Josh Gross
Tuesday July 15th, 2008

More and more, mixed martial arts -- not boxing -- has sports fans asking, "Did you see the fight?" But after July 19, such an inquiry could have double meaning.

Not only is Saturday marked with two top-notch events, but both are also marketing leverage opportunities for their respective promotions and partners. While there has always been, and will continue to be, competition between promoters, never before has the consumer, so often maligned in his or her own mind, had the power to make a statement on the future direction of MMA.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship, which offers "Ultimate Fight Night 14" at the Palms in Las Vegas (airing live on SpikeTV at 9 p.m. ET), and Affliction, which will have its MMA debut with "Banned" at the Honda Center in Anaheim (on pay-per-view at 9 p.m. ET) have become dominant forces in their respective fields. But the UFC is still widely regarded as the top promotion in MMA, while Affliction, which is partially owned by Donald Trump, has made its name in clothing and, of course, real estate.

Can Affliction and Trump wage a respectable war with the UFC, the Goliath of MMA, in garnering the attention of fight fans? Doubtful.

Consider this: The UFC's PPV market share is reported at 90 percent and the brand has become synonymous with MMA. (Although, once again, "ultimate fighting" is not a blanket term for mixed martial arts.) Almost every UFC card seems to out-do older ones in viewership numbers.

Plus, millions of dollars spent by the UFC to cultivate an expanding fan base has, by extension, drastically increased MMA awareness. Mainstream media, despite the wishes of the UFC, are rightly covering mixed martial artists irrespective of the organization for which they compete. The sport, exposed May 31 on network prime-time television with CBS-EliteXC's inaugural Saturday Night Fights, drew its largest TV audience ever in the country.

Further evidence of the sport's growth sans the direct hand of the UFC is scattered throughout the United States. Corner gyms that once housed boxers are creating jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai experts, parents are enrolling children into MMA programs, fights and commentary programs are becoming more common on TV and, wherever you are, it's not too tough to catch a fight live.

In short, as the UFC grows, so does MMA. How else could one explain a former street fighter capturing the imagination of millions live in prime-time? There isn't a Kimbo Slice if the UFC doesn't persevere through $44 million in debt. Yet, major promoters have failed to gain enough traction so that going heads up with UFC where it is strongest -- branding and pay-per-view -- is more smart strategy than death wish.

Sure, the Zuffa mantra of "no other MMA content can come close to delivering the kind of content of the UFC" may dwindle in the future, but it's doubtful that will be anytime soon.

Affliction executives believe they've chosen the correct moment to make their competitors start to question their long-held avowal, but promotional marketing has lasting impact. And UFN 14 is a prime example. While Affliction is promoting several highly touted heavyweight contests Saturday, in addition to its headliner between Fedor Emelianenko, who is often regarded as the best in his class, and former UFC champ Tim Sylvia, the promotion has failed to live up to the main purpose of a fight promoter (another thing the UFC excels at): hyping fights.

Casual fans make up a significant portion of the UFC's successful PPV sales, and most are unaware of Emelianenko. Dishing out $40 to see the Russian fight at the same time as the more well-known champ Anderson Silva enters the Octagon on free TV makes Dana White's counter-programming appear both brilliant and commonsensical.

The fact that Silva is fighting in a bout that has little meaning doesn't matter. Chances are those who watch Affliction connected with Emelianenko during his heyday in PRIDE, or are educated enough to know he's the best heavyweight in the sport and they're curious to see how he'll perform against a two-time UFC champion.

In the end, the number of pay-per-view buyers won't be determined by the brand of the company promoting the fight. The motivating factor will come down to those hoping to watch quality MMA between fighters of high regard. Unlike Kimbo Slice, whose story and persona captured media and fans, Emelianenko's marketable qualities -- his incredible résumé and reputation -- aren't all that sexy.

For Affliction to be successful as a promotion, it must find a way to connect the Russian fight fans with the North American fans. If that happens, the answer to "Did you watch the fight last night?" might vary this Saturday.

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