Josh Gross
Monday November 2nd, 2009

As mixed martial arts gears up for a hectic November, here are five questions worth asking before Thanksgiving rolls around.

Before Brock Lesnar pulled out of his Nov. 21 UFC title defense against Shane Carwin, November was shaping up to be a unique month for the heavyweight division.

Led by perennial No. 1, Fedor Emelianenko, four of the top 10 heavyweights were set to make a statement. If you include Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva, two big men on the cusp of a top-10 ranking, and Cain Velasquez, who fought on Oct. 24, the elite heavyweights have been busy. That's a good thing considering the talent emerging from a division often maligned for its "kiddie pool" depth.

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.

This is it for Emelianenko and his crew of promoters, media managers and marketers. After pining to get him in front of American audiences under their terms, Emelianenko will fight on network television, meaning the scope of his worth as a sellable mixed martial artist should finally be determined.

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.

Slice raked in 7.28 million viewers when MMA debuted on CBS in May 2008, and he scored again with 6.45 million in October 2008. For Emelianenko, anything less than a peak rating of 5.5 million will be considered a major disappointment. I think the Russian will come in north of that, but not enough to eclipse the YouTube sensation.

I'm no fortune-teller, and the options in November are numerous. Based on matchups, styles and history, we can pare down the list of potentially memorable fights to a handful.

In no particular order:

Fedor Emelianenko vs. Brett Rogers (Strikeforce, Nov. 7 on CBS) -- Whenever Fedor fights, it's an event. His first effort in a cage makes this one in particular unique. If Rogers can muster any kind of effort, this could be a bout remembered for quite some time.

Jake Shields vs. Jason Miller (Strikeforce, Nov. 7 on CBS) -- Battling for the Strikeforce middleweight title, Shields vs. Miller should manifest into a ground war, with submission attempts aplenty.

Mike Swick vs. Dan Hardy (UFC 105, Nov. 14 on SpikeTV) -- Billed as a No. 1-contender fight in the UFC welterweight division, this bout is compelling on those stakes alone, perhaps even more so than Randy Couture's return to light heavyweight against Brandon Vera.

Mike Thomas Brown vs. Jose Aldo (WEC 44, Nov. 18 on Versus) -- Vying for the WEC 145-pound championship, Brown and Aldo meet in a clash of styles. Featherweight has consistently pumped out great action, and this one shouldn't be any different. If I'm forced to pick just one fight to watch in November, this is probably it.

Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin 2 (UFC 106, Nov. 21 on PPV) -- This spot was reserved for Lesnar-Carwin, and the card has certainly taken a hit with its loss. Still, while several bouts from UFC 106 -- Dustin Hazelett vs. Karo Parisyan, Josh Koscheck vs. Anthony Johnson and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Luiz Cane -- should be exciting, the Ortiz-Griffin rematch demands attention for the storylines surrounding both fighters.

November will test even the truest MMA fan. By my count, between Nov. 6 and Nov. 21 there are seven cards worthy of attention, including four major events.

Some have speculated that too much MMA is a bad thing, for the sport cannot continue on its current pace without burning out fans. Overexposure will lead to waning interest, and fights deserving hype and media coverage will fall by the wayside simply as a matter of circumstance.

Cards like Sengoku 11 in Japan on Nov. 7 don't stand a chance. The bright lights of major events the following evening will drown out prospect-driven Strikeforce Challengers events on Showtime. Maybe that's how it should be. But to this point, promoters put fights on because fans demand it.

Can that continue?

November will tell us. Something positive to take away from it all is the number of quality cards available away from pay television. The UFC's decision to run one of its two November events on SpikeTV was the way to go. And the return of MMA to network television can't be viewed as a negative.

At the start of 2009, I felt the year would render a verdict about the state of MMA's promotional landscape in North America. Zuffa clearly isn't going anywhere. It has established the UFC brand as delivering must-see events, and while it's been a struggle, those efforts have extended to the WEC and lighter-weight divisions.

But what of a competitor? Strikeforce, along with its television partners Showtime and CBS, have done their part to provide fighters and fans with additional options. And November provides a wonderful example of that.

Zuffa and Strikeforce are each responsible for three events this month. While the promotional companies won't go head to head, comparisons in ratings and quality of MMA produced will undoubtedly make it feel as if they have.

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