UFC shows it isn't greedy with fight offerings

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

A week after returning from Japan last spring, when he had signed papers to complete the purchase of the Pride Fighting Championship, it was rare that UFC president Dana White wasn't beaming ear-to-ear.

The thought of the matches he could put together was making the fight fan in him nearly giddy.

"These," White said at the time, "will be some of the greatest fights, ever."

He talked about pitting the Pride champions against the UFC champions in something of a Super Bowl of mixed martial arts.

They would be, he said, almost salivating at the thought, some of the most important matches in mixed martial arts history.

The first of those will be on Saturday at the O2 Arena in London. UFC light heavyweight champion Rampage Jackson will pit his belt against that of Pride champion Dan Henderson.

It's arguably the UFC's most significant bout of the year, but White made the decision to put the fight on Spike TV, on basic cable, where it will reach nearly 92 million homes, instead of offering it on pay-per-view.

White grew up in Las Vegas and in Massachusetts as a diehard boxing fan and said he liked nothing more on a weekend afternoon than sitting in a chair and watching a key championship match on ABC's "Wide World of Sports."

His interest in boxing was nurtured by those hours in front of a television listening to Howard Cosell drone on about the importance of a jab and head movement. And now that he's in a position to influence the course of MMA, he is determined to regularly put some of his best matches on basic cable television.

And if he could interest ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC in showing, say, Randy Couture vs. Fedor Emelianenko for the unified heavyweight championship in prime time, bet the house that he would jump at the chance.

"It's just something I believe in and believe in strongly," White said. "I'm always going to do that. We ask our fans to buy a lot of pay-per-view and so I believe they deserve this. And I'm not going to be greedy and give them all of the good stuff on pay-per-view and put dog (expletive) on (basic cable) TV. I'm going to put our best guys on for them."

It's one of the things that separates MMA from boxing, where almost without exception elite fights wind up on pay-per-view.

Modern boxers have developed the cockeyed notion that it's more lucrative to fight on pay-per-view. Rarely, however, is that the case. A bout like the super welterweight showdown between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya in May, which did a record 2.15 million pay-per-view sales, is the rare exception.

But even though promoters knew going in that De La Hoya-Mayweather would be a license to print money, they were insanely cheap and put together a horrific undercard.

Instead of having the foresight to put what they knew would be a terrific fight on as the chief undercard bout – say the super bantamweight showdown between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez – they took the cheap route and put on showcase fights which predictably turned out to be boring, one-sided affairs that did little to captivate the audience.

Because there were a lot of fans who normally don't watch boxing who tuned in to De La Hoya-Mayweather, having a significant and potentially explosive bout like Vazquez-Marquez on the undercard could have created a legion of new fans.

It was all but a slam dunk to be a great fight and would have been a way to show the casual viewer what he or she had been missing.

That is business as usual with the UFC, though, whether on free television or on pay-per-view.

Brian Diamond, the senior vice president of sports and specials at Spike, said the presence of the best fights and the best fighters on UFC cards on a regular basis has built incredible loyalty among its audience.

Spike has both benefited from and helped with the UFC's growth, but is hitting the major leagues with Saturday's card, which will be shown on a tape delayed basis beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific.

"The Ultimate Fight Night show (which regularly airs on Spike), on its own level provides great entertainment and great sportsmanship," Diamond said. "But this is the biggest fight we've ever put on. Start with the fact that it's a championship fight, a unification fight, and that's probably good enough to do pretty well right there.

"But then, as you go down the card and you see Matt Hamill and Michael Bisping, the fight that never happened happening; and you see Cro Cop's return and Houston Alexander is nothing to sneeze at. "It's the biggest card and probably our biggest since Tito and Ken (on Oct. 10)."

The third fight between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock topped out at 5.7 million viewers and did a 3.1 household rating, which means it was seen in 2.8 million homes. Among male viewers age 18-34, the fight did better ratings than FOX's broadcast of the American League Championship Series, head-to-head.

Because UFC 75 is on a Saturday, when fewer people are watching television, instead of a weeknight like Ortiz-Shamrock, it may not get the numbers that fight did. But count on UFC 75 drawing more viewers than any fight, boxing or MMA, on free television this year.

The main event on Saturday is far preferable to the one that White is selling on pay-per-view on UFC 76 just two weeks later, when light heavyweights Chuck Liddell and Keith Jardine headline a show at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

But White also understands the significance of not only exposing his product to the largest number of people, but of consistently having his top athletes fight each other. Couture, for example, has had only one fight in the last five or six years which wasn't against an A-level opponent. Top boxers are lucky if they meet one A-level opponent a year.

It used to be that “Wide World of Sports†was the place to be on a Saturday.

Now, thanks to Dana White, it's becoming Spike TV.

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