What does the Ultimate Fighting Championship look like on live network television? We got a taste of it Saturday when Fox aired the UFC heavyweight championship between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos. For fight fans, this was a pinnacle moment -- a chance to share the very best of the sport they love with co-workers, friends and family who’d never watched it before. The fight lasted only 64 seconds, but there was much more than that to glean from this historical broadcast. Here are my observations …
Strong start out of the blocks
Fox Sports Media Group CEO David Hill wasn’t kidding when he told reporters earlier this week the network would add a cheeky viewer warning to the telecast. You knew you were going to be watching something different when Fox flashed this at the top of the hour:
“The following might be the most exciting live sporting event in the history of television, and it’s our duty to say: VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.”
Well played, Fox.
However, the telecast’s tone took a serious turn as the opening intro welcomed the UFC Heavyweight Championship into the Fox Sports lineup alongside other notable sporting events like the Pac-12 Tournament, Daytona 500 and World Series.
I have to admit I got chills as the familiar Fox Sports theme began to play, and NFL broadcaster Curt Menefee’s voice joined in to welcome us. We were on the red carpet (Pan from Mandy Moore to UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre), and then we were in the bowels of the Honda Center, walking with UFC heavyweight champion Velasquez as he made his building entrance earlier in the afternoon.
Fox then launched into an effective, one-minute history sequence, telling fans that today was the 18th anniversary of the sport, one that was born out of the burning question of which fighting style would dominate all others. Images moved from Royce Gracie to modern-day UFC footage, as we were taught that it took a combination of many disciplines to reign supreme. Mixed martial arts was established as a global sport, the UFC is its top organization in the world, and its fighters some of the most skilled athletes around.
Heavy on exciting footage yet light on dialogue, Fox and the UFC excelled with this tight, concise opening package – one I thought new fans could follow and established fans would respect.
Fox Panel was a (White) wash
At the Fox Sports panel table, Menefee and UFC President Dana White rolled right into breaking down the main attraction. White looked edgy (understandably so), but as his words shot out of his mouth like a cannon, I immediately wondered how viewers would interpret his excitability/nervousness, having no previous knowledge of his take-no-prisoners promoting style. I also wished he’d take a breath, lower his voice a decibel or two and just slow down. He knows his product better than anybody, but if people can’t follow what he’s saying, it’s wasted real estate.
In contrast, former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar joined the panel as if he’d just rolled off the massage table. He was jovial, smooth and relaxed. Lesnar immediately presented a confident point of view, establishing what his place was in the heavyweight division’s big picture, thus validating his seat on the panel.
Lesnar, a 2000 NCAA wrestling champion, led with his strong suit, highlighting Velasquez’s own pedigree and noting how Dos Santos’ excellent takedown defense would be key. The former WWE showman even corrected White when he stated that Dos Santos had already blown through the best wrestlers in the heavyweight division (Lesnar and Dos Santos haven’t fought yet), which segued into the most interesting analysis of all the panel segments.
Though Dos Santos had sidetracked his chance for a rematch, Lesnar’s post-fight analysis remained straightforward and on point. White seemed irritated, focusing on Velasquez’s decision not to use his wrestling outright to try to take his opponent down. But as the UFC’s minority owner, was White really upset about the fight ending so quickly, leaving less of a window for channel-surfers to catch it?
Regarding the third chair, active fighters who join the analysts’ table can be stilted, sometimes intimidated and tend to hold back with their boss sitting next to them. Though I think there are a few retired fighters who could fill the third chair easily (Randy Couture and Pat Miletich immediately come to mind), I have to admit Lesnar was an exception Saturday. He spoke his mind and offered relevant analysis in an easily digestible fashion. Dare I say he was even likable?
In January, I wouldn’t mind seeing White back as a guest at the table for one segment, but the Fox panel should really be left for objective sports journalists or ex-fighters who don’t work for or own a piece of the sporting event they’re talking about. (I’d make an exception with Lesnar because he was that good.)
What we walk away with
A lot of fight fans reached out to me on Twitter in the minutes following the fight, some upset, some worried that the 64-second demo put on display spelled doom for both the UFC and the sport. In hindsight, they asked me why the UFC and Fox aired only one fight. With the faster, more action-packed pace the lighter divisions usually deliver, why hadn’t they picked what turned out to be a thrilling three-rounder between lightweights Benson Henderson and Clay Guida instead?
First of all, I want everyone to take a deep breath. (After White unloaded on a hapless reporter at the post-fight news conference, he seemed to take his, too, finally.)
This was just a test run, more of a technical dress rehearsal, if you will. This was more about the nuts and bolts. Fox has their broadcast team, and the UFC has theirs. On Saturday, they joined and put together an hour of programming on live network television.
Why one fight? It was easier to execute the timing and there was less left up to chance. It was also easier to market one fight. It was as simple as that.
Fox wants to hit the ground running in January, and I think they did a top-notch job promoting the heck out of an appetizer to what looks like a promising time of growth for the UFC and the sport heading into 2012
The UFC and Fox made the right decision choosing the heavyweight championship bout. “Heavyweight championship” is a term general sports fans understand and offered the most marketing potential outside of MMA’s established circles. That’s right. Saturday night wasn’t about hard-core fans or even the casual MMA fan. It was about a demographic that’s never laid eyes on MMA before.
For Velasquez and Dos Santos, their objective would have been the same whether they were fighting on network television or on a pay-per-view. They both wanted to win as fast as possible, leaving the octagon with as minimum damage as possible. Dos Santos aced his job.
No one can tell how a fight will play out. Not the UFC. Not Fox. Henderson and Guida dropped each other in the first round. Had either had an off night, one could have finished the other.
This wasn’t a make-or-break night for the UFC. Their deal with Fox is in place, and you will see another live event on the network at the end of January, plus more fights on FX and Fuel TV.
The UFC has more rounds coming, and the beauty of this sport guarantees each time will be different. Saturday was only the blueprint.
Overall Grade: B-
-- Loretta Hunt