A few years ago, nearly everyone in television was afraid to air the sport of mixed martial arts.
But with hundreds of stations needing product to fill air time in the cable and satellite generation, MMA is now on television to the point where even the most ardent fan couldn't watch it all.
With so much product, the events have gotten less special. Ratings are generally down, and with the exception of the UFC, nobody has been able to maintain a substantial audience.
Three weeks ago, Black Entertainment Television debuted "Iron Ring." If it had followed the same concept as everyone else, it would have become another MMA show lost in the shuffle. But with hip-hop stars like Ludacris and Nelly and others like boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather Jr. making frequent appearances, "Iron Ring" has developed a following amid all the clutter.
After one of the highest rated premieres in the history of the network, "Iron Ring," which airs on Tuesday nights at 10:30 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, has become one of the highest rated shows on the network, drawing ratings in the 0.76 to 0.87 range and averaging about 900,000 viewers. Its cumulative weekly ratings are second to only "College Hill" on the station.
The numbers aren't that much lower than many episodes of the sixth season of Ultimate Fighter, and there are more viewers than any other MMA programming has had to date.
The first thing you notice when you watch the show is that it doesn't feel like an MMA show. There are MMA fights, some edited, with far more of an emphasis on striking than ground technique, by design. It has a decidedly brutal edge to the way it's presented, avoiding things like tale of the tape and a graphic listing the unified rules and ways to win.
It's a show filled with quick cutaways, featuring some major celebrities, particularly in the hip-hop culture. The show is based on conflict, personalities, blood and sweat, and each show has some fights, complete with amplified sound effects when the blows connect. Scoop, a well-known D.J., is the voice of the promotion as the show's narrator.
The fights are simply a part of the big story, not the story itself. It's got an underground fight-club feel, producing a product that looks as far from glamorous as possible.
The show's stars are "team owners" like Ludacris, T.I., Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, Lil John, Nelly and Floyd Mayweather Jr. The celebrity owners range from those making cameo appearances to the hands-on perfectionist personality of Ludacris.
The show also draws a very different audience than any other MMA programming.
UFC usually draws about a 71-percent male audience. It is consistently strong with men between 25-34, and big fights can beat any sport but the NFL in that age group on any given night. To a lesser extent, it draws from the 18-24 and 35-49 audience.
UFC draws few children and not all that many teenagers, and has a hard time catching on to the older generation that has yet to accept MMA as a legitimate sport. If you attend a UFC event, it's impossible not to notice the audience is predominately white and very trendy.
"Iron Ring" draws 52 percent women, and half the television audience on the debut shows that aired from 11 p.m. to midnight was younger than 24. The fighters are not all African-American, but there is little doubt that is the prime fan base they are trying to reach.
They are clearly aiming at a demographic that has not yet been captured by UFC, and thus far are successful at getting a new audience to watch their show, but for a different reason than why fans watch other MMA organizations.
Their target audience is one who already knows about conflicts with Ludacris and T.I. and can see their different philosophies on the screen when it comes to tryouts and picking fighters, which the early episodes have been based on. Whether they can turn those viewers into paying consumers, creating their own unique sustaining fan base, is the ultimate question.
It's funny, because the people who are behind this very different version of an old product – David Isaacs and Campbell McLaren of Zilo Live – actually have more experience running what everyone else is doing than almost anyone else in today's MMA industry. McLaren, and later Isaacs, ran the UFC for its original owner, Bob Meyrowitz's Semaphore Entertainment Group.
They were there when UFC started from scratch, and they were behind the meteoric rise on pay per view from late 1993-96, when people like Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie, Tank Abbott, Don Frye and Dan Severn became stars. The original UFC was an amazing success story for a promotion that had no free television to build its shows. McLaren and Isaacs also were there through its spectacular politically-induced fall to oblivion from 1997 to 2000. When UFC was in its original growing phase, people would talk with McLaren about how he was on the ground floor of creating a new sport.
His response was always that the worst thing that could happen to UFC was for it to be a sport.
Isaacs noted the concept with "Iron Ring" is more WWE-oriented. They hope to create their own new fighting stars with the Kimbo-Slice-streetfighter aura and progress to live pay-per-view events, official soundtracks and merchandising built around the celebrity coaches.
While virtually every MMA promoter will privately say they look at the WWE as the goal as far as building an organization, they are quiet to say it publicly for fear their fan base considers wrestling a dirty word.
Isaacs said they have no interest in being just another company getting into bidding wars for perceived top-10 fighters.
"You want to get into bidding wars with Dana White and the Fertitta brothers, well, good luck," he said.
From the MMA standpoint, with the exception of team coaches Jermaine Andre and Shonie Carter (who got into a heated conflict with Mayweather on an early episode) – both former colorful mid-level UFC fighters – virtually nobody on the show would be familiar to anyone but the most ardent MMA fan.
The show's producers recognize the show hasn't been embraced by the hardcore MMA community but are hopeful that as their own fighters gain more familiarity, they'll cross over to that group.
"For us, this is a long process," said Isaacs. "We were trying to find things that are different. We're not trying to replace UFC or compete with UFC."
Isaacs noted that Jones has even talked about wanting to fight another rapper.
The entire season, which builds to a final episode in early June, has been finished with most of the fights taped in February in New Orleans as part of the NBA All-Star weekend.