LAS VEGAS – Turn on ESPN Classic just about any night of the week and you're likely to see a replay of a Muhammad Ali fight. A Muhammad Ali fight, it should be noted, that was broadcast free on ABC and called by Howard Cosell.
Given the success UFC 100 had on Saturday, it's almost certainly going to lead to more fights on free television.
OK, it's going to be a long shot for the Ultimate Fighting Championship to wind up on one of the broadcast networks in the short term, but don't put it past UFC co-owners Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta to make it happen.
The upshot of the huge reaction to the UFC's biggest show is that there will be more fights on free television, whether on Spike, another cable network or a broadcast network. And they won't simply be fights between men trying to improve their profile and get to the elite level, but rather pay-per-view caliber matches between the company's major stars.
Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who stopped Frank Mir in the second round of an emotional main event, and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who whitewashed Thiago Alves in a virtuoso performance, are a couple of the guys who would be headliners.
Saturday's card dramatically increased interest in mixed martial arts. White estimated that 30,000-50,000 fans attended the UFC Fan Expo the last two days at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. The card drew a sellout crowd of 11,000 which paid $5.1 million on Saturday. Pay-per-view sales are almost guaranteed to surpass 1 million and there is a chance that the final number would exceed 1.5 million, which would make it the biggest non-boxing PPV in history. Closed circuit sales were so strong in Las Vegas that Zuffa officials opened the MGM Grand Garden to accommodate the demand.
White said he expects to sign Fedor Emelianenko, the Russian superstar whom he has long but futilely chased, in the near future. Emelianenko has a fight against Josh Barnett on Aug. 1 for Affliction, but White said he's confident he'll be able to reach a deal to finally bring Emelianenko to the sport's biggest stage.
"I'm a big believer in having free fights on television," a weary White said following the bout. "I grew up a huge boxing fan and I used to see all the big fights on ABC's 'Wide World of Sports' and USA's 'Tuesday Night Fights.' What happened with the boxing model is, when the pay model came along, everyone got greedy and you never saw good fights on free TV.
"We do the exact opposite. We put on 12 or 13 fights on pay-per-view a year that our fans pay for. I believe when you put on pay-per-views and the fans are buying, you need to give back to them and have big fights on free TV, too."
Only a few weeks ago, it would have been difficult to imagine seeing Lesnar, who is clearly the company's pay-per-view star, appearing on free television. But White understands that by giving something away, you create more demand for it.
Ali became arguably the world's most popular athlete fighting nearly all of his matches on free television.
Lesnar is going to be on pay-per-view for the bulk of his career, but White knows what a furor he'd create by putting the former NCAA Division I wrestling champion and WWE star on basic cable or, even better, network TV.
The sport took a huge step forward Saturday, despite Lesnar's disgusting antics after the fight in which he made an obscene gesture to the fans, mocked one of the company's primary sponsors and spoke of having sex with his wife.
White chastised Lesnar, who was contrite in the brief time he spent at the postfight news conference before leaving to make a television appearance. White spent much of the news conference alone at the podium with only middleweight Dan Henderson beside him, but he looked out at a room packed with media.
"Usually, there are 17 guys up here and no media," White said, glancing at the dais. "Now, it's packed with media and I'm up here by myself, me and Dan [expletive] Henderson."
The controversy over Lesnar's poor behavior will last a few days and get beaten around by media who have never covered the sport before. But the impact of a first-rate week which included the Fan Expo and a superb night of fights, will live much longer than any distaste for Lesnar.
White has long seen the future and predicted that the UFC would surpass sports staples such as the NFL in the U.S. and soccer worldwide in popularity. The reaction to UFC 100 is an indication that his vision may become a reality.
"This sport is like a virus that spreads and affects you," White said. "When it affects you, you become passionate and love it. … It's only getting bigger, not smaller."
And as the shows land on free television more frequently, it's only going to increase the interest in it and ultimately help the company sell more pay-per-views.
"Tonight was big for us," White said, exhaustedly. "It took us to another level."
It was, however, just the start.
The world learned on Saturday what we've known for a long time: Mixed martial arts is a terrific sport that is on a collision course with the mainstream.
And nothing could be better for a fight fan than that.
- Brock Lesnar
- Dana White