While the UFC prides itself on putting the best fights possible together in order to find out who the best fighter in the world is, the truth is that like any promotion; the UFC is also focused on drawing money.
Long gone are the years when the UFC struggled to draw big money on pay-per-views, with the promotion’s shows now regularly drawing buy rates over a million.
But who is the biggest drawing star in UFC history, and what is the biggest selling pay-per-view in UFC history? With names like Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey and Nate Diaz amongst the highest-drawing fighters to set foot into the promotion, it’s a fascinating question.
With that in mind, here are the five biggest-selling pay-per-views in UFC history.
#5 UFC 246: McGregor vs. Cerrone (2020) – 1.353m pay-per-view buys
The first entry on this list comes with a slight caveat. According to many sources, including the usually-reliable Dave Meltzer, UFC 246’s pay-per-view buy rate reached the 1m mark. This was historic, largely because it was the first streaming-only ESPN+ pay-per-view to reach that number.
However, the show – which was headlined by a welterweight clash between Conor McGregor and Donald Cerrone – was seemingly overtaken in surprising fashion later in 2020.
Incredibly, UFC 251 – the first show to take place on ‘Fight Island,’ headlined by Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal – reportedly drew 1.3m pay-per-view buys. To say it was a surprise to hear that the two welterweights had outdrawn McGregor would be an understatement.
However, when it came to the end of 2020, ‘Notorious’ shone new light on things. He revealed that UFC 246 had actually drawn 1.353m pay-per-view buys, pushing it into fifth place on this list and making it the best-selling UFC event of the year.
So, where’s the caveat? Well, if UFC 246 was projected to draw 1m pay-per-view buys, and it actually drew 1.3m, could UFC 251 have hit a higher mark than that? It’s possible, but as we have no confirmation of this. It’s impossible to put it ahead of UFC 246 in the bigger picture – once again confirming McGregor’s status as the biggest star in the promotion.
#4 UFC 202: Diaz vs. McGregor 2 (2016) – 1.6m pay-per-view buys
UFC 196 was initially supposed to see UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor move up to challenge UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. However, when RDA went down with a broken foot, the promotion was forced to scramble.
They threw together a welterweight bout between McGregor and Nate Diaz, and ended up stunned when the fight – which Diaz won in the second round – broke the UFC’s pay-per-view buy rate record, a figure that stood since 2009’s UFC 100 and seemed almost insurmountable.
Naturally, the UFC capitalized on that and booked an instant rematch, hoping that fans would buy into the narrative that McGregor and Diaz had unfinished business.
Strangely enough, at first, it didn’t feel like they did. UFC 202 didn’t seem to be garnering the hype that the first meeting between the two did, and many hardcore fans felt that both men had “jumped the shark” when they caused chaos at a pre-fight press conference by hurling cans of energy drink at one another.
However, that wild press conference clearly piqued the interest of casual fans, and UFC 202 ended up drawing a monstrous 1.6m buys on pay-per-view, completely overshadowing their first clash and smashing the UFC’s buy rate record in the process.
The fans who tuned in were treated to a classic back-and-forth war, and with a trilogy bout between the two still possible, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the promotion return to this particular well in the near future.
#3 UFC 257: Poirier vs. McGregor 2 (2021) – 1.6m pay-per-view buys
When Conor McGregor returned to MMA in 2020 following two years away and shellacked Donald Cerrone at UFC 246, he instantly regained any luster he’d lost in his defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov.
McGregor reportedly wanted to fight on multiple occasions that year, but the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to those ideas, forcing him out for another year. Unsurprisingly though, his lengthy absence didn’t affect his drawing power.
‘The Notorious’ returned to action this January at UFC 257, facing old rival Dustin Poirier, who he’d originally defeated back in 2014. The UFC built the show up to be one of the promotion’s biggest, particularly as it was the first to have a full live crowd in attendance since the pandemic.
It came as no surprise to learn that the show sold hugely on pay-per-view, drawing 1.6m buys. Millions of people tuned in to see Poirier take revenge on the Irishman by knocking him out in the second round.
The show was yet another reminder of McGregor’s insane star power, but it was also a sign that Poirier’s own status as a drawing card was beginning to grow.
#2 UFC 264: Poirier vs. McGregor 3 (2021) – 1.8m pay-per-view buys
Reports now coming out suggest that UFC 264 – which took place this past weekend – drew a massive 1.8m pay-per-view buys, making it the second biggest-selling show in UFC history.
UFC 264’s monster buy rate shows that Conor McGregor has now reached a level of stardom where, seemingly at least, losses, scandals and a downturn in his actual fighting game won’t affect how much people want to see him fight.
This is a complete contrast to the likes of Anderson Silva and Tito Ortiz, fighters who were once big draws but saw their selling power slowly erode as the losses began to stack up later in their careers.
McGregor was badly knocked out by Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 – just six months before UFC 264 – and so despite plenty of fans picking him to win their third bout, the truth is that it was always unlikely.
Poirier simply looked to be on another level to ‘Notorious’ in that second fight, and so it came as no real surprise when ‘Diamond’ also defeated McGregor in their third meeting, albeit after a nasty injury to the Irishman.
But the Irishman’s star power simply cannot be underestimated at this stage. This was a fight that he was never likely to win, a fight backed up by a less-than-stellar undercard and one we’d only seen six months prior, and it still drew ridiculous numbers.
If any fans really believe the UFC will look to slash McGregor’s pay or move him down the card any time soon, they should probably think again. UFC 264 is proof that he remains their biggest drawing card, and a show headlined by ‘Notorious’ against an unknown opponent would probably still sell.
#1 UFC 229: Khabib vs. McGregor (2018) – 2.4m pay-per-view buys
The biggest selling pay-per-view in the history of the promotion remains 2018’s UFC 229, which saw Khabib Nurmagomedov defend his lightweight title against former champion Conor McGregor, the UFC’s biggest-ever drawing card.
With a lengthy feud to build the fight up that even saw unsavory incidents such as UFC 223’s infamous dolly throwing, it was clear that the clamor for Khabib vs. McGregor had reached levels never seen before in the UFC.
However, few people expected it to draw so well on pay-per-view. McGregor’s rivalry with Nate Diaz had surpassed everyone’s expectations, but UFC 202 had drawn 1.6m pay-per-view buys. Nobody could’ve seen UFC 229 increase that number by another 800k.
Of course, the event itself turned out to be an outright classic, ending with a melee in the octagon after Khabib submitted McGregor in the fourth round.
The most fascinating thing about UFC 229 was that everyone involved came out as a winner of sorts. The UFC obviously pulled in millions of dollars from the event, while McGregor’s drawing power was not hurt by his loss to Khabib – shown by the fact that three of the five biggest-selling pay-per-views in promotional history were headlined by the Irishman after UFC 229.
Khabib, on the other hand, saw his star power increase dramatically after his win over ‘Notorious.’
Already a huge superstar in his native Russia, UFC 229 catapulted Khabib into worldwide stardom, and the next two shows he headlined were reportedly big hits on pay-per-view. However, official buy rate numbers were never released.