Fox’s UFC debut is White’s dream come true

After more than 10 years of working 18- and 20-hour days, after racking up enough air miles to circle the globe many times over, after telling anyone who would listen that mixed martial arts would one day surpass soccer as the world’s most popular sport, UFC president Dana White has finally gotten to the starting line.

The UFC, the major league of MMA, will debut on network television on Saturday when Fox airs the heavyweight title bout between champion Cain Velasquez and No. 1 contender Junior dos Santos live at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT from the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Cain Velasquez headlines the first-ever UFC event on Fox when he defends his heavyweight title against Junior dos Santos.
(Getty Images)

The seven-year deal between the UFC and Fox, which runs through 2018, is an affirmation of the brilliant work done in the last decade by White and UFC co-founders Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta in building a sport from a pile of rubble.

The Velasquez-dos Santos bout is an intriguing clash of styles, pitting Velasquez’s elite wrestling and tremendous conditioning against dos Santos’ terrific boxing and underrated jiu jitsu.

The match would have been a massive pay-per-view headliner, but when he finally landed the network deal, White never hesitated to offer it as the first Fox main event. He was going to come with his best. The show will essentially serve as a one-hour commercial for the UFC, and there could be no better way to showcase the sport at its best than by putting the two top fighters in the sport’s marquee division on network television in front of the largest possible audience.

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“This is a throwback to the old days of boxing,” White said. “We are putting a big fight – a huge fight – on free TV to expose this thing to a new audience. Our goal has always been to bring big fights back to network television. We are thinking long-term for the future of this sport. It is an investment in the future of the UFC. Fans that have never seen the UFC before will see this show, and that’s why we decided to put Cain and Junior in this position.

“I know for a fact this is going to be an awesome fight. I know it is going to be great. That’s why it was these two [fighters] in this position. I have no worries at all this is going to be a great fight.”

As its popularity has grown, the UFC has added ancillary businesses. There is now a UFC video game, a UFC magazine and UFC-branded gyms. There are DVDs, trading cards, action figures, fan festivals and all manner of clothing.

The turnaround that White and the Fertittas engineered with the UFC, which they bought for $2 million in Jan. 2001, is every bit as remarkable as that which the late Steve Jobs did upon his return to Apple in 1997.

Apple was a floundering company only 90 days from bankruptcy when Jobs, its co-founder, returned to the rescue in 1997 after having been ousted as CEO 11 years earlier. He shepherded development of the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad and solutions for Apple to sell music, movies, television shows, applications and books en route to becoming the world’s second-most valuable company behind Exxon at the time of his death on Oct. 5.

White and the Fertitta brothers engineered a similar turnaround with the UFC. Less than five years into their ownership, they were $44 million in debt and on the verge of selling the company.

White, though, believed deeply in the sport and in putting on the best, most evenly matched fights he could. Then, he encouraged his fighters to compete in a fan-friendly style, awarding cash bonuses for Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night and Submission of the Night. In addition, White often pays fighters locker-room bonuses, which are above and beyond what fighters are contracted to earn, if he likes their matches. Those bonuses have gone in excess of $1 million at times.

Making the best fights he could and rewarding the fighters who delivered entertaining bouts are the primary reasons for the UFC’s skyrocketing popularity and is largely what made the Fox deal possible.

The UFC flourished on cable. Its deal with Spike saved the company and helped it to get to the point where every major broadcast network had some degree of interest.

It’s still far, though, from having reached the promised land. UFC fighters aren’t nearly as well known as stars in other sports. No UFC fighter is remotely close to the NFL’s Tom Brady or NBA’s Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

White is banking on the Fox deal to help bring the UFC into the mainstream. Lightweight contender Joe Lauzon, who fought on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show on Spike, is convinced Fox will propel the sport to the next level.

“This is just the beginning,” Lauzon said. “The UFC took a huge jump when they got on TV with ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ [though] no one really understood how big of a deal it was until after the fact. Look how far the UFC has come with just Spike, basically.

“Now that they have Fox, and it’s going to take another tremendous jump. I think that Lorenzo Fertitta was saying it’s a commercial for the UFC. They’re going to use these Fox shows to get attention and funnel people into the pay-per-view.”

Prior to this deal, Velasquez would be preparing to defend his belt on pay-per-view. But White, 42, grew up in an era when there was still plenty of live boxing on television. He religiously watched fights on the weekends on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and during the week on USA Network’s “Tuesday Night Fights.”

The biggest stars in the sport competed in those fights. But when pay-per-view came along, boxing promoters took their stars off network television and put them on PPV, where they were fighting in front of a significantly smaller audience.

White never forgot that, and when he took over the UFC, he vowed that he would honor the “Wide World of Sports” tradition and put big fights on free television when he got the chance.

There are few bigger bouts than a heavyweight championship match. Velasquez, who defeated Brock Lesnar 13 months ago to win the belt, is an unlikely star in many ways.

A two-time All-American wrestler at Arizona State, he is soft-spoken and polite and not the kind of person to draw attention to himself. But he’s a fierce fighter who has become a fan favorite because of his aggressive, entertaining style.

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He was on the set of Fox’s NFL pre-game show and has made dozens of appearances as he’s prepared to face dos Santos. Seeing the growth of the sport up-close has been mind-boggling to him.

“I saw it growing because it’s a very fun sport to watch, and it appeals to a young audience,” Velasquez said. “I never saw this, though. This is well beyond what I thought would ever be possible.”

And it’s only going to get bigger. The Fox contract will expose the sport to many who haven’t given it a chance and will help White cultivate an entirely new segment of fans.

The UFC may never become bigger worldwide than soccer, as White boldly predicts, but that’s hardly a problem.

The combination of a network TV deal and White’s firm commitment to putting first-rate fights consistently on Fox will guarantee that the UFC’s growth spurt is nowhere close to being finished.

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 7, 2011