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UFC's Fox debut delivers a ratings knockout

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UFC's Fox debut delivers a ratings knockout
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Junior dos Santos' title win over Cain Velasquez was the most watched fight in North American MMA hi …

While there was some concern after a one-hour television show that contained only 64 seconds of actual fighting, the debut of UFC on Fox on Saturday night drew strong numbers, particularly in the company's target demographics.

UFC on Fox did a 3.1 rating and 5.7 million viewers for the one-hour broadcast, based on the fast national Nielsen numbers. It was the largest audience ever to watch an MMA television show in the United States, breaking the record of 5.3 million set on Sept. 30, 2009, for an episode of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show on Spike TV featuring a taped match of Kimbo Slice vs. Roy Nelson.

Ratings for the main event match itself, where Junior dos Santos quickly dispatched Cain Velasquez to win the UFC heavyweight title, won't be available until early in the week.

"I'm pumped," said UFC president Dana White when he got the numbers Sunday. "I wouldn't change a thing. We had to introduce the sport to a bunch of people who had never been it before.

"It would have been great to have had a three-round war, but we can't control how the fight is going to go."

Aside from the Slice fight on "TUF," the UFC had twice done 3.1 ratings on Spike before but with fewer total viewers due to the difference between the reach of a network television and basic cable.

The Oct. 10, 2006, live fight special featuring the third Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz grudge match did a 3.1, which amounted to 4.3 million viewers. And a Sept. 8, 2007, fight on Spike – a unification of the UFC and PRIDE light heavyweight titles – with Quinton Jackson beating Dan Henderson, drew that same rating and amounted to 4.7 million viewers.

[ Related: White's strong words for UFC critics ]

The previous high for a live network mixed MMA fight was the May 31, 2008, Elite XC show on CBS featuring Slice vs. James Thompson, which did a 3.0 rating and drew 4.85 million viewers.

While Fox executives would not predict a rating ahead of time, reports in the business press were that the network was selling ads based on predictions of 4.5 million viewers, so even with the short fight, they easily beat their goal.

All of the aforementioned shows had the advantage of being longer broadcasts with more fight minutes, also giving more time to build the audience as the bouts progress. Also, detailed ratings from previous fight shows have proven that significantly more viewers tune in for the actual fights than for pre- and post-fight segments and analysis, so it is fair to assume Saturday night's ratings would have been significantly higher with a longer main event.

The show was an even bigger success in the target demographics, doing a 4.3 among males aged 18-34 and 4.0 in males 18-49. Both numbers are 3- percent and 33-percent higher than Slice vs. Thompson on CBS.

Perhaps most impressive, the show drew 1.7 million women over the age of 18.

"Aren't you amazed by the number of women who were watching?" White asked. "When the earlier numbers came in and it looked low, we were still No. 1 [in the time slot] with women. That's crazy."

[ Related: Photo proof: Velasquez was out ]

White also said it was the most-watched fight broadcast on U.S. television since the 2003 HBO special featuring the boxing heavyweight bout between Lennox Lewis vs. Vitali Klitschko, and largest on network television since 1998.

The UFC president continued to defend against criticism of the fact only one bout aired live, particularly when the Clay Guida vs. Ben Henderson fight, which was shown instead on FOX Deportes, was one of the year's most exciting matches.

"It was an introduction to the sport for Fox," White said. "We had two guys out there to introduce to the audience."

The strongest markets for the show were, in order, Las Vegas (with a national-best 5.3), Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Tulsa, San Diego, Greensboro (N.C.), New Orleans and Los Angeles. Most impressive are the West Coast results, as Las Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles aired from 6-7 p.m. locally, out of prime time.

Earlier in the week, Fox Sports Media Group Chairman David Hill noted that plans going forward for four Fox specials per year are set to include two or three fights per special, which would air on Saturday nights in a 90-minute window from 8:30-10 p.m. ET and 5:30-8 p.m. PT. When CBS and Spike broadcasted major MMA events, the company tape-delayed the events for the West Coast so they would air in prime time, when a larger audience would be watching.

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