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If there is a lesson coming from the ratings of Saturday night’s Strikeforce debut on CBS, it is that Fedor Emelianenko did not flop as a draw on a major United States fight card, which some were expecting.
The Emelianenko vs. Brett Rogers main event at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill., drew 5.46 million viewers, making it the ninth-most watched MMA fight in history.
The match gained 1,493,000 viewers from the previous quarter-hour, the second-largest audience gain for any live fight in the short history of the sport on U.S. television. The record setting gain for a fight was 1,643,000 for the Gina Carano vs. Kelly Kobold fight on Oct. 4, 2008, when Elite XC was on CBS.
The lesson of the ratings is not just that Emelianenko, a Russian who most television programmers would consider has limited charisma, didn’t pull the kind of ratings Kimbo Slice did on CBS in a similar situation. Cleary, a great percentage of the audience tuned in late just to see the main event as there was no a Carano-level star on the undercard.
Whether the ratings are a success depend upon how you want to interpret them. Realistically, they fell right where they should have been expected. Emelianenko alone is not as strong a television personality as Slice and Carano combined, and the card rated third among the four MMA specials on CBS.
The show, which ran in the 9-11 p.m. ET slot and was aired in tape delay on the West Coast, did a 2.5 rating and 4.04 million viewers. It was the second lowest-rated show on the big four networks on Saturday night, beating only a rerun of "Mercy" on NBC. CBS, airing "Crime Time Saturday" and "48 Hours Mystery," has been averaging a 4.1 rating and 6 million viewers in that time slot.
But the card did a 2.3 in the males 18-34 demo, which is the demographic CBS is targeting with the show, which made it the highest-rated show in the bracket on the night, beating ABC’s regional college football programming head-to-head. So in that sense, the rating was a success.
"After reading the ratings, I’m very happy," said Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker. "CBS told me they were most interested in the 18-34 male demographic and they’re very happy."
The show was generally well received, with most of the night's buzz coming from the main event. Emelianenko’s second-round TKO win over Rogers was a great television fight, with Emelianenko showing both great speed, reflexes and power, but also a key moment of vulnerability.
"I was right there and I thought for a second when Rogers hit those two punches on the ground that he might knock Fedor out," said Coker. "For a second there, I thought it was the Buster Douglas/Mike Tyson story."
At this point, no announcement has been made regarding if and when there will be a second show. Coker said that they would have meetings later in the week with CBS and he hopes they green light future shows.
UFC president Dana White, predictably, wasn't impressed with Saturday night's card.
"CBS made its biggest mistake partnering with a tiny, small show with a roster no one cares about," said Dana White. "Just because you read on MMA.TV that someone is a superstar doesn’t make it true. This should prove that no one out there gives a [expletive] about Fedor."
"We’re pulling those numbers on Spike," White said. "I mean, how the [expletive] is what they did considered any good in any way, shape or form? What kind of numbers do you think we would pull with a live show on CBS? I’ll tell you. Huge. It would be significantly, significantly more than what they got with these idiots from Showtime."
"You’d think everyone [in the industry] would be happy because it’s great for the industry for everyone to be doing well," responded Coker.
Of the eight episodes of the current season of the UFC's "Ultimate Fighter" reality show on Spike, two had higher ratings than this show. Aside from that, UFC has topped a 2.5 rating for a live event twice, for a 2006 Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock fight and a 2007 Quinton Jackson vs. Dan Henderson fight. UFC 105, which airs this coming Saturday night, headlined by Randy Couture vs. Brandon Vera, the first time Couture will have ever fought live on Spike TV, could do a rating in the same range as Strikeforce show.
While Emelianenko’s career record of 31-1, with one no contest, is incredible, the jury is still out on where he stands today. Saturday’s fight gave both sides plenty of ammunition.
Emelianenko scored his third straight devastating finish on U.S. soil. While he controlled most of the fight, he suffered injuries that at this point are believed to have been a fractured nose, and an injury to his left thumb that could either be broken or a tendon injury. He was in legitimate trouble at one point in the first round and an argument can be made based on overall damage that he lost the round. Rogers, while coming in with a 10-0 record, really came in as a brawler who made his name largely with a win over Andrei Arlovski, a genuinely top skilled heavyweight, but one with a noted glass jaw that got tagged immediately.
"If I hear any of you guys [sportswriters] calling Fedor the best pound-for-pound, I’m going to go postal," said White. "Do you think Brett Rogers would have lasted two minutes with Brock [UFC heavyweight champ Lesnar]? What do you think Cain Velasquez would do to him?"
Those questions will likely never be answered given the nature of the sport, with UFC, as the dominant brand, not doing co-promotional ventures, and at this stage of the game, the company would be foolish to do so from a business standpoint.
Coker believed Emelianenko would be out of action four to six months with the injuries, but hadn’t gotten an updated word since his hand was examined as to whether or not it would need surgery.
Of the four MMA cards on CBS, the first three promoted by the now-defunct Elite XC brand, this show finished third. The debut show on May 31, 2008, did a 3.0 rating and 4.85 million viewers, beating the Stanley Cup playoffs head-to-head. The second show, which was a ratings disaster, on July 26, 2008, headlined by Robbie Lawler vs. Scott Smith, did a 1.7 rating and 2.6 million viewers.
The third show, on Oct. 4, 2008, which was a different kind of disaster that led to the unraveling of the promotion and putting the future of MMA on CBS in question. The ratings were good, a 2.7 rating and 4.56 million viewers, but the main event was supposed to be Slice vs. Ken Shamrock, but Shamrock ended up needing stitches from a cut suffered hours before the show. And he was not cleared to fight. Late replacement Seth Petruzelli knocked out Slice in seconds, leading to a chain of events that caused Elite XC to go out of business.
UFC’s attempt at counterprogramming the opposition didn’t prove as successful as in the past. UFC has always put on replays of past major pay-per-view events against the prior CBS shows, usually doing a 1.2 rating, considered very strong for Spike TV for using old footage. But they were down 25 percent from usual, doing a 0.9 rating and 1.2 million viewers with a custom-made show featuring the television debuts of four recent never-before-seen pay-per-view main event matches.
The show aired Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin and B.J. Penn vs. Kenny Florian from UFC 101 on Aug. 8, Randy Couture vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria from UFC 102 on Aug. 29, and Rich Franklin vs. Vitor Belfort from UFC 103 on Sept. 19. However, a replay of that show, airing at 11 p.m., drew a strong late night rating of 0.7 and 939,000 viewers.
Kevin Iole contributed to this report.