Can MMA maintain UFC 100’s momentum?
By any measure, UFC 100 was a jaw-dropping success. It sold in excess of 1.5 million pay-per-view units. It was among the best selling closed-circuit events in history. It was available in more than 300 million homes in 17 languages worldwide.
Media coverage was intense, with headlines on the front page of the newspaper, highlights on ESPN’s SportsCenter and countless articles on the Internet. It was, essentially, a monument to the brilliant work done over the last 8½ years by Ultimate Fighting Championship CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and president Dana White.
The truth of where MMA stands in the American sporting landscape, though, will be told not by the extraordinary success of UFC 100 but rather by the reaction to a month of far less-hyped cards in August.
There is a significant MMA card on three of the five weekends in the month and would have been four had Josh Barnett’s positive steroid test forced cancellation of his fight with Fedor Emelianenko that was to headline the Affliction card on Aug. 1 in Anaheim, Calif.
Later on Friday, Affliction opted to get out of the promoting business and, in a joint statement with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, announced it would become a sponsor of the UFC. The fate of the fighters under contract with Affliction is not known yet.
Even with Affliction gone, however, there is still a significant number of fights in the month. The Ultimate Fighting Championship will put on UFC 101 in Philadelphia on Aug. 8. The next day, the World Extreme Cagefighting will stage a bantamweight title fight between champion Miguel Torres and Brian Bowles at WEC 42 in Las Vegas.
The most anticipated women’s fight in MMA history will be live on Showtime on Aug. 15 in San Jose, Calif., when Gina Carano faces Cris “Cyborg” Santos.
And then UFC 102, featuring a key heavyweight fight between Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, will be held on Aug. 29 in Portland, Ore.
Three members of the Yahoo! Sports Top 10 will be in action in August, as well as the two most notable women fighters.
After the runaway success of UFC 100, two key questions need to be answered in August in an attempt to determine how far MMA has come in its bid to reach the mainstream: • Will the casual fans or the first-timers who tuned in to UFC 100 watch at least one of the cards in August, either in person or on television?
• Will the mainstream media provide any coverage of the cards again or will it go back to largely ignoring MMA unless something bad happens?
Make no mistake that MMA is going to be mainstream someday.
There will be a time when a top MMA star walks down the street in Times Square and is as recognizable to the masses as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James are now or as Muhammad Ali was in the 1970s.
That time is not now, however.
We’ll learn how close it is to becoming a reality by the reaction to the MMA overload in August.
Affliction had been on shaky footing almost since its inception, when it paid lavish salaries to fighters on its debut card a year ago. Several sources have said that Affliction and Strikeforce had been working on some kind of a deal, though that clearly fell through.
The reaction to the Aug. 9 WEC card, which is on the cable channel Versus, as well as the Aug. 15 Strikeforce card may, however, give an indication as to whether the sport has gained any momentum from UFC 100.
ESPN, for instance, provided a solid effort for UFC 100. Will it deliver anything close to the same level of attention to a card featuring Torres, the No. 4 ranked fighter in the Yahoo! Sports poll, or to one featuring the two most recognizable women fighters in the world?
There were questions how well the Affliction show would have done had it gone off as scheduled, even with the Emelianenko-Barnett main event. Ticket sales at the Honda Center were lagging and neither of Affliction’s first two pay-per-view offerings, which also featured Emelianenko, did particularly well.
Fans of a mainstream sport will turn out to see a talent of Emelianenko’s caliber. Period. We won’t know now if they would have turned out to see him in the aftermath of UFC 100, but signs weren’t encouraging.
They will turn out for UFC 101, because the Wachovia Center has long been sold out. And while no one expects the UFC to come even close to repeating the massive number of pay-per-view sales it made at UFC 100, a card with a double main event featuring B.J. Penn against Kenny Florian for the lightweight title and Anderson Silva against Forrest Griffin in a light heavyweight showdown should be a huge seller.
The question that is yet to be answered is whether it will, in fact, be huge, or whether the sport will go back to pre-UFC 100 sales levels.
There’s certain to be a slight uptick in interest in all of the cards because of the awareness in the sport created by the media onslaught at UFC 100.
That’s a good thing.
The size of the uptick, however, is going to tell you all you need to know about where MMA fits in our sporting landscape these days.