The UFC began its new era on the Fox Television Network on Dec. 29 with a heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos.
The bout was endlessly hyped on National Football League and Major League Baseball broadcasts. Full-page ads appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. And once the fight actually happened—all 64 seconds of it—the event drew an unprecedented average of 5.7 million viewers and a peak viewership of 8.8 million during the fight itself.
It was a success by any metric.
But after that initial success, the promotion seemingly lost its way. The second Fox broadcast featuring Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis drew an average of 4.7 million viewers. The third broadcast, with a main event pitting Nate Diaz against Jim Miller, fell even further, pulling in an average of just 2.42 million viewers.
After this third event, the UFC's plan for what kind of fights it would schedule on the network changed drastically.
The fourth Fox event saw longtime superstar Mauricio "Shogun" Rua take on Brandon Vera, with Lyoto Machida taking on Ryan Bader on the undercard. UFC on Fox 5 featured a lightweight title fight between champion Benson Henderson and Diaz in the main event, with beloved veteran BJ Penn taking on Rory MacDonald.
The next Fox event, which takes place Jan. 26 in Chicago, features a flyweight title fight in the main event, with the ultra-popular Quinton "Rampage" Jackson taking on Glover Teixeira on the undercard. The title fight might be the main event, but the majority of advertising has been focusing squarely on Jackson.
And we now know that UFC on Fox 7—which takes place April 20 in San Jose—features a title fight between Henderson and former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, with heavyweight super-prospect Daniel Cormier taking on Frank Mir in the co-main event.
It's clear that the UFC—or perhaps even Fox—figured out that you need actual stars to deliver good ratings on network television. The idea of using the platform to build up stars for potential pay-per-view title shots is fine in theory, but it only works if people tune in. Viewers simply weren't interested in seeing fighters they didn't recognize, even in situations where a win could propel them into title fights.
For Henderson, headlining on network television once more is an incredible opportunity. Putting him on pay-per-view is a fine idea, in theory, because he's a champion and champions should be worth paying for. But what has more value: pulling in 250,000 viewers on pay-per-view or fighting on network television in front of an audience that's at least 10 times larger?
Henderson relishes the opportunity.
“I am beyond thrilled to be competing again on network TV for the UFC on FOX 7 card against Gilbert Melendez," Henderson said in a statement released to Bleacher Report. "It's an honor to be put in this position by both the UFC and FOX executives, who are placing trust in me to be able to deliver another exciting fight on live TV. The fans can expect to see a lot of action from two fighters who have aggressive styles. It should be a fun night.”
There's a lot of value in appearing in Fox main events twice in the course of four months. If Henderson puts in another strong performance against Melendez, coming off the heels of his dominant win over Nate Diaz, his star power becomes that much brighter.
Instead of pulling 250,000 buys the next time he appears on pay-per-view, Henderson might be able to pull 500,000 or more. Instead of being a champion whom the fans really haven't connected with—and that's absolutely been the case thus far—Henderson has a chance to expose his fantastic skill set to a much wider audience.
And with that larger exposure comes more money, more sponsorship opportunities and another bankable star that the UFC can count on to deliver on pay-per-view.
“Benson just continues to rise among the elite fighters in the UFC, and this fight is just more evidence of that," Henderson's manager Malki Kawa said in a statement. "On April 20, he will become the first UFC fighter to headline two FOX cards, which is a testament to his value to the UFC and as a fighter that is able to deliver on the big stage."
All told, this is a winning situation for the UFC, Henderson and Fox. The UFC will have the opportunity to turn Henderson into a real asset. Henderson has the chance to elevate himself to the same level of success BJ Penn once enjoyed as lightweight champion. And Fox gets actual stars appearing on the network events that they've invested so heavily in.