This weekend, we’ll receive a rare treat in that of a non-pay-per-view title fight. While there was once a time when this was an impossibility, the massive amount of events put on yearly in the modern era make this a reality. Today, we’ll look at every title fight in the last decade that was not on a pay-per-view card.
These two get a joint entry, given how similarly they both occurred. The first-ever UFC Strawweight champion was crowned on the Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale in December 2014. Carla Esparza defeated Rose Namajunas via rear-naked choke but would lose it in her first defense against Joanna Jędrzejczyk. The first-ever UFC women’s Flyweight title bout took place at the finale of the Ultimate Fighter 26 in December 2017. Nicco Montano defeated Roxanne Modafferi by unanimous decision. Montano would become an infamous figure in women’s MMA, never defending her title, pulling out of a scheduled defense against Valentina Shevchenko, and promptly being stripped.
The then Women’s Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko defended her title against Liz Carmouche on a non-pay-per-view card in August 2019. Coming off of arguably her most impressive title defense in her devastating knockout of Jessica Penne, it’s a bit surprising to see this on a Fight Night card. This card was also chock full of future talent, including but not limited to Chris Gutierrez, Marina Rodriguez, Ciryl Gane, Gilbert Burns, and Vicente Luque. Shevchenko defeated Carmouche via unanimous decision, holding on to her belt until her shocking defeat in 2023.
The Boogeywoman had two title fights on non-pay-per-view cards, both being defenses of her Strawweight title. She first faced Jessica Penne in a Fight Night main event in June 2015, defeating her via 3rd round TKO. For some reason, the UFC loves putting women’s title fights on TUF finales; Jędrzejczyk faced Claudia Gadelha at the Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale in July 2016. She won this bout by unanimous decision. Jędrzejczyk remained the champion until 2017 and called an end to her legendary career in 2022.
Benson Henderson has truly made a career of winning hard-fought decisions, which may unfortunately explain why two of his five UFC title fights were on non-pay-per-view cards. The first bout occurred in December 2012 when Henderson defended his Lightweight title against Nate Diaz. Henderson won via unanimous decision and would next defend his belt against Gilbert Melendez in April 2013, again on a non-pay-per-view card. Considering this was heralded as the unification bout for the Strikeforce and UFC Lightweight titles, it’s shocking that it received this treatment. Henderson defeated Melendez via Split decision. Maybe I have rose-tinted glasses, but these old Fight Night cards seemed to be far more stacked than they are now. Here are a few fighters who fought on the undercard of those two events: Daniel Cormier, Chad Mendes, Matt Brown, Alexander Gustaffson, Raphael Assuncao, and more.
Arguably one of the most disrespected champions, two of Rafael Dos Anjos’ three Lightweight title bouts were not on pay-per-view cards. After defeating Anthony Pettis to win the strap, Dos Anjos’ first defense was against Donald Cerrone in a UFC on Fox card’s main event. He defeated Cerrone via 1st round TKO, winning the bout in just a minute and six seconds. The UFC rewarded him with another non-pay-per-view main event slot for his next title defense against Eddie Alvarez. The script would flip in this fight, with Alvarez defeating Dos Anjos via first-round TKO to win the belt. Although regularly regarded by the UFC as a former champion and legend, it’s a shame he wasn’t given the same respect when he held the title.
From one of the most disrespected champions to one of the most highly regarded, it may be surprising to see Dominick Cruz on this list. Surprisingly, two of his five UFC title fights were on non-pay-per-view cards. The first was the second defense of his recently acquired UFC Bantamweight title when he faced Demetrious Johnson in October 2011. An oft-referenced fight between two men now regarded as greats, this was the first ever UFC title fight to air on free TV. Cruz defeated Johnson by unanimous decision but was forced to vacate due to injury and would end up with a three-year layoff. After a victorious 2014 return bout over Takeya Mizagaki, he was given a title shot against T.J. Dillashaw in January 2016. This bout was aired as a Fight Night main event, and Cruz would win via split decision. He’d lose the belt later that year to Cody Garbrandt but remains active in the Bantamweight division.
Truly deserving of his own entry, Demetrious Johson defended his Flyweight title 11 times, with five defenses on free TV. His first-ever defense was against John Dodson in January 2013 on a UFC on Fox card. Johnson won via unanimous decision and would have his next defense against John Moraga in July 2013, once again main-eventing a UFC on Fox card. He’d win again, this time by fifth-round armbar, and would receive his next defense against Joseph Benavidez on a, you guessed it, UFC on Fox card. Johnson needed just over 2 minutes to knockout Benavidez and would secure five more title defenses after this, all on pay-per-view cards.
To return to another theme in this article, Johnson defended his belt against Tim Elliot on the Ultimate Fighter 24 Finale in December 2016. In one of the more contested bouts of his title reign, Johnson won by unanimous decision and would get another free TV main event after this, being scheduled to defend his belt against Wilson Reis in April 2017. Johnson would gain his 10th consecutive title defense after defeating Reis by 3rd round armbar. It’s fascinating to consider how the UFC (notably Dana White) didn’t view him as a marketable fighter but never gave him much chance. Three of his first four title defenses were on non-pay-per-view cards, which suggests to the audience that the Flyweight title was of lesser stature than other belts in the promotion, only further damaging his marketability and the divisions.