On the eve of one of the most anticipated non-title fights in MMA history, it’s easy to overlook the fact that UFC 196 could have gone from super card to one of the weaker pay-per-view events in recent memory if it wasn’t for Conor McGregor.
When Rafael dos Anjos pulled out of his headlining title fight against McGregor less than two weeks from fight day, UFC fans should have been worried. Fight cards have gone up in flames on more than one occasion when one of the headliners ended up having to pull out on short notice — including the original UFC 196 card that ended up being morphed into a free TV event — and if it wasn’t for McGregor and his willingness to fight a full 35 pounds above his normal weight class against Nate Diaz, then this card could have gotten ugly in a hurry.
Any time a last-minute injury occurs, it’s impossible not to think about the non-existent UFC 151 event. Just days before he was supposed to challenge Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight title, Dan Henderson suffered an injury that forced him from the bout. The UFC scrambled to find a short-notice replacement and got one in Chael Sonnen, but Jones and his coaches decided not to take the fight. As a result, the entire event was scrapped.
UFC 196 probably wouldn’t have been scrapped if McGregor had been pulled from the card, but it would have been an extremely tough sell considering what’s left on the docket. The co-main event this weekend is a women’s bantamweight title fight between Holly Holm and Miesha Tate, which is a fantastic match-up between two of the best female fighters on the planet. However, there’s no proof that a women’s fight would be able to hold its own on pay-per-view without Ronda Rousey involved, and trying to make it happen on 12 days’ notice would have been a challenge.
That’s not to say that Holm and Tate don’t have the juice to headline a pay-per-view event. Both women have enough star power to make this a very sellable fight. As a co-main event, Holm-Tate is about as good as it gets. With the right amount of support below it on the main card, it could definitely take top billing. Unfortunately, UFC 196 wouldn’t have had anywhere close to the amount of help it needed if Holm and Tate would have had to step in.
This isn’t the first time the UFC has been guilty of stacking a pay-per-view with two great fights while leaving the remainder of the card looking a little mediocre. The company almost shot itself in the foot this time around with an extremely lackluster supporting cast. The rest of the UFC 196 main card consists of light heavyweight showdowns pairing Ilir Latifi with Gian Villante and Tom Lawlor with Corey Anderson, plus a women’s bantamweight bout featuring Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko. All are decent fights, but none of these bouts would look out of place on a preliminary card or on free TV. They definitely couldn’t step in and fill a co-main event slot if McGregor had actually been pulled from the event.
The one fight that could have conceivably stepped into the co-headliner position and garnered some interest is the current headliner of the Fight Pass prelims, which pits Diego Sanchez against Jim Miller. Both men have decent name value and have fought on a big stage before, but they’re also a combined 4-6 over their last 10 bouts and haven’t looked like contenders recently. It may have drawn in a few casual fans due to their highlight reels, but Sanchez-Miller is far from a co-main-worthy fight on a pay-per-view card. It wouldn’t have done enough to save the buy rate.
McGregor didn’t just save the UFC 196 card by taking the short-notice fight with Diaz. He also saved the promotion from having a disaster of a first quarter to 2016. After canceling a major event in February, it would have been a huge blow if the UFC were to have lost a major attraction like McGregor and the millions of guaranteed buys that go along with him. Judging by the state of the card without its main event, UFC 196 would have taken a major hit compared to what it could have been.
Since the UFC has so many events and obligations to be made to Fox and the Fight Pass network, it’s not surprising to see the fight cards stretched thin at times. However, when it comes to pay-per-view, the UFC is probably better off being safe rather than sorry in the future. McGregor came to the rescue this time around, but not every champion is the company man that the Irishman has proven to be. The next champion might not be so willing to play by the UFC’s rules. After already losing one pay-per-view card in 2016, the UFC can’t afford to keep dodging bullets.