Nice guys don’t finish dead last, but they don’t sell the way bad boys do.
Pay-Per-View is reporting that UFC 232, headlined by Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson on December 29, pulled in over 700,000 sales, making it the second most sold UFC card of 2018 after Khabib vs. Conor on October 6th. And while Amanda Nunes and Cris Cyborg were a selling point for some fans who dropped money on 232, there’s zero delusions that girlfights drive PPV stats into the “most purchased of the year” category. Sales success is tied directly to the drawing power of Jones, with Gustafsson getting an honorable mention.
In case you were in a coma, UFC 232 was dramatically moved at the last minute from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to accommodate Jones’ aberrant USADA drug test results. The event was expected to be a financial wet noodle given the BTS costs of relocating on such short notice. But between fans who wanted to see a GOAT in a victorious return, fans who despise Jones and wanted to see him destroyed, and people tuning in simply because the USADA drug test bomb managed to make headlines even in mainstream publications, the night of fights landed among the Top 3 PPV Fight Events of 2018. (That list is rounded out by Canelo Alvarez vs. Gennady Golovkin which landed at around 1.1 million purchases.)
Landing behind only Conor and Khabib’s 2.4 million buys, Jones’ arrival in the top sellers category continues the long standing reality of villains being the biggest financial boon for the UFC. UFC heroes like Demetrius Johnson, Brian Ortega, and Daniel Cormier simply do not sell the way trash talkers, “suspected” drug users, and fighters with public arrests do–Johnson saw the beginning of the end of his division in 2018; Ortega’s last UFC appearance against Max Holloway only cracked 270,000 views; and Cormier only breaks the 500,000 mark when he’s fighting…Jon Jones. (2017’s Cormier vs. Jones fight netted 860,000 buys, more purchases than Cormier’s last two fights against Derrick Lewis and Stipe Miocic combined.)
None of this is news. Rivalries sell. Bad boys grab headlines. And the UFC has always known it can turn perceived troublemakers into serious money. Conor McGregor, with his incendiary war of words and “**** You” pinstripes, makes up 50% of the Top 10 Top Selling UFC Events of All Time list. (His 2016 fight with Nate Diaz sits just behind the Khabib brawl, at 1.65 million buys.)
The Diaz brothers, known for slapping people in the face and using pre-legalization marijuana as a PED, break into the Top 20 three times.
Tito Ortiz was arrested for domestic violence, knocked up a prodigious **** star, and known as much for antagonizing Dana White as he was for smashing faces, but clocks in at #11 on the Top Sellers list and is still pulling headlines today for Twitter **** tweeting. He’s right behind Rashad Evans, a fighter whose reputation as arrogant was overshadowed only by clashes with police, turns up twice on the list. And Brock Lesnar, who looked and spoke so much like a video game End Boss that the mantle of “Bad Guy” was sometimes placed on him in matches by viewers against American Heroes like Randy Couture, hits the list at numbers 3, 8, 11 (tying with Ortiz), and 15.
The ongoing selling power of bad boys in combat sports is relevant as fans in early 2019 continue to yell into the ether, questioning on social media again and again why “disrespectful” or legally compromised fighters from Gordon Ryan to Chael Sonnen to Jones and back again keep seizing headlines and spotlights while the good guys collect smaller checks and more limited household recognition.
Answer: Because in 2018 the consumers who hate them continued buy their fights…at the same rate and price as fans who just wanted to watch the world burn.