While Boxing Fades, UFC’s Future Is Bright Thanks To Fox Debut

http://youtube.com/watch?v=RfUJpBZ_gNo

Above you can see the entire UFC Heavyweight Championship fight on Fox from Saturday night, where Junior Dos Santos defeated Cain Velasquez to win the belt.  The fight lasted all of 64 seconds, but provided a decisive, exciting knockout finish.  The same can’t be said for Manny Pacquiao’s bout with Juan Manuel Marquez, also on Saturday night.  Pacquiao won a questionable decision, which seems to be the rule rather than the exception in boxing.  How many boxing fans have grown tired of the neverending supply of controversies, disappointments, teases, and fractures?  In fact, the highlight of Pacquiao/Marquez fight night may in fact have been the role of this strategically placed sombrero.

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The contrast of trajectories between UFC and boxing couldn’t be more apparent than Saturday night.  On one hand, you had the UFC making its debut in primetime network television.  Sure, it wasn’t the first MMA appearance in primetime, but this was finally the time for MMA’s premier organization to take centerstage.  This wasn’t a Youtube fighter trying to make a name for himself in a fourth rate bout, Dos Santos v Velasquez was the real deal.  It was also a winner in the ratings.  Here’s the numbers from MMAJunkie

With updated figures, network executives say this past weekend’s first-ever UFC on FOX event scored a 3.1 household rating and an average audience of 5.7 million viewers.

That’s up for sharply from the initial estimates of 4.64 million viewers.

According to FOX officials, the Nov. 12 broadcast was the highest-rated event in UFC history, and once final figures are in, it’s expected to win the adults 18-34, adults 18-49, men 18-34 and men 18-49 demographics.

5.7 million viewers for a single 64 second fight is fairly impressive.  And hey, it’s almost three times as long as Armen Keteyian’s interview with Mike McQueary!  But perhaps more importantly, it’s winning those young demos that will have Fox and the UFC popping the champagne bottles.  Networks obsess over winning those young/male demos and the fight delivered.  And really, this could only be the beginning for Dana White and UFC…

The Velasquez-Dos Santos fight is the starting point for a 7 year, 100 million dollar deal UFC signed with Fox.  The arrangement has four live events on Fox per year, several other live events and The Ultimate Fighter on FX, and other appearances on Fox’s array of platforms.  The money is nice for UFC, the exposure is priceless.  

No other sports-themed reality show has had the impact on a sport The Ultimate Fighter has had for UFC.  Moving from Spike to FX isn’t quite going from the outhouse to the penthouse in cableland, but it’s a definitive improvement.  It’s hard to measure just how impactful live fights on cable and network television will improve the marketing and reach of MMA in the infancy of the UFC/Fox deal.  Make no mistake though it is going to be hugely significant. You’re going to be seeing, hearing, and reading about the UFC a great deal in the next seven years – more so than ever before.

On the other hand, boxing hasn’t been less relevant in years, and sadly, that’s saying something.  It’s hard to pinpoint the moment UFC surpassed boxing in overall popularity in the last five to ten years, but this Saturday may have been the final knockout blow.  The one fight fans want to see (Pacquiao-Mayweather) continues to live only in our collective imagination.  Instead on Saturday, Manny Pacquiao fought Juan Manuel Marquez for the third time and should have lost, evaporating some of the potential intrigue for a Mayweather fight.  

The only time boxing makes the news is the death of a former champion, the latest controversy, or another disappointing heavyweight title fight.  I’m a boxing fan, I’ve tried to hold on for as long as I could, but the insipid, tedious, boring slapfest that was Haye-Klitschko this summer was the final straw.  As UFC enters a brighter spotlight, boxing fades further and further into the background.  Boxing longs for the days when Charley Steiner was being hunted down by Evander Holyfield in Bristol hallways.

And yes, I realize the whole “Boxing vs MMA” debate is rather cliched at this point.  There can be room for both to be successful and relevant sports.  Nevertheless, you have to be on the end of a Mike Tyson uppercut to not see these trends and the reality of 2011 for where these two sports are.

Velasquez-Dos Santos and the primetime debut isn’t a coronation for the UFC, though.  NASCAR, poker, hockey, and soccer have all had their ups and downs trying to break through and carve out a bigger space amidst football, basketball, and baseball.  There are a few keys for UFC to make sure they keep going up from those 5.7 million viewers instead of suffering a letdown.

Like any sport, UFC is going to need to build their stars.  One of the issues I’ve always had with gaining interest in UFC on any sort of in-depth level is an ability to relate to the fighters and know who the main guys are, especially in the heavyweight division.  Former WWE star Brock Lesnar looked like he could be the man to carry UFC into this new age, but he’s battled losses in the octagon and extended illnesses as well.  Cain Velasquez beat Lesner, got injured, didn’t fight for over a year… and then lost in his first defense.  Now it’s Junior Dos Santos’ turn at the top.  There are great champions throughout UFC that speak to the hardcore MMA fans (see Anderson Silva), but who can be the face of UFC moving forward that can cross over and bring in more casual fans to the sport?

Dana White is going to play a major role in selling those fighters.  He is the UFC.  No one person is perhaps more synonymous with the sport than its president, which can be a blessing and a curse.  White is outspoken, charismatic, and a draw with MMA fans.  He isn’t some hollow suit giving a douchy smile on ESPN when locking out his players (right, David Stern?).  Dana White is above all a fan of MMA – Fox even incorporated him into the initial broadcast!  But White’s outspokenness and ability to get pissed off quickly is a volative mix.  He had this to say when questioned about showing only 64 seconds of action on UFC’s Fox debut while the undercard was being shown online:

“For anybody to b—h about this fight and they didn’t get to see that fight – shut up. You should’ve bought tickets then if you wanted to see all the fights and you don’t like to watch it on Facebook. Seriously, shut up. I don’t even want to hear it.”

Well, then.  It’s a fine line between between appeasing and angering folks by sharing what you really think all the time.  It only takes one stupid comment to do irrevocable harm to a reputation.

But perhaps most importantly, UFC is going to have to stay clean of the scandal, corruption, and confusion that has plagued its predecessor.  They are already one major step ahead by having the top fighters under one roof with an organized structure.  There is one UFC heavyweight champ, middleweight champ, etc.  There’s no need to guess amongst 4, 5, or 27 different federations to try and figure out who the best fighter may be.  There doesn’t need to be a Ring Magazine list to try and make sense of it.  In addition, UFC will have to consistently deliver the in-ring action.  First round knockouts are nice, but more fights and longer fights need to provide the foundation and continue to draw in more fans.  It’ll be very interesting to see how UFC builds their first true FX and Fox cards, which fighters are featured, and how those are eventually received by a wider audience.  

For now, UFC can celebrate a successful beginning on Fox and plant their flag at the top of the fight game.  Where they go from there remains to be seen.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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