Fox could help UFC develop fighters

Kevin Iole

Movies sell more tickets if a big name like Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith, Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise is headlining. Golf tournaments attract bigger galleries when Tiger Woods plays.

And it's no different in the UFC. The biggest fights are the ones involving its biggest stars, like Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre.

Fighters, though, typically have far shorter shelf lives as top attractions than actors do. And that makes it incumbent upon the promoter to find ways to develop new stars.

For years, that vehicle for the UFC was its reality series, "The Ultimate Fighter." The show developed fighters like Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin and others, who went on to become some of the company's biggest attractions.

But with the company's dramatic growth and worldwide expansion, TUF by itself can't produce the drawing cards the UFC needs.

And that's where its deal with Fox comes in. It's a perfect vehicle for the UFC to use to give its fighters exposure and get them used to headlining a show.

[Related: Ronda Rousey forces herself into MMA's best pound-for-pound debate]

There has been a lot of debate about the UFC's TV ratings on Fox, FX and Fuel. UFC president Dana White is extraordinarily defensive about it, and went on a lengthy tirade about a Toronto newspaper columnist for saying the ratings were tepid.

Put aside for a moment, though, the issue of ratings, because as Mark Twain once said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. White will look at the same set of ratings as a UFC critic and each will massage them differently. White inevitably comes to the conclusion that the ratings are outstanding and delivering as expected. The critics look at them and see them as abject failures. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

The ratings debate is an argument for another day. What is not a debate, though, is the kind of impact that fighting on FX and Fuel can have on the fighters.

On Saturday, Fuel will broadcast a UFC show from Nottingham, England, in which Stipe Miocic takes on Stefan Struve in a heavyweight fight.

It doesn't have the buzz that, say, UFC 154 has with St-Pierre returning from injury to defend his title on Nov. 17 against interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit.

But it's a main event and provides kind of a dry run as a headliner for two guys the UFC believes might one day become stars.

"Being the main event of a small card is great," UFC light heavyweight Stephan Bonnar said. "I've done both, the big ones and the small ones. Whatever it is, when you're the main event, your face is on the billboards, you're doing the interviews, and you're just the guy. Whether it's 5,000 at the Palms or 20,000 at the MGM, it's not that much of a difference; you're still headlining.

"It's a great experience to go through. This show [on Fuel Saturday] is not on pay-per-view, but they're still fighting in front of millions of people."

One of the misnomers of pay-per-view is that because the biggest fights go to PPV, the audience is greatest. There is, though, a wider audience on television.

Fuel is only in 36 million homes, a fraction of what Fox and FX bring. Both of those are in more than 100 million homes.

But by comparison to HBO (29 million subscribers) and Showtime (21 million), Fuel offers a bigger audience. And while the UFC is using Fox to help grow its audience, Fuel is using the UFC to hopefully increase its own.

Fuel can be a farm system of sorts for the UFC. While guys like Struve and Miocic have been around for awhile, they still don't have the widespread name recognition beyond the hard-core fans.

[Also: Timothy Bradley to defend welterweight title in Miami]

Fighting on Fuel and FX can help solve that issue. If the deals help the UFC create a star, it would be a huge bonus.

"I'm obviously a boxing fan and Dana and I both used to watch those 'Tuesday Night Fights' on USA Network," UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said. "It was very cool to watch, because they put on guys who would become some of the sport's biggest stars [such as Roy Jones, James Toney, Lennox Lewis and others].

"We're putting a great product on Fuel. These are top-level fighters. We look back now and talk about the [boxers] we saw on 'Tuesday Night Fights' and I think there are a lot of similarities in that regard with Fuel. We're going to see a lot of guys come out of these fights who go on to do great things in this sport."

Struve is hoping to vault himself into title contention with a win. He's had his share of ups and downs in the UFC, having been thrashed by Junior dos Santos, Roy Nelson and Travis Browne. He's also won eight bouts in the UFC and seems to have been progressing well.

A win over Miocic, a one-time Golden Gloves boxer, would probably be his most significant UFC win.

As a main event, it's set for five rounds, but Struve doesn't think there's a chance it goes five. He wants to put on a show.

"Five-round fight? It’s not a five-round fight," Struve said. "This isn’t going five. It is a one- or two-round fight, depending on when I finish him. I am not worried about going five rounds if it happens, because I hit pads for an hour at a time and every Thursday at my gym, it is pretty much fight night. We do 15 five-minute rounds. I've changed nothing in my training. If it goes longer, OK, but I think this is a quick fight.

"A win here puts me in the top five in the world. There's a lot of hype on this guy and he's also coming off a big win. I'm only 24, but this is my 12th fight in the UFC. I am going to do my business. I've been in the UFC for five years and I am really putting it together now as a mixed martial artist. I think this fight is a great showcase of what I can now do as a fighter."

In that last regard, he's 100 percent correct. The UFC needs someone to take the place of guys like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Brock Lesnar, who recently retired, and those like Silva, who probably won't be around much longer.

A platform like Fuel allows men like Struve and Miocic to get a feel for what it is like to headline a show while selling themselves to the public.

Regardless of the ratings, not much could be better than that for an aspiring fighter.

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