Saturday night's UFC show on Fox is, in the long view, the single most important show for the promotion in several years.
At first glance, that might sound ridiculous. There's no title match on the show. None of the company's three biggest stars are fighting. While it's a good show with solid names, it's nothing compared with Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem from just a few weeks ago. And while UFC on prime-time network TV is a big deal, this isn't the first time it's happened.
And yet, Saturday's card is a prospective game-changer in many ways.
Saturday represents a big promotional gamble. There are four potential huge fights on tap for this year: Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans for the light heavyweight title, Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen for the middleweight title, Junior dos Santos vs. Alistair Overeem for the heavyweight title, and Georges St. Pierre vs. Nick Diaz for the welterweight title.
All four are the type of compelling fights that will intrigue an audience far beyond the hard-core group that usually watches a monthly UFC pay-per-view offering.
Jones vs. Evans pits two former friends, teammates and training partners who vowed to never fight. Evans was the No. 1 contender and waited nearly a year for his title shot but injured his knee just before his big chance. Jones stepped in, with Evans' blessing, and won the title. By the end of the year, Jones established himself as the sport's brightest young star. The two then had a falling out when Jones said he would fight his former teammate, ending their friendship and starting a war of words that lasted nearly nine months.
Silva vs. Sonnen pits the best fighter against the best talker. They fought once before, in 2010. Everyone expected Sonnen to get destroyed, but Sonnen dominated Silva in a way nobody in UFC had ever come close to doing. He won every round, dominated every minute of the fight, and then with time running out in the fifth round, got submitted by Silva. It was among the most dramatic fights in UFC history, and from the moment it ended, fans were clamoring to see it again.
The results of Saturday night's top fights – Evans (21-1-1) vs. Phil Davis (9-0), the five-round main event from the United Center in Chicago, and Sonnen (27-11-1) vs. Michael Bisping (23-3) – will determine whether or not those fights are going to happen this year.
If Evans and Sonnen lose, the planned megafights won't happen, at least not for a long time. If the fights are eventually made, the interest will have likely waned by then. The heavyweight title match is the only one, barring injury, that is a lock. And the potential of St. Pierre vs. Diaz in the fourth quarter of 2012 will be decided in a week.
Even though it's only a few weeks into the year, Saturday night's card will play a huge part in establishing the success of 2012. We'll be able to decide whether this year will reverse last year's downturn. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake based on who wins, how impressive they look in winning, and how many people see them win.
And then there's the matter of the show's ratings.
At Thursday's prefight news conference, Dana White talked about how 9 million people saw the first Fox special in November, a one-hour show that contained exactly 64 seconds of fighting. The 1-minute fight had 8.8 million viewers on English-language television and another half-million on Fox Deportes, making it the most viewed televised MMA fight ever in this country. It was the highest-rated fight of any kind ever on Spanish-language cable. White noted that with three fights and two hours, it'll only grow from that level.
The first Fox show had a lot going for it, and one thing not going for it. It had tremendous publicity and benefitted from the novelty of a UFC prime-time network TV debut. They promoted one fight, the heavyweight title, with all the focus of the classic boxing heavyweight title fights of another generation.
There was a strong amount of interest from the Hispanic audience, who has carried boxing for the last two decades, and one that UFC has at times struggled to reach. Even with 64 seconds of fighting, the ratings numbers were good, particularly in the targeted male, ages 18-34 demographic, where it beat every regular-season college football game but one (LSU vs. Alabama for the BCS title).
The novelty of the first time is no longer there. The lure of the heavyweight championship is no longer there. The strong ethnic appeal Cain Velasquez brought to the first card isn't there either. The focus of everything built around two men is no longer there.
It's three fights in two hours. That guarantees a lot more than one minute of fighting action, and gives more time for the audience to build. But this show does not have anywhere close to the same main-event lure as the first one.
This is the format and type of fights that in a perfect world, UFC would want to consistently put on prime-time specials. There is no better forum to create a new star and build a contender than prime-time network real estate. Saturday answers the question whether this works to enough people, and enough of the right type of people that makes it viable long term to live in the high-rent district.
It will give a strong indication whether the sport has staying power at its new level of exposure, and can produce enough numbers without cannibalizing its own business and revenue base, which is selling big fights on pay-per-view.
Most will be looking at whether Davis can be a spoiler by beating Evans at his former strength of wrestling. They'll be seeing whether Bisping will be able to get up for Sonnen's takedowns, hurt him standing, or threaten him with submissions from his back. And they'll know when the show is over whether the most anticipated fights are happening this year or not.
But the real story will come the next day when the ratings come in. The numbers don't have to be as strong as the first show. The odds are good that they won't be. They can drop 15 percent from the first show and it'll be fine because it proves the format they have is one that works.
MMA as a sport has a short history on network TV with both Elite XC and Strikeforce both having run shows on CBS. The first Elite XC show in 2008, with the hook of the first time MMA was ever on network TV, did well, numbers not far off from UFC's debut. The second show saw ratings fall 42 percent and pull numbers that simply weren't viable long term for a major network running first-run material in that time slot.
The first show ratings success on CBS told you one thing. But the second show told the real story. Just putting MMA on without the right stars is a failure at network prime-time level.
Are Evans, Sonnen and Bisping the right stars? And is this promotional model one that works? As far as presenting shows, that is the single most important question that will be answered this year. And it's why, in the big picture, it is also the single most important show of the year.
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