ANAHEIM, Calif. – More than six years ago, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was a television product that its fans and supporters believed had a lot of potential, but almost nobody else did.
The story of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and the Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar final has been often told. It was one of the greatest fights in UFC history and came at the perfect time, the first time the company was live on cable television.
Saturday night was a similar step, just on a larger scale. Instead of Spike TV, it was the Fox network. Instead of two unknown scrappers, it was the two best heavyweights in the sport.
Unfortunately, MMA is unpredictable. As president Dana White said over-and-over in promoting the Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos heavyweight title match, the company’s live network TV debut on Fox, it could end in 30 seconds, or it could go five rounds.
Dos Santos (14-1) captured the UFC heavyweight title after dropping Velasquez (9-1) with a huge right just behind the ear, and finished him with 12 punches on the ground in just 1:04.
It's good for Brazil, where the show aired live on one of the country's biggest networks and where UFC plans on running multiple shows next year. It’s not as good for cultivating the Mexican fight-fan audience, which was starting to mobilize behind Velasquez.
But that's simply the nature of the sport. Nobody, not Dana White, not Fox, can control where this sport is going, because for all the promotion, it's the story in the Octagon that ends up taking precedence.
The bout at the Honda Center was a battle of injured warriors, as dos Santos tore the meniscus in his left knee 11 days before the fight, and wasn’t even able to walk the next day. Velasquez was also banged up, but refused to allow any excuses other than his own failure to follow the game plan and getting caught with a good shot.
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Dos Santos was wary of a possible long fight, knowing Velasquez's reputation for conditioning. With the knee injury, combined with Velasquez's game plan of using low kicks to wear out his leg, he may have needed to end the fight quickly.
"I was feeling a little in my knee," dos Santos said. "I wouldn't like to fight five rounds with Cain. It was a big advantage for him because he's got really good stamina. So that was a different pressure on me. I think I felt good in the fight, but I was feeling a lot of pressure."
"It was fine going into the fight," said Velasquez when asked about rumors that he also had suffered a knee injury in training. "It was my fault. I didn't pressure him enough. The game plan was to keep him under pressure. I played dos Santos' game, and he caught me with an overhand right. I had little nagging injuries here and there that you get in training camp. I can't say it was worse than anything else I've had."
He also refused to question the stoppage.
"The initial overhand right, my body wasn’t really reacting," Velasquez said. "Junior recovered really well and was on me. It was a good stoppage."
But like with Griffin vs. Bonnar, in the big picture, who won wasn't the most important story. Rather it was the debut broadcast itself: Would the sport be able to pull network-level prime time audience? What would new fans who had never seen the sport think? And will they come back?
UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, when explaining why they put this fight on television rather than pay-per-view, admitted it would be a huge economic hit for the company, estimating it at $16 million. But he called it an investment in the future, hoping they could create 100,000 new fans that would follow the sport on pay-per-view.
While some have tried to categorize the Fox relationship as being an end game, the reality is that the $100-million deal can not come close to paying the bills for the company. Without pay-per-view, the company can’t afford to pay the multi-million dollar payoffs to its champions, and continue its plans for expansion all over the world. At best, the goal of the quarterly shows on Fox is to give the company a financial cushion if pay-per-view business is slow, and as a platform to create new stars.
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On Saturday, that story was nearly 35 minutes of hyping a match that ended up going a shade over one minute, followed by more talking to end the hour, building that the winner of the Dec. 30 fight in Las Vegas between Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem would get the first shot at the new champion.
Will new fans be more excited to see the sport again because they saw it could end with a blink of the eye as opposed to if they had a war that went the distance, as Griffin and Bonnar did so many years ago? Time will tell.
Judging a seven-year contract between UFC and Fox, that doesn’t even officially begin until January based on one show is premature. The truth is that every year, there will be good shows and bad shows, fast fights and long fights, fights people will talk about for years and fights people will forget the next day.
The rating for a one-minute fight will not be as high as it could have been with a 25-minute battle that builds the audience. MMA fights on both Spike and Showtime have shown that segments with talking heads and hype segments do not draw as large an audience as actual fighting, and fights grow audience the longer they go in most cases. This show had very little fighting.
On the flip side, a lot of the video features were necessary because the goal was to create new fans more than service the existing fans. And the new champion couldn't have come across more impressive, both with his win and with his emotional reaction to winning.
"What you have to understand is with this show we were talking to people who have never seen the sport before," White said. "We weren’t talking to the hardcore fans. Now that we’re on a mainstream platform, many of you don’t realize all the battles we have to fight behind the scenes. Every weirdo comes from everywhere, [talking] about how bad fighting is and joining the 'Coalition of I Have Nothing Better To Do With My Life.' We have to educate the audience. These are two great athletes and two great human beings."
White bristled at the obvious question as to why the company didn't plan for two fights, though with hindsight being 20/20 there is no question that would have been the better call.
The bout that preceded the title fight, Ben Henderson's win over Clay Guida via decision, could have been the Bonnar/Griffin match of this era to cap off the show. Few remember that Bonnar vs. Griffin was not even the main event on the first Spike show. It was actually two bigger names, Ken Shamrock vs. Rich Franklin, who also had a short fight that was supposed to draw the audience and that few even remember today. The combination of a three-round action filled match with a crowd going wild, as a contrast to the quick knockout in the main event, would have left the show with something for almost anyone who was open to being a fan.
Had that fight aired, not only would Henderson have become a much bigger star, as he's set to headline a pay-per-view show on Feb. 26 in Saitama, Japan, (which due to the time difference will air Feb. 25 in North America) challenging Frankie Edgar for the lightweight title. Guida, whose relentless style has made him one of UFC's most popular fighters, could have come out of it as a new Griffin–a fighter the casual audience loves for his heart, win or lose.
With the one fight lasting so short after so much hype, no matter how good the production was, the people hoping such a monumental show would feature a spectacular fight were going to be left with an empty feeling. But the idea that the audience is turned off by short fights has never proven to be the case in MMA, nor in combat sports, given that knockout artists are historically the biggest draws.
"Just so everybody understands, we’re not in a deal with Fox yet," said White. "Our deal doesn’t start until January. These guys wanted to kick it off with a 'Welcome to UFC to Fox.' This fight wasn't part of the deal. The deal is for seven years. After we signed the deal, they said why don't we do a fight right away. Let's put a great fight on TV to kick this off. I don't want to hear about putting on more fights. If you wanted to see all the fights, buy tickets."
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