Everything changes this weekend.
Moments after the last bad boy is come for by Cops on Fox network affiliate stations nationwide Saturday evening, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will step onto a stage unlike anything it has seen before.
The one-hour special UFC on Fox (9 p.m. ET) will present just a single bout, but what a bout it is: undefeated Cain Velasquez defending his heavyweight championship for the first time against Junior dos Santos.
Now, UFC president Dana White is a salesman, no question about it. But he's a truth teller, too, when he pumps up the importance of Saturday night's fight at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. "This is, without a doubt," he said the other day, "the biggest fight in UFC history."
You can interpret that statement in many ways, and it is not hyperbole in any context. As a fight, there's nothing bigger than one in which the heavyweight championship of the world is at stake. That used to be the case in boxing -- rest in peace, Smokin' Joe Frazier -- and probably will be again someday. (You think fans are clamoring now for Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather? Imagine if those little guys each went 220 pounds.)
Well, in mixed martial arts, the heavyweight division is healthier and more intriguing, with enough big, tough guys to create matchups exhilarating enough to overshadow even the greatness of champs, like Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and Anderson Silva. The bigger they are, the harder they maul.
Beyond that, if you assess this UFC on Fox event purely as a moment in sports history, it is unmatched by anything that has come before it in the octagon. Sure, combat sports fans might be watching college wrestling meets or their kids' karate classes this weekend if not for the Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar slugfest in the finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter back in 2005. There's no denying that thrilling three-rounder's role in solidifying the UFC's place on TV, and therefore its survival as a viable -- and soon to spread like wildfire -- sports entity, but that was cable TV. How does that compare to the entry into network TV made possible by UFC on Fox? Well, Spike is a phone booth, Fox is the biggest stadium in the league.
Within the past year, the UFC has been to Germany, Australia, Brazil, England and three cities in Canada. One of those cities north of the border, Toronto, drew a record 56,000 fans. At the risk of doing Dana's sell job for him, let's just say this sport is growing faster than it can be fitted for a new suit. Network TV takes that growth to a whole new level. Millions will be watching Saturday, and a good many will be seeing the UFC for the first time.
Want to make a good first impression? Cain vs. Junior is the best bet the UFC has.
These are not simply big guys but high-octane big guys. According to Fight Metric, which keeps statistics for the UFC, Velasquez and Dos Santos are the organization's top two fighters -- in any weight class -- in terms of landing a steady stream of significant strikes. Cain is the best of all, connecting with an average of 7.46 significant punches, kicks or other strikes a minute, while Dos Santos is next, at 6.79. No one else is within a strike. So expect to see leather flying, and then expect to hear the thud of it landing. And that's just the fisticuffs. Be prepared for kicks and knees and the whole arsenal of MMA striking, and grappling as well.
Having said all of that, the UFC nonetheless has work to do in developing an audience beyond the folks with closets full of black TapouT t-shirts. To many in the non-MMA public, Cain and Junior are no better known than Kimbo Slice, the last fighter to headline a network event (2008's EliteXC event on CBS), since he at least had a big following from his street fighting videos. Of course, Kimbo was basically the bare-knuckles version of the Paris Hilton sex tapes, while Velasquez and Dos Santos are the real deal. And Fox has been incessantly hyping their showdown, practically between pitches during the World Series and at every break in the action during NFL telecasts. And every promo trumpeted that this is for the heavyweight championship. Which means something.
386: days since his last fight (KO of Brock Lesnar, Oct. 23, 2010).
61: Percent of his strikes that have landed over his career (according to Fight Metric), putting him second (behind Anderson Silva) in UFC history. Dos Santos, generally considered a superior striker, has landed less than 50 percent.
8: Knockouts among his nine victories, six coming in the first round.
2: Consecutive decisions (wins over Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin) after his first 11 victories were stoppages: eight KOs, two strikes-related submissions (a hurt Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic verbally quit, the other tapped out from exhaustion) and one guillotine submission.
10: Victories (among his 13) that have ended in the first round (all but the two decisions and the third-round verbal submission by Cro Cop).
83: Percent of takedown attempts avoided. (Velasquez is fourth in UFC career stats in successful takedowns, at 82 percent.)
What we should expect: Expect action. Expect some hard punches to land. And beyond that, if we're lucky, maybe a little back-and-forth. Neither Velasquez nor dos Santos has ever been put in serious trouble in a UFC fight, but now, in facing each other, they're both going to be in with someone with the speed, power and athleticism to do damage. Will this bout be won by the first guy who lands a big shot? Or will the one who's initially rocked show the resiliency to come back with some heavy leather of his own? I think there'll be some give and take . . . and, if the champ has his way, some takedowns as well.
Why we should care: Duh! It's the heavyweight championship. It's the first UFC fight on network television. It's the end of the world as we know it (and Dana White feels fine).
Tank for the memory: If Cain Velasquez is Exhibit A of today's state-of-the-art heavyweight -- lean, athletic, versatile -- then a well-known, if not so accomplished, example of old-school MMA for big guys would be Tank Abbott. With a belly that would make Roy Nelson jealous, and a one-dimensional barroom-brawling style, the "pit fighter" from Huntington Beach goes all the way back to UFC 6. He's still fighting at small-time fight events in California, with an 11-14 record. One of his losses came to Paul Buentello (KO, 43 seconds) in a Strikeforce main event back on Oct. 6, 2006 -- the same card on which Velasquez made his MMA debut, a TKO of Jesse Fujarczyk at 1:58 of the first round.
Mamouth upset: Joaquim "Mamute" Ferreira. That's the answer to an MMA question if there's a Brazilian version of Trivial Pursuit. Mamute, which is Portuguese for "mamouth," is the only fighter to defeat Junior dos Santos, doing so via armbar in a 2007 bout in Sao Paulo. It was a rematch of a matchup won by dos Santos some seven months earlier, when Ferreira submitted because of exhaustion (or at least was tired of being beaten up) in the first round. Ferreira (11-7) still is active, fighting as recently as last Saturday in a loss (first round, guillotine choke) to Damian Grabowski in an MMA Attack event in Warsaw, Poland.
"Dos Santos is a great opponent. He's very dangerous."--Velasquez, during a UFC on Fox conference call with sports media
"Now is my time."--Dos Santos, after his June victory over Shane Carwin, speaking of the title shot he earned that night
"I can guarantee you if this fight goes 30 seconds or 30 minutes, this is going to be a fight right here!"--Dana White, at the press conference announcing UFC on Fox
The NFL on Fox: Brock Lesnar almost made the Minnesota Vikings. Yet, when he was coaching against Junior dos Santos on Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter reality show on Spike, he was bested by the Brazilian in a football skills competition. (Yes, it was football, not futbol.) So why not turn cross-promotion into cross-training by inviting some pro football players to join Junior on the gridiron and in the octagon for a full-contact workout? That is, if the UFC or Fox can afford to pay all the fines Dos Santos would be hit with by the NFL for dishing out blows to the head.
So You Think You Can Dance: The heavyweights' footwork gets a revamping by renowned television hoofer Chuck Liddell.
Cops: Anaheim police are summoned to the Honda Center to quell a disturbance, but upon identifying the suspects in a physical altercation as Cain and Junior, the cops think better of getting involved. The show's reggae soundtrack immediately is changed from Inner Circle's "Bad Boys" to Peter Tosh's "You Gotta Walk (Don't Look Back)."
The Simpsons: Marge, who in an episode featuring Chuck Liddell (yes, him again) from two years ago trained in MMA but didn't fare so well in the cage, signs up with the American Kickboxing Academy's new Springfield gym and, while working out with Velasquez, gets to like the soft-spoken champ and brings him home for dinner with the family. Homer, jealous, goes out and gets a tattoo across his upper chest that says "Beer Pride."
Glee: Inspired by the online video of former octagon foes Pat Barry and Mirko CroCop driving together and singing along with the Mamas and the Papas on "California Dreamin'," Cain and Junior decide to hang up the gloves to join TV's favorite glee club. But just as they start to feel in harmony, they realize the show isn't really about singing. Melodrama ensues, and no longer feeling so mellow, the fighters put their glove back on.
Under the radar: It's billed as a co-main event, but Ben Henderson vs. Clay Guida might as well be contested in a dark alley behind the Honda Center. With Fox interested in airing only the heavyweight title bout, and there being no deal in place to shuttle the nine-bout undercard to some other Fox platform, this lightweight eliminator between fighters jostling for the next shot at champion Frankie Edgar will be available only at FoxSports.com and on the UFC's Facebook fan page. That's too bad, because these two are even more likely than the heavies to bring the action. Wanna keep up? Better have a fast modem.