UFC on FOX is still a work in progress
By John McMullen, Contributing MMA Editor
East Rutherford, NJ (Sports Network) - FOX was supposed to be a game-changer for The Ultimate Fighting Championship, but the relationship has stumbled out of the gate.
To be fair, no matter how you look at it, getting the sport of mixed martial arts on one of the four major networks was a coup for Dana White, but thinking that alone would take it to the next level has already proven to be specious.
Part of it has to do with ESPN, the be all, end all in professional sports these days. When the Mothership in Bristol thought there was a chance to land the UFC television package, coverage was expanded, especially for the major fights.
Now that the TV package is off the table and it was spurned, ESPN is back to treating UFC like a minor league sport, a constant in the way the network does business. In the past, ESPN has amped up its coverage of a sport like the NHL, even a fringe sport like Arena football, when any was under its umbrella.
As far as a legitimate news gathering organization, ESPN is about as reputable as FOXNews or MSNBC, but that doesn't mean it's not powerful -- in fact it's by far the most important tool White has to reach casual fans on any given day, whether he wants to admit that or not.
That said, both FOX and NBC have plans on challenging ESPN's dominance over the next few years and getting in on the ground floor with an upstart might be the more prudent move for the future. Consistent coverage on ESPN could generate an extra 200,000 buys for a major pay-per-view bout, but UFC would always play second-class citizen behind the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball with the network.
The other side of that theory, however, is that a successful FOXSports cable franchise would eventually lure more and more programming away from ESPN and UFC would be in the same position.
The UFC came out swinging with its first event on FOX offering a marquee heavyweight title fight in which Junior Dos Santos took the crown from Cain Velasquez, a bout that likely would have garnered well over 500,000 pay-per- view buys.
UFC on Fox 3, like No. 2 back in January, was more of a scaled down affair, featuring a pair of future contenders in the Johny Hendricks and the charismatic Nate Diaz.
Hendricks, a former NCAA national wrestling champion at Oklahoma State, did his part, although it was razor close. He was matched up with another high- level amateur grappler in Josh Koscheck, who has already had two chances at welterweight king Georges St, Pierre.
Koscheck was able to match Hendricks' grappling but got caught by a number of solid left hands in the third round, which likely cost him the fight. The three judges all had it 29-28, with two going for Hendricks. Koscheck certainly looked like the loser, sporting a badly swollen right eye leaving the cage.
"I knew he was a tough fighter," Hendricks said when talking about Koscheck after the fight. "You're not a top contender for as long as he's been if you're not good. God helped me with this and I couldn't be happier to get this win. I feel so blessed and privileged to be in this situation and if the title shot comes it comes, if not, I'll stand in here with anyone they put in front of me."
Diaz, the younger brother of the controversial Nick Diaz, has been red-hot at lightweight recently. A first-round submission win over former Pride champ Takanori Gomi and dominating wins over Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller on Saturday put him in line for the winner of the Benson Henderson - Frankie Edgar title bout.
Miller, a New Jersey native, entered the cage with a "homefield" edge, but that quickly ended when Diaz connected with a solid left hand late in the first round. By the second, Diaz was feeling it and taunting Miller, who took the bait and kept rushing in until the Californian, a black belt in Gracie Jiu- Jitsu, caught him in a guillotine choke at 4:19 of the frame.
"He had my number," Miller said at the post-fight news conference. "Nate controlled the fight from bell to bell. He rearranged my nose a little bit and that always sucks."
All in all, it was an entertaining night but one that lacked perceived star power.
The ratings were abysmal and told the final story. White clearly hasn't figured out the best formula yet for FOX. At this stage, however, it seems silly to give away major fights for free since PPV revenue is still UFC's Golden Goose.
As for the FOX coverage itself, it's been a mixed bag. The network's theme along with Curt Menefee hosting carries cachet and makes the sport come across as a major event, but White playing carnival barker during the first show didn't help. MMA legend Randy Couture and Brian Stann are huge upgrades in that regard.
Meanwhile, in-house announcers Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan also should be replaced in favor of FOX announcers to make things seem more like a legitimate sporting event and less like an entertainment vehicle like World Wrestling Entertainment. Think about it -- does the NFL, MBA or MLB insist on hiring their own announcers?
The mere thought of that is absurd and if you're concerned with Joe Buck's knowledge of the sport, get in the studio and teach him and the other FOX talent.
In the end, UFC on FOX 3 proved to be a mixed bag. Despite being in the New York market at the IZOD Center in North Jersey, attendance was paltry 10,788 for a major UFC event.
Understand most major newspapers and websites that cover MMA at this point still pair it with boxing and Floyd Mayweather was fighting Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas in what surely will end up being one of the two or three biggest fights of the year.
The event was also easily the least publicized UFC show on FOX to date and going head to head (kind of at least) with the Mayweather/Cotto PPV was to be kind, a questionable strategy for not only ratings but, perhaps more importantly, perception. On this night in the fight world, UFC was finishing in second place no matter what.
The point of this whole thing is to presumably grow the audience and, if anything, MMA's coverage among national news outlets has waned since the FOX deal.
Meanwhile, bouts on FUEL TV, the little known network that FOX plans to spin off as a sports channel, are significantly down in ratings from the company's old home on Spike TV. Ditto for The Ultimate Fighter reality show on FX.
Sometimes it's prudent to take a step backwards in order to take two forward. I'm not sure that was the UFC's plan when this deal started, but it has to be now.
05/08 14:35:33 ET