Main event winner Rashad Evans (left) will fight panel member Jon Jones in his next challenge. (Mike Dinovo/US PRESSWIRE)
The Ultimate Fighting Championship returned to network television Saturday with a three-fight, two-hour and 18-minute offering in prime time on the east coast. (West coasters tuned in at 5 p.m.!)
The first UFC on FOX telecast in November lasted only one hour and featured one, somewhat anti-climatic 64-second heavyweight title bout. Still, it served as an educating first-run between the two production teams (Zuffa uses its own production team for all of its events). Let’s see how FOX and the UFC fared with an expanded presentation this second time around.
Panel Boosted by Legend
I’ll start with the FOX Sports panel table because that’s where the November broadcast struggled the most. In the middle chair, an erratic UFC President Dana White was gone and replaced by retired six-time UFC champion and Hall of Famer Randy Couture. Full disclosure here: I’ve interviewed the very smooth and eloquent Couture countless times since 2001 and wrote his memoirs with him in 2008. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone that would argue with me that Couture didn’t do a stellar job on Saturday night. Relaxed and always smiling, Couture was engaging and easy to understand (something I think is crucial at this point for the new audience demo). Couture’s superb wrestling credentials (he’s a four-time Olympic alternate) made him the expert to cast with four of the six fighters hailing from amateur wrestling backgrounds. Since 2001, I saw Couture’s future career in sports broadcasting; Couture has a great instinct for what the audience wants to know (before they even do) and can deliver it. FOX was right on the money to hire him. They shouldn’t let him go. He will be a reliable anchor for the team in years to come.
Another reason why Couture works so well in the broadcaster’s role is he’s had a massive amount of on-camera experience in film and television; Couture forgot about the camera a long time ago. Unfortunately, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones didn’t have that same reaction Saturday. I can honestly say we’ve found something that Jones isn’t phenomenal at out of the gate. Jones was nervous, which manifested by him constantly looking down at his notes and breaking eye contact with Couture, FOX commentator Curt Menefee, and mostly importantly, the audience. Jones did have some charming moments when he wasn’t chained to his notes and he certainly has potential (We’re talking about a 24-year-old here). I understand his inclusion on the panel, being his next challenge will come from main-event winner Rashad Evans. Still, I believe a well-rounded, untethered journalist would, well, round out the panel. I like the “Tonight’s winner fights me next” angle, but that could be accomplished by having the fighter guest on the panel in the last segment following the main event’s conclusion. It would make a much bigger bang there.
On a quick note, who doesn’t like Curt Menefee? I doubt he has time to watch the UFC and MMA given his schedule with the big sports, but boy, he sure rattles off MMA stats like a pro. Bonus points for his easy, unforced interactions with Couture.
Overall, Panel 2.0 was a vast improvement on its predecessor.
Previous Grade: C+
I wrote in my last column that hearing FOX’s theme music ringing in the first broadcast in November brought chills up my spine. This time, it made me want to watch football. That theme is so synonymous with the NFL, that it feels out-of-place for an MMA event. Would FOX consider composing a theme that is original to the UFC? Zuffa respects its roots by incorporating the UFC’s original entrance music into its fighter nameplate intros. FOX could start with that and make something special.
As for other elements, Saturday’s introductory vignette leading into the first panel appearance was well produced. In 50 seconds, and with the help of UFC superfan Michael Clarke Duncan’s unmistakable baritone, viewers got a breakdown of all three fights and the stakes each carried. It was efficient and impressive (as were the fighter featurettes that ran throughout the show).
However, on its heels, we were introduced to the UFC’s robot division, one that I’m sure Cleatus will reign over for years to come. Hokey? I’ll leave that up to the viewers to decide.
Previous Grade: A
The Meat and Potatoes
There’s not much to say about the fights. We got a lot more of them on Saturday, being each one went the distance, including the five-round main event. Was this the best display of MMA I’ve ever seen? No. Was it the worst? Far from it.
Chris Weidman and Michael Bisping should get accolades for fighting above expectations against opponents many thought would outclass them. Bisping made Chael Sonnen look much less the fire-breathing demon we saw demolish Brian Stann in October. Weidman, who took his fight with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Demian Maia on 10 days’ notice, fared well enough to pull off the upset win. The issues with both these fights were the same: the fighters were so closely-matched that they exhausted themselves in the first round trying to establish dominance. It happens.
What would have boosted things was a finish in the main event, something I think former titleholder Rashad Evans was capable of against a not-quite-ready-for-primetime Phil Davis. It looked like Evans had opportunities to end the night early from the second round on, but he couldn’t seal the deal.
As one colleague put it, all three fights never got out of second gear. What we’re left with is two No. 1 contenders coming off lukewarm performances and heading into championship fights few think they can win. That’s not a particularly appetizing proposition.
And Then There’s Sonnen
What seemed to get more talk than the fights themselves was Chael Sonnen’s unapologetic leap into full-on pro wrestling promo-cutting on Saturday. Sonnen has been dancing the line between fact and fiction for a couple of years, and I personally can differentiate what’s real about Sonnen and what’s an act. Most days, he makes me laugh. The question is will new fans, who’ve had no previous knowledge of his antics, be able to understand what’s going on? I still have people asking me if MMA is real or “fake like pro wrestling.” Will Sonnen’s over-the-top promo performances sway them to think the latter? I seem to remember a time when the sport did its darnedest to get away from the pro wrestling comparisons. On the other hand, maybe times have changed.
MMA’s an Extreme Sport?
On a final note and one that doesn’t refer to Saturday’s FOX broadcast directly, is the branding (or re-branding, depending on how you look at it) of the UFC on Fuel TV. As part of its seven-year, rumored $90 million a year deal with the FOX Sports Media Group, a good piece of the promotion’s under- and mid-card programming has found its home at the fledgling Fuel TV network. Fuel’s schedule specializes in a lot of extreme sports (or actions sports, as the channel refers to them) programming, which includes snowboarding, surfing, skating, and motocross. It would make sense for Fuel to clump the UFC in with its other programming during promo spots that ran over the weekend. However, in doing so, the novice watcher walks away thinking MMA is an extreme sport. If MMA is presented as niche, will it be received as a niche sport? I always thought that MMA had a much broader future identified as the combat sport it is and that with time, MMA would produce the rich history that boxing has and prosper from it. Saturday’s Fuel TV promos said otherwise.
Overall Grade: B-
- Loretta Hunt