UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz (left), a 135-pound dynamo who fights Saturday on Versus, continues to suffer from an exposure problem.
At least Dominick Cruz is making the best of it. At least the UFC bantamweight champion is looking at Saturday night's title fight on the cable TV backwaters of Versus and choosing to look at it as a glass half full. What else can he do, when you think about it?
"What the UFC is doing is they're putting me on free TV," Cruz said on MMAFighting.com's MMA Hour recently. "I can [make it] known to the casual fan the champion [who] I am, go out there and have an outstanding performance on TV and really I get myself out there and represent the 135-pound division to a wider audience for free."
In theory, sure. That makes sense. In practice, it feels a little bit more like a punt by the UFC, which still isn't quite sure what to do with its smaller fighters.
The old conventional wisdom used to be that, below the 155-pound mark, Urijah Faber was the one and only proven, promotable commodity. If his name was on the poster, it would move pay-per-views. If it wasn't, you had a problem.
That explains why Cruz's last title defense -- a decision win over Faber -- was good enough to main event UFC 132, while this next one against challenger Demetrious Johnson gets stuck on Versus. The UFC just doesn't think fans will pay to see Cruz, and maybe it's right. But whose fault is that, anyway?
In a more just world, Cruz would be a huge draw. His indefatigable style is the perfect antidote to heavyweights who punch themselves into wheezing fits inside of one round. Watching him fight always reminds me of one of those robots in The Jetsons that would occasionally go haywire and do something horrible to poor, long-suffering George. He flies around the cage, a blur of appendages and takedowns, and it never seems like even he knows what he's going to do next. It's so fun to watch, I almost don't care that he never seems to finish fights.
And yet, the UFC doesn't seem to know what to do with the chicken-and-egg problem of promoting Cruz. Mainstream fans don't know him, so he can't headline a major fight card without a Faber along to draw the spotlight. But if you stick him on Versus cards that are free the same way bargain-bin DVDs at Wal-Mart are cheap -- which is to say, for a very good reason -- you're not exactly elevating his status.
It's not that Saturday's UFC Live event is a bad card. It's just that, sandwiched as it is between two UFC pay-per-views, it feels like a promotional afterthought. Hardcore fight fans definitely tuned in to see Jon Jones and "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 135, just like those same fight fans will almost certainly not want to miss the rubber match between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard at UFC 136 next weekend.
If you're feeling MMA'd out (or if you just happen to have a social life of any kind) this is when you might decide to do something else with your Saturday night. The UFC PR arm has its hands full promoting other, bigger events. Versus is likely a little bitter at the UFC's new deal with Fox, so it has pulled the plug on the pre- and post-fight shows it normally does. Unless you already know enough to search for it, it's hard to tell there's a fight at all this weekend, much less a title fight. And thus does the problem of Dominick Cruz get kicked on down the road.
He can't headline a major card because no one knows him, and yet no one is going to get to know him if he gets stuck on cards like this one. If he's going to break out of that vicious cycle, he needs his employer to have a little faith in him. He needs people to realize that, not only is he exciting to watch, he's also the best in the world at 135 pounds, which he continues to prove at every available opportunity.
My guess is he'll do his part once again when he meets "Mighty Mouse" Johnson in Washington D.C. this Saturday night. I just wonder if anyone will be watching when he does it.
-- Ben Fowlkes