[Image via a.espncdn.com]
Declining ratings despite action-packed barn-burners have been a sore spot for UFC on Versus events since the beginning. It's not a lack of trying for the UFC, but Sunday's upcoming fight card has a steep mountain to climb. Aside from Spike TV's curious counter-programming of seemingly random Nate Marquardt fights (plus the card airing on a Sunday), there's one underlying problem that could hinder UFC on Versus 4 even further.
Dana White and the UFC messed up in promoting Nate Marquardt vs. Rick Story.
How? Simple — at the moment Rick Story tagged in for an injured Anthony Johnson, the UFC should have said the main event victor would be the next contender for the welterweight title.
So far, the UFC has done the usual build-up: press conference calls, interviews, commercials, online ads, and the enticing lure of free Facebook fights. But the fact remains that the main event doesn't have any official implications aside from establishing Marquardt's place in the welterweight division. Considering that each UFC on Versus event as had dwindling viewership, even with megastar Jon Jones headlining two consecutive cards, that's a significant problem. Had Dana White or the UFC announced the winner would fight GSP (or Nick Diaz, should he pull off an upset), this Versus event might have received a crucial bump in interest.
As Nate Wilcox points out at SBN Nation, things already look grim based on numbers alone:
Each UFC outing on Versus has underperformed the last in the ratings. The first installment drew a very respectable 1.24 million viewers but failed to break the WEC's record of 1.54 million viewers for Urijah Faber vs. Jens Pulver at WEC 34 in 2008. Unfortunately the second UFC Live on Versus only did 991,000 viewers and the third, lacking Jon Jones, did even worse with an average of 681,000 viewers. With Spike TV aggressively counter-programming this Sunday's event, UFC execs have to be a little nervous.
Rick Story is pushing the ceiling of the welterweight division. We're no longer looking at a fighter who was barely able to get past the likes of Jesse Lennox and Nick Osipczak. Story has turned into a wrecking machine with the dangerous capacity to fight harder when he's hurt. Anyone who watched his match with Thiago Alves was probably as baffled as I was when Story started blocking hand grenades with his face late in the fight. It's time for his title shot, and even Story rightly seems to think so:
"I’d have to win maybe one more fight if it’s a decision win," said Story, on whether or not beating Marquardt would give him a title shot. "If it’s a finish, I don’t know. A finish over an opponent like Nate would put me in a position where I deserve the shot even more."
On the other side of things, Nate Marquardt's move to the welterweight division isn't getting the right kind of attention. Although the three-time King of Pancrase has continually come up short at 185 pounds, the fact remains that he's still in the upper echelon of UFC talent. Marquardt's move to welterweight is getting more of a "raised eyebrow" look from fans — an interesting development in a stagnant division, but not much more.
Again, this main event would be carrying completely different heat into the weekend as a contender eliminator, and considering Marquardt's reputation and Story's excellent winning streak, it's a missed opportunity by the UFC.
It will be interesting to see how UFC on Versus 4 performs. Spike TV seems to be doing the best they can to sabotage the UFC's partnership with Versus, and Marquardt doesn't have strong name value with casual fans. All things considered, this may be another exciting, free UFC card that goes woefully underwatched.
[McKinley Noble is a staff editor at GamePro and an MMA conspiracy theorist. Follow his Twitter account for crazy talk, 1990s movie references, and general weirdness. Or you could just stalk him on Google.]