There's been a line repeated a lot since the announcement of the UFC on Fox deal and decision to put Cain Velasquez's UFC heavyweight title defense against Junior dos Santos on the first broadcast. That line is usually something involving a return to the days when the heavyweight title was decided on free TV.
Dana White even put it in print in a recent column in the Chicago Sun-Times:
Not only does this mark our first event on FOX since we announced a multi-year broadcast agreement with the network this past summer, but it marks a return to the glory days for many sports fans. It signals a return to the days when sports' biggest prize - the world heavyweight title - is decided live and free on network television.
On today's UFC on Fox media call, White repeated the line again. Saying that this was a return to the Ali vs. Frazier days.
This all strikes me as strange since those "glory days" never really existed. Yes, major fights like Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman's "Rumble in the Jungle" did air on ABC....eventually.
In the glory days of heavyweight boxing, if you wanted to see a major fight, you were going to pay for it and watch it on closed circuit TV at a designated location. Ali vs. Foreman took place on September 24, 1974 but didn't hit ABC's Wide World of Sports until January 5, 1975. "The Thrilla in Manila" between Ali and Frazier took place October 1, 1975 but didn't air on ABC until January 11, 1976, instead airing on HBO.
The legendary call by Howard Cosell of "Down goes Frazier!" in the bout between Smokin' Joe and Foreman is often mistakenly thought of as being on network TV but it was actually HBO's first World Championship Boxing broadcast.
The idea of putting a major title fight on network TV has never been an overly appealing one to fight promoters.
The last time a heavyweight title was fought for on network TV was actually in 1996 when Michael Moorer fought Axel Schulz for the IBF crown. Moorer had picked up a win to get back on track after his shocking upset loss to the returning Foreman. Foreman then ducked a bout with Tony Tucker in favor of middle of the road challenger Schulz. Foreman won an absolute robbery of a decision over Schulz and then vacated his title as he chose to duck a rematch and fight unranked and undeserving Crawford Grimsley, a man whose previous 5 opponents sported a combined 45-117-2 record.
German network RTL outbid HBO to the main rights to the Schulz vs. Moorer bout but somehow ABC was able to score the rights to air it on U.S. network TV for an incredibly low sum. This was far from a glory filled match-up the networks and fans were dying to see, it was more of a matter of opportunity.
Also in 1996 a Larry Holmes vs. Anthony Willis fight (no title on the line) on CBS tanked in the ratings on Father's Day, mainly because nobody cared to see that fight. And in 1995 a fight with no title on the line between Mike Tyson and Buster Mathis, Jr. aired on Fox. The Tyson/Mathis fight was an attempt at a PR move by Don King after ripping fans off with Tyson knocking out Peter McNeeley in under a minute and a half on PPV earlier in the year.
The point here is that the UFC is doing something great. They're not taking quite the loss financially that they're playing up in the media by putting Velasquez vs. dos Santos on network TV, this is not a fight that would have sold 800,000 PPV buys. It also is a long term commercial for future PPV's that they're effectively being paid to put on by Fox.
But this is also a unique and rare situation in the history of professional combat sports. Rarely, if ever, has a heavyweight title fight of this legitimacy and importance been put live on free network TV.
Since JDS and Cain aren't exactly setting the world on fire in the build-up to the event, maybe this is a fact that the UFC could stand to put a little more emphasis on.