhabi Government still own a 10% stake, although for reasons of passion rather than money, White chose to continue as president of the company.
The highly-anticipated MSG card exceeded expectations. Many UFC fans considered UFC 200 to have been a disappointment, mainly due to the withdrawal of Jon Jones because of doping allegations by the USDA. There now ensues a debate as to whether 202 or 205 was the real 200; that being which fight card was the best commemoration of where the company is today. Yoel Romero won the Performance of the night award alongside McGregor. His third round flying knee kick on the former Middleweight champion Chris Weidman ended a bout that otherwise looked set to go to a decision favouring the “all American”.
While it wasn’t the primary ticket-seller, the undoubted fight of the night was the Welterweight Title fight between a champion motivated by his underdog status, Tyron Woodley, and the exceedingly popular crowd-pleasing favourite, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Thompson, known for being unpredictable due to his exceptional kicking ability and sharp reflexes, born from a Kempo Karate background, paid for his reserved approach in the first round in the form of a near submission. His escape surprised the audience as much as Woodley’s domination surprised Vegas odds, and the ensuing conflict resembled an all-out war that ended in a majority draw decision in Woodley’s favour, after a brief confusion between the judging panel and Bruce Buffer.
It would be a crime not to mention the successful Strawweight title defence by Joanna Jedrzejczyk against fellow Pole and bitter rival Karolina Kowalkiewicz. While Karolina offered a noble challenge, being unbeaten in the UFC going into the fight, Joanna showed why she was the champion with far superior boxing and kicking ability than her challenger, surviving a brief fourth-round scare in the form of a heavy punch against the run of play, leading to a undisputed decision.
The main event arguably disappointed in some regards, although fans of Conor McGregor won’t care. Alvarez seemed to have a perfect preparation and looked unfazed by the Dublin-born fighter’s exuberant personality in the press conferences, but when it came to the clinch, he simply didn’t turn up inside the octagon. The bout soon became a foregone conclusion, Conor’s famed left hand caught “the Underground King” enough to be susceptible to the combination that crowned the former as the UFC’s first two weight champion, even if an already disgruntled Woodley had to lend him the ‘second’ belt.