The deal with Fox was supposed to elevate the UFC from a niche attraction to a mainstream juggernaut.
So why does the UFC continue to pump out subpar content when presented with a national audience?
The UFC’s approach to the Fox deal continues to confound those who wish to catalyse the sport’s ascent into the mainstream consciousness.
It all started out so positively, with the promise of a heavyweight title fight. And the UFC delivered on its promise, while simultaneously failing to deliver the kind of action that would entice viewers to come back for more.
Dana White et al. put all their eggs in one heavyweight basket, wagering that Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos would light up the arena.
In fact both came into the bout nursing serious injuries, and would doubtless have pulled ripcords if they were scheduled to compete on any other card. We got exactly what you would expect to get if you put two inhibited fighters in a cage: an anticlimax.
Fans had been screaming for the co-main event, featuring Ben Henderson and Clay Guida, to be aired prior to—or even after—the main event. Unfortunately, the UFC remained stubborn and insisted that only the heavyweight title fight would air.
And what a shame that turned out to be.
Henderson and Guida conspired to produce a gripping contest, filled with world-class athleticism and technique. It was a demonstration of mixed martial arts at its finest.
Unfortunately, not a single casual fan had the privilege of watching it that night.
Moving forward UFC on Fox 2 initiated the downward trend. The show would this time air three fights, which in itself was a step in the right direction.
However, the fights in question did little to stir the imagination: Demian Maia vs. Chris Weidman, Chael Sonnen vs. Michael Bisping and Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis.
Now, don’t get me wrong, all of the above are quality mixed martial artists. The problem is that, at the time, none of them carried significant mainstream appeal.
To compound the problem, Evans and Davis are not known for being the most eye-catching fighters on the roster. Both rely heavily on their wrestling, which has historically been the casual fans’ kryptonite.
I’m not suggesting that we hide such an important part of the sport from the casual fans, but it has to be introduced in the right manner.
For example protracted grappling exchanges against the fence would be the wrong way to sell the art of grappling.
At the risk of harping on the same point, the Henderson vs. Guida fight is the right way to sell grappling to a mainstream audience: takedowns mixed in with striking, submission attempts, scrambles on the ground, etc.
Needless to say, UFC on Fox 2 did not deliver in terms of action or ratings. It was time to take a different approach.
Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller was the featured bout for the UFC’s third attempt to gain mainstream approval, and on paper it was a terrific fight. In fact one could scarcely conceive of a combination more likely to produce fireworks in the cage.
But the UFC again overlooked the importance of name recognition. Unlike with Davis and Evans, this fight was almost guaranteed to deliver. Unfortunately, only the hardcore fans appreciate the value of Diaz and Miller.
We knew it was going to be a great fight because we know the fighters and their respective styles, but how could they know that it was worth their time to tune in?
And it did turn out to be a compelling encounter. Indeed, it probably would have made a star out of Nate Diaz had people bothered to tune in.
But people didn’t bother tuning in.
They didn’t know any better, nor could they be expected to.
We have to introduce these fighters to the masses before thrusting them into the main events of nationally televised cards.
This necessitates the inclusion of bona-fide stars in the main events of Fox cards, plus the inclusion of potential stars on the undercards. That is how you create fighters who transcend the sport. You give them “the rub,” so to speak.
The UFC must be willing to sacrifice short-term gains in order to grow the sport—and the company—over the long term. If that means giving GSP away for free on a couple of cards, so be it. They might make a little less money during that calendar year, but they will reap the rewards later.
Given that UFC on Fox 4 boasts a main event between Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Brandon Vera, one gets the feeling that the UFC still has not learned its lesson.
Will it ever?