November Will Answer Two Big Questions About Fedor Emelianenko


Josh Gross asks, 1. Will Fedor remain at the top of the heavyweight division?

Emelianenko's cage debut Nov. 7 on CBS will reveal plenty regarding the state of a weight class. For 33-year-old Russian to retain the top spot, he'll be expected to walk through 6-foot-5, 265-pound Brett Rogers. But if Rogers pulls off one of the biggest upsets in MMA history -- despite being unbeaten in 10 fights, a victory by Rogers over Emelianenko would, in my estimation, be equivalent to Buster Douglas unseating Mike Tyson -- MMA's heavyweights would, for the first time in years, face the kind of upheaval previously reserved for everyone else.

and  (this is the much more important question) 2. Is Fedor a marketable star in the U.S.?

Will a non-English-speaking European athlete captivate an American audience? It hasn't happened in boxing, though few foreign pugilists have appeared on American soil with the kind of support Emelianenko boasts among ardent MMA watchers. The expectation from network executives is for hardcore fans to watch in droves on Saturday. This we know. But what about casual fans who committed themselves in record numbers to viewing ratings king Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson on CBS, Showtime and SpikeTV?

Without "media lightning rods" like Slice or Gina Carano, both of whom deserve credit for pulling substantial ratings in the all-important male 18-34 demographic, Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president of primetime programming for CBS, hopes Emelianenko's standing as MMA's best heavyweight will resonate with casual audiences. A late marketing push on the network (full disclosure: I was quoted in promo spots that ran over the weekend on CBS) and strong pre-event media coverage (Strikeforce has received nearly three times as many media credential requests than its previous best) has the network and its promotional partner feeling good heading into fight week.

Gross also projects that anything less than a peak audience of 5.5 million for Fedor's fight will be a major disappointment. That would be a couple million less than Kimbo Slice's peak, but considerably better than the Jake Shields headlined EliteXC from July 2008. Gross expects Fedor to meet that threshold.

A few weeks back, our own Michael Rome made his own projections about how the show would do and drew similar conclusions:

On November 7, Strikeforce will put on the biggest fight it can possibly promote in Fedor Emelianenko vs. Brett Rogers.  There are lots of ratings predictions going around, but the truth is that almost nobody knows what Fedor will draw on CBS.  The safe money puts the number between the 1.9 Jake Shields and Robbie Lawler draw and the 3.1 Kimbo Slice drew against James Thompson.  The former number was a disaster, while the latter was an unmitigated success.

The implications for the future of MMA could not be bigger. While the UFC is indisputably the industry leader, so far ahead of the pack they're about to lap the competition, a successful CBS broadcast will change the playing field.

I've written a great deal in the past about how significant it would have been for the UFC to have signed Fedor after the fall of Affliction:

Dana and the Fertittas came very close to permanently locking up all five of the marquee divisions in MMA when they went balls out trying to sign Fedor Emeliananko earlier this month. Most of the analysis revolved around Fedor's motivations and the angry backlash of disappointed fans who wanted to see Fedor vs Brock Lesnar, but most missed the implications of the UFC acquiring the top heavyweight in the game. Had they locked up Fedor then Zuffa would have the #1 fighter in all seven of the divisions tracked by the USAT/SBN Consensus MMA rankings and would have effectively locked themselves in as THE major league of the sport.

But even with that final victory snatched from his grasp, Dana only pushes even harder for world domination. In the aftermath of Strikeforce's very solid ratings performance with Carano vs Cyborg, the specter of Fedor on CBS has to be keeping Dana White up at night.

It was one thing for CBS and EliteXC to have a short term success on the back of Kimbo Slice and Gina Carano, neither of whom represented a direct threat to the UFC. But if the undisputed #1 heavyweight in the world becomes a major draw on an American broadcast network and the UFC is on the outside looking in, it means there will be competition to promote the biggest MMA fights for the foreseeable future. That's big doings.


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