UFC's second show on FOX delivered in the two ways that counted the most, but when it came to the action, it didn't come close to most of the company's recent shows.
From a business perspective, the two keys were drawing a good rating and building the strongest matches possible for future business. Both goals were accomplished.
Chael Sonnen (28-11-1) beat Michael Bisping (23-4) in a unanimous decision that could have gone either way. After two close rounds, when Bisping did better on the stand-up, Sonnen dominated the third, controlling almost the entire round on the ground.
Sonnen recorded two takedowns in the first, but he didn't keep Bisping down for long either time. In the second round, Sonnen recorded a takedown, kept Bisping down a little longer and did a little more damage, but Bisping landed a lot late in the round after getting up.
Sonnen's performance wouldn't make you think that he could beat middleweight champion Anderson Silva. But one would have said the same thing about Sonnen's victory over Nate Marquardt in 2010, and in his next fight with Silva, he dominated him for four-and-a-half rounds before being caught with a triangle in one of the most dramatic fights in UFC history.
Rashad Evans didn't need luck from the judges in winning all five rounds against Phil Davis. Evans was too quick standing, and he even got the better of a former NCAA champion at the wrestling game.
Evans never landed the big shot standing on Davis. He did have Davis in some trouble on the ground, getting a crucifix position and throwing punches in the first and fifth rounds. But the fight came across as lackluster.
When it was over, UFC president Dana White set the stage for the two highly anticipated future bouts. Silva will defend against Sonnen in June, in Brazil, potentially at a soccer stadium in Sao Paulo. The UFC has been negotiating for a June 16 date at Estadio do Morumbi, which holds 67,428 fans for soccer, and could set the company's all-time attendance record.
It was also announced that Jon Jones would defend his title against Evans on April 21 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, provided neither gets injured.
That's a big “if” since injuries to Evans, former champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Jones have kept Evans from getting a title shot since becoming the top contender 20 months ago. Evans gave no indication of any injuries after the fight. In having the matchup in Atlanta, Evans would return to the arena where he first established himself as a legitimate superstar in the sport with a devastating knockout of Chuck Liddell on Sept. 6, 2008.
[ Related: Rashad Evans earns his UFC title shot vs. Jon Jones ]
Silva vs. Sonnen and Jones vs. Evans would likely be much bigger draws than Silva vs. Bisping and Jones vs. Davis.
Perhaps even more important, in the long run, is the show established that UFC on primetime network television isn't a novelty act. It also proved that UFC doesn't have to give away a heavyweight title match – a major pay-per-view main event – or get the ridiculous amount of promotion the first show received to be able to draw highly-competitive ratings.
Full ratings for the show will not be available until Monday afternoon, but the overnight ratings showed that FOX did 4.37 million viewers between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturday.
What that number means is very confusing, but what is for certain is that it more than doubled anything on network television in the key 18-49 age group on what was admittedly a weak night.
The first rating measures the audience watching the UFC fights in three of the four time zones and measures what aired in primetime, from 8-10 p.m., on the West Coast. The UFC is still stronger on the West Coast than anywhere else. In addition, because the last two rounds of Evans vs. Davis took place after 10 p.m., how they did is not figured into the original rating. The last 18 minutes would, in theory, have a double-dip advantage, where non-fight fans would have tuned in to see the local FOX news.
In short, the final number will be significantly higher. Based on the overnights, the audience was about four percent lower than the first number for the initial UFC show on FOX on Nov. 12. The final rating of that show, when the West Coast was figured in, was 24 percent higher than the first national number. If anything, this should be even bigger because you're also adding whatever growth took place in the final 18 minutes of the show.
It's a win for the UFC's business plan, which is to use FOX specials for top contender and showcase matches. The idea is to put upcoming stars on before the largest number of viewers, and, like Saturday, matches that create pay-per-view main events down the line, since the successful pay-per-view fights carry the promotion.
[ Related: UFC on FOX 2 postfight ]
But by no means was the show all roses. The Demian Maia vs. Chris Weidman fight that started the show saw two exhausted grapplers trying to kickbox. Weidman at least had an excuse. Being asked to fight only 11 days before, he had to drop from 217 pounds to weigh in at 185. That combination can leave you far from your best. Maia, who was contacted about the fight in early December, has less of an excuse. But neither came across like a future star, even though Weidman, under better circumstances, does have the skills to be one.
Sonnen vs. Bisping matched two compelling personalities. The fight went the distance, and the outcome was in question from start to finish. It was not a classic fight, but it was good enough. Plus, Bisping won a lot of respect in losing and elevated his standing.
Even though Evans showcased a lot of ability – and made Davis look overmatched – the fight itself wasn't exciting, and it went five rounds.
Still, the audience grew consistently, at least based on the available data that ended at 10 p.m. There were 3.68 million people based on what could be measured watching Maia vs. Weidman and 4.91 million watching the build up and first three rounds of Evans vs. Davis.
So, while the show garnered a lot of criticism going in about how people who saw it would be bored and would have turned it off during the first fight or during the show with the lack of big finishes, the opposite happened.
But there are areas that need work. One of the big problems with MMA is that it resides in a unique world. White often points out that its audience knows triangle chokes and uma platas, but to the world at large that is a foreign language. It's fine for its regular shows, but on FOX the goal is you have millions of viewers – many watching for the first time or who rarely watch. The entire idea of how to present the show has to be different. There were times when everyone involved – from the fighters to the announcers – seemed like they were talking to people who only reside in that world. This is a unique show where the aim needs to be different.
A specific example is Jones vs. Evans. There is a great back story of the former friends and training partners. Jones stepped in for Evans when he was hurt, with his blessing, took his title shot and won it. Since then, circumstances not only caused a falling out between the two, but also led to Evans starting his own training camp. UFC was smart to have Jones in the booth, although he did appear nervous as a first-timer compared to sidekick Randy Couture. Jones did tell the story in a manner those who already knew understood, but to first-time viewers they likely wouldn't have fully gotten the gist of it.
Evans, who is more media savvy than most UFC fighters, didn't have a great interview after winning, missing a huge opportunity to gain more fans and sell his next fight.
MMA is as unpredictable as live prime-time programming can be. At most sporting events, you have a pretty decent gauge on how long they will last. In this case, they went from one extreme – a one-minute fight within a one-hour show – to three fights that all went the distance.
Most UFC shows are good, and of late, the percentage has been higher than usual. However, neither FOX show came close to the usual level. The ceiling probably rose a little here, just not as much as it could have.
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