LOS ANGELES — It’s fitting that Kenny Florian was the last to leave the studio Wednesday following the final taping of the FS1 show “UFC Tonight.”
We’re winding down the final days on the landmark, seven-year deal which brought the Ultimate Fighting championship to Fox Sports properties. Saturday’s card in Milwaukee headlined by lightweight contenders Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta marks the 31st and final UFC on Fox fight card.
And with this show comes the finale of an era which ended the days of mixed martial arts as the rambunctious outsider of the North American sports landscape and brought it, for better or worse, into the corporate mainstream.
“Things changed instantly,” Florian said. “All that talk about us being a bunch of savages and a fight to the death and unskilled and every other ignorant thing that people used to say, that went out the window. We got put on a mainstream platform and people who hadn’t seen the sport before, now they got it. Right away. Now they understand the caliber of athlete who gets into MMA. That’s what Fox brought to the table.”
CBS aired occasional MMA specials dating back to 2008, but Fox was the first to go all-in on the sport. With the deal came the trappings fans expect from major sports events, from the network and cable television live cards to pre-and-post fight studio shows to news magazine shows.
Florian, for his part, was the bridge between the old era and the new. A finalist on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the Boston-based competitor went on to a career in which he challenged for both the lightweight and featherweight titles before finding he was pretty good on the mic and making commentary his second career.
So it makes sense that Florian was the man lingering after the crew literally shut off the lights in the studio, the same one used for “Fox NFL Sunday,” after the taping wrapped on the last episode of the show he co-hosted with UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and Los Angeles-based reporter Karyn Bryant.
“Kenny was the O.G. of fighters becoming announcers,” Cormier said of his co-host. “He’s the one we all learned from. We had great chemistry here together on the set and I think the viewers knew it was genuine. We did great things on this show and FOX did great things for the UFC. Things are bittersweet around here today.”
UFC grew to $4B business with Fox’s help
There was a loose atmosphere in the production booth as the final edition of “UFC Tonight,” which debuted in 2012 on Fuel TV, was being filmed. The crew of a couple dozen employees includes everyone from the person manning the show’s social media feed to the guy from Fox Standards & Practices in charge of the bleep button, a job that requires a fast hand in a sport the features loose cannons like the oft-profane Nate Diaz.
By the final day of “UFC Tonight,” they had become a well-oiled machine, one which felt they left their mark on the sport.
“We felt like we made history with UFC Tonight,” says Fox Sports vice-president of production Steve Becker, who has overseen the both for the show’s duration. “We put our own spin on the idea of a sport-specific news show. Other sports, the NFL, MLB, whatever, they don’t have active athletes on the studio show. Having Kenny and DC and [former co-host] Chael [Sonnen] gave this a personality and a draw and something unique.”
The production crew were also the people who took the criticisms of Fox’s product along the way to heart. For all the upside of being the first in on something big, there’s also the downside of inevitable growing pains.
Fans and media alike complained over social media about the pacing of FS 1 fight cards, up to six-hour affairs which often saw main events go live after well midnight East coast time, regardless whether undercard fights went the distance or ended in under a minute. Cutting a national show cable television short simply isn’t an option when advertisers have paid good money to have specific spots air at specific times.
Those weren’t the only changes the sport saw over the Fox years which fans disapproved, many of which were beyond the network’s control. The company’s exclusive apparel deal with Reebok in 2015 gave the fighters a more professional look, but also gave the product a visual conformity which killed off much of the individual expression which enabled fans to feel they could connect with fighters on a personal level.
But such corporate-level changes, combined with the rise of megastars Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, helped turn the UFC, which had been bought off the scrap heap by the Las Vegas casino magnate Fertitta brothers, into a company sold for $4B to Hollywood agency WME/Endeavor in 2016. And the guys and gals in the booth believe that the company’s era on Fox played a huge role.
“No doubt, they don’t sell this thing for $4B without us,” Decker said. “Fox took the plunge when this sport was considered risky. Now it’s a mainstream brand. Fox’s packaging helped the sport gain acceptance and it will move on from here, but we’re proud of what we accomplished.”
Mixed martial arts now diffused on various streaming platforms
One thing’s clear: The MMA television landscape is changing at an unprecedented rate. “Earthquake” was the word people casually threw around at the Fox lot on Wednesday.
Not only is the UFC moving for the next five years to ESPN, but the entire sport is becoming diffused over streaming platforms. The bulk of ESPN content will go on ESPN+. Bellator is doing fewer events on the Paramount Network next year and shifting over to streaming service DAZN. Combate Americas also airs on DAZN. Asian promotion ONE Championship, flush with investor cash, scored a deal to air on Turner Sports properties starting next year, streaming live cards on B/R Live and taped specials on TNT.
None of these platforms boast the audience size and potential of Fox’s network exposure, and the worry is not only that MMA fans, who are already asked to invest a lot of time into their hobby, will grow frustrated being asked to pay for one streaming service after another, but that when the next round of television negotiations come to pass years down the road, the absence from network TV will have put the sport out of sight and out of mind, a longterm tradeoff for a quick cash grab.
That’s not Fox’s problem going forward, but it’s on the minds of the individual talents. Fox studio analyst Michael Bisping recently signed with ESPN, but the status over many of the others are still up in the air. And while there are unconfirmed rumblings about the future’s of some, no one wants to comment on the record at this point.
When you’re someone like Florian, who began fighting when mixed martial arts was considered too outrageous for television, you learn to embrace change … and to appreciate what you’ve done along the way.
“I’m someone who likes to to something bold and something new and dive in and see where it takes me,” Florian said. “But even I’m not sure where things are going this time. Our work at Fox speaks for itself. Wherever this is going, we did our best to help it get there.”
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