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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
From a fight standpoint, 2011 may have been the best year in the UFC's history. The level of mixed martial arts action seen inside the Octagon from UFC 125 to last night's UFC 141 was some of the highest seen in one calendar year, and it left fans with some of the more exciting moment's in the organization's history.
However, while the actual in-cage product was top-notch, fans were not tuning in at the level they have in previous years. Pay-per-view buyrates were down across the board all year, and there were a number of factors playing into that issue. Injuries, late main event changes, and the absence of Brock Lesnar and Georges St-Pierre in all but two events left the UFC without their major stars on a consistent basis and an inability to properly promote a number of their events.
2012 isn't going to be any easier, either. St-Pierre's torn ACL could potentially keep him out of the Octagon all year, and Lesnar - after his second straight loss - has now retired from the sport. That leaves the UFC with a few obvious names at the top of their cards for next year, notably Champions Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, and Junior dos Santos, but what can the UFC expect out of those three in 2012? Also, who could potentially break out as a new draw in 2012?
The UFC Light Heavyweight Champion had perhaps the single-best year of any fighter ever in 2011, but he hasn't yet gained the attention of the UFC's entire audience. He's got a segment that does not like him, a segment that views him as perhaps the greatest fighter on the planet, another group that recognizes his impressive run and standing in the sport, and unfortunately a large group that hasn't seemed to care just yet. He was a part of the UFC's second-most purchased event of the year in UFC 126, but that was his first bout of 2011 and it was the third fight from the top. He didn't break 500,000 buys the rest of the way, instead consistently drawing around 435,000 in each of his three title fights. Compared to the around 800,000 average St-Pierre has garnered, and the even higher numbers drawn by Lesnar, it's not a great average for what will likely be the top draw next year. However, a grudge match with Rashad Evans, along with a potential fight with Dan Henderson, could very well see a rise in that average next year. Additionally, with his impressive stoppages of both Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Lyoto Machida, the desire of fans to see his fights will likely rise as well.
The UFC Middleweight Champion has finally begun getting the box office recognition for his greatness. After his fight with Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 last year, his bout with Vitor Belfort at UFC 126 drew 725,000 buys. His second fight of the year - at UFC 134 in Brazil against Yushin Okami - drew significantly less, but that was in large part to it being an international event and his opponent being Okami. Though his next title defense is also expected to come in Brazil, the fact that it could very well be a rematch with Sonnen should raise things in a big way. With Sonnen gaining some exposure on Fox in January, a win over Munoz will be a huge way to work into that rematch; the added spectacle of Sonnen heading to Brazil could be another major selling point. After that, if Michael Bisping defeats Demian Maia, a fight between he and Silva could be another big sell for the organization.
Junior dos Santos
Though dos Santos is far from a proven pay-per-view draw, the fact that 10 million people saw him knock out Cain Velasquez in just over a minute will be huge when he returns next year. His fight with Shane Carwin drew over 300,000 buys despite a late change to the main event when Brock Lesnar pulled out, and with so many fans tuning in for his last fight on Fox, many of them will want to see his follow up performance. With his first defense coming against Alistair Overeem, who just defeated Lesnar in an event that likely was the biggest buyrate since April, will also boost that first fight. If Overeem can defeat him, he'll take over this slot, but dos Santos has the door open for him to step up and bring the UFC some big business next year.
There are a few fighters who could really begin to garner more attention and viewership from the casual fanbase next year. First up is Nick Diaz. After a fantastic performance against B.J. Penn, a follow up against Carlos Condit for the Interim Welterweight Title could raise his profile to a higher slot than it's ever been in his career. If he can put forth another excellent performance, he's the type of fighter that really could be a star with the right combination of awareness and promotional muscle from the UFC.
Next is Urijah Faber, who could truly explode after The Ultimate Fighter 15 and his second fight with Dominick Cruz. Though their last fight did not draw well at all, and Faber has not yet drawn more than 350,000 buys on pay-per-view, the combination of the live Ultimate Fighter exposure and a win over Dominick Cruz could push him over the edge for a bit.
Finally, UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo could start to bring in more if he can continue to do what he's been doing in taking out all competition in the featherweight division. It's going to take time for the lighter weight classes to catch on, but if any featherweight is going to become a draw, a dominant Champion in Aldo could do just that.
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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