The first time an MMA event exceeded a million pay-per-view buys was in 2006, when UFC 66 reached 1.050 million homes. The headlining fight that night in Las Vegas was Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz II, a rematch of a fiery bout from two years earlier that had done barely 10 percent as much PPV business.
The two light heavyweights were now breakthrough stars and were carrying the sport to new dollar-sign heights.
A dozen years later, "The Iceman" and "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" are preparing to tangle for a third time on Saturday in Los Angeles -- and hoping to once again redefine the dynamic of MMA earnings.
"If we hit a million PPVs, I'll be making more on this fight than from all of my other fights put together," Ortiz said on Monday during an appearance on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show.
How is that possible? Ortiz, who fought 27 times in the UFC between 1997 and 2012 and more recently has had four fights in Bellator, said his economic projection boils down to the percentage of promotional proceeds allotted to the fighters. When his UFC fights were on a pay card, he said, his percentage of PPV earnings "was, I believe, 2 percent, 3 percent." But for this fight, the first venture into MMA for Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, Ortiz said, "I'll get up to 30 percent."
That payout, said Ortiz, will be based not just on PPV sales, but also on gate revenue and sponsorship income. "We're part of the business," he said. "We're changing the game."
Ortiz attributes the shifting business model to De La Hoya, the former multiple-division world champion in boxing who has become one of the leading promoters in that sport. "I'm a fighter, and I want to change the game of boxing by giving back to the fighters," Ortiz remembers De La Hoya telling him at their first meeting. "Let's do the same thing in MMA."
Of course, reaching anywhere near a million PPV buys for Liddell vs. Ortiz III is far-fetched. Both fighters are former UFC champions with starry résumés, but both have long ago seen the sport pass them by. Liddell (21-8) is 48 years old and has not fought in eight years, and he lost five of his past six before walking away. Ortiz, 43, fought as recently as last year, but afterward, he underwent his fifth neck surgery and declared himself all done taking fights -- until this one came along.
For Ortiz (19-12-1), it's an opportunity for last-ditch redemption, as Liddell knocked him out in both of their meetings. "I would have never come back," he said. "Only for Chuck."
Liddell, on the other hand, views this weekend's fight as a tune-up for a possible long-term return to MMA. "If I win this fight, and I feel the way I think I'm going to afterward, I'll be looking for another opponent for sure," he said Monday, also on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show. "If I can't beat Tito, I shouldn't be fighting."
Will Saturday be a night to turn back the clock, then, or dial up a reshaped future? Ortiz believes younger fighters might learn some things by paying attention to how these two veterans -- legends of the sport -- are handling business.
"Hopefully, other fighters will see this, and if they've got a strong game and they can sell PPVs, they'll be wanting to do this, too," Ortiz said. "It'd be awesome to see fighters making $15 to $10 per PPV [buy]. It's just a good, smart business opportunity to give back to fighters."