One of the major talking points in the weeks following the announcement of the UFC on Fox deal back in August was the logistical nightmare it would cause in attempting to find prominent match-ups without diminishing the pay-per-view product. Both Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta consistently stated the importance of the company's PPV model, going so far as to say that it is still their number one priority. As we've seen over the last few weeks, the game of finding the delicate balance the UFC seeks has created a whirlwind of speculation.
That speculation came to an end on Friday afternoon. The UFC announced that current UFC champion Cain Velasquez would attempt to defend his title for the first time against Brazilian striker Junior dos Santos on November 12 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. It will serve as the only televised fight on the inaugural UFC on Fox event.
Why did the UFC sacrifice a major heavyweight title fight that would have appeared a week later as the UFC 139 headliner? Isn't that completely against what the UFC was telling us back in August? "This is Fox, you dolt! You can't limp in with a subpar main event.", says Captain Obvious. The entire idea behind prioritizing the PPV model was to eliminate this type of logic. Build new stars on Fox, hype upcoming PPV events, and line-up fights on the network cards that achieve both of those objectives.
Alistair Overeem's name came up frequently this week as it was reported that a deal with the UFC was imminent. That news combined with the timely announcement of a UFC on Fox media call cemented a bout with Frank Mir in the minds of many fans. Hell, I thought it sounded phenomenal. A closer look, however, deemed it ridiculous. How many casual viewers of MMA have ever heard of Alistair Overeem? Not many. He isn't pulling down huge ratings based on his physique alone. Get real.
Tito Ortiz vs. Rich Franklin, Vitor Belfort vs. Dan Henderson, Dan Henderson vs. Anderson Silva, Ben Henderson vs. Clay Guida, the list goes on and on. Every single dream fight has a certain amount of appeal, but none of these fights have the long-term potential of a Velasquez vs. dos Santos showdown on network television.
Let's dig a little deeper than the perfunctory thoughts that both men will produce fireworks. That's a given in a five-round fight between two heavyweights who have a history of producing extensive damage to their opponents. What about the fact that a UFC heavyweight title fight will air live on network television? A significant fight that would normally air on pay-per-view is free!? Every casual fan will watch it, and it will undoubtedly spark the curiousity of those who don't normally watch the UFC, including mainstream media outlets.
It's also an opportunity to do exactly what the UFC set out to do with this deal. Produce stars. As prominent as Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos are in the heavyweight rankings, they aren't household names who bring in high pay-per-view numbers. Dos Santos drew roughly 325 - 350k in a main event showdown with Shane Carwin at UFC 131. UFC 121 was rumored to have drawn close to 1 million buys on the shoulders of Brock Lesnar. The jury is still out whether Velasquez gained any drawing power from that fight, but his lengthy absence due to injury has surely diminished any of the benefits.
The placement of this bout on the network card should build both fighters as future stars. Both men are young, speak English, and perform in an exciting fashion. They are also housed in a division that has a historical trend of appealing to the casual fans of combat sports. In my mind, it's a fight that won't lose for the UFC, even if it diminishes the quality of UFC 139 one week later.
There in lies the other question however. Will the fight's absence hurt UFC 139 significantly? Take your pick of fantasy match-ups from the laundry list of suggestions fans made this week and add it to the card. How about we add Ben Henderson vs. Clay Guida and Alistair Overeem vs. Frank Mir? What about Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua? Promote a combination of those fights during the UFC on Fox broadcast, and I'm willing to bet UFC 139 gets a nice bump in viewership.
I doubt that the UFC's decision to feature such a prominent fight will become a trend. We won't see every future Fox card feature a fight of this caliber. This decision does, however, suggest that the UFC wants to blow the doors off the ratings' ceiling. They want monster numbers that soar into the realm of other major sports. A feat that would turn the heads of ignorant mainstream media outlets. If that happens, lesser main cards down the road will receive the royal treatment, and that could help the UFC produce even more stars for the future. If a legitimate pay-per-view headliner must be sacrificed for that, so be it. It's a brilliant move by the UFC.