By Matt Larkin
With the UFC’s first major network-TV event arriving this Saturday night, it’s worth revisiting the ramifications of such a venture. Does Saturday mark the dawn of a new era in mixed martial arts or is the significance overhyped? Will Velasquez vs. Dos Santos enthral millions of viewers or fall on its face?
To get sense of what Saturday means, let’s look at two factors: media exposure and fight quality.
At this point, it would be a shock if Saturday’s heavyweight title bout didn’t end up as the highest-rated free-TV MMA event ever. It may not feel like FOX has gone overboard with promotion, opting for plugs during NFL telecasts, ads sprinkled throughout primetime and the odd studio interview But we can’t underestimate how many more eyeballs watch FOX than watch Spike TV – or pay-per-view, for that matter. Even the UFC Primetime preview show, which first aired on a lazy Sunday afternoon, drew record ratings for the UFC.
So it’s safe to say that, at least in terms of exposure, Saturday’s card is extremely significant for MMA. However, that doesn’t mean the first UFC on Fox telecast is guaranteed to explode the sport into widespread popularity.
To me, fight quality is just as important as the viewership itself. If you’re an MMA purist, you may hate it when a newbie fan gets bored by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, and other forms of grappling. However, even if it’s unfair, it’s a simple truth that the ground game takes longer for a new fan to learn. A wild striking affair is more likely to first-timers over. So, for example, if Velasquez takes Dos Santos down and lays on top of him for five rounds, the result could be disastrous for the UFC. The same people who didn’t give the sport a chance before will turn off their TV believing their skepticism was validated.
The good news is that we’re fairly likely to see a great fight on Saturday. Velasquez a is world-class wrester who remains very active on the ground and Dos Santos is a world-class boxer with great hand speed and power. Both guys finish opponents more often than not. So it’s fair to expect fireworks.
However, a thrilling fight isn’t guaranteed – and neither is a widespread explosion in MMA popularity. If the stars align and we’re treated to an epic heavyweight war, the Earth might move, but the UFC is probably better off expecting incremental gains for now.