Saturday night’s debut of the UFC on Fox was quite a spectacle from press row at the Honda Center in Anaheim, and judging by the TV numbers many viewers agreed, despite the abbreviated fight, which ended in just over a minute when Junior dos Santos took the heavyweight strap away from Cain Velasquez (for the record I told a UFC official before the fight Velasquez would win by first-round KO…nice call). All in all, it was a great debut for UFC on network television in many respects. UFC showed that it is ready for primetime, and Fox looked more than willing – and able - to be a part of the ride.
Here are some notes and thoughts from Anaheim and the morning after:
INSIDE THE NUMBERS: According to Fox’s early figures, the event averaged about 5.7 million viewers. And don’t quote me on these numbers, but I understand the quick knockout sent about 25% of the audience packing for the final 20 minutes of the show, which obviously brought down the average for just an hour-long show. That’s a pretty good figure for what was basically a very well promoted dress rehearsal. By that I mean Fox stuck to just one fight in a one-hour window, which my guess is will not be the case going forward. I’d expect a multi-fight, two-hour show for UFC on Fox 2 in January. For those wondering, Fox did not have the rights to show the rest of the fights Saturday night on air, as Spike TV technically still owns those rights until the end of the year, so what turned out to be the best fight of the night – the one before the main event — was only available online. And if you didn’t like that, Dana White says to shut up. Honestly, he said that in the post-fight press conference. Tremendous. He is a journalist’s dream.
QUICK AND PAINFUL: The 64-second KO made that fight the quickest end to a highly-anticipated premiere on Fox since Lonestar (apologies to my Twitter follows – at @BCBenGrossman – who already heard that line Saturday night).
Seriously, I read a lot of people on Twitter and elsewhere saying the 64-second KO was a nightmare for Fox. You couldn’t be more wrong. People don’t tune into UFC to see a ballet, especially the heavyweights. They tune into see someone get punched or kicked in the face and go to sleep. Sorry to say it out loud, but it’s true. Believe me, I love the technical aspects of a beautiful ground game as much as anyone, but when heavyweights bang, the fans want a KO, and they got a big one.
The fact is, there were two nightmare scenarios for that fight for Fox and UFC, and neither happened. The first would be a five-round snoozefest spent on the ground wrestling, where the fans were booing the whole time. UFC is a lot like a Philadelphia Eagles home game: if the crowd doesn’t like what they see for all of 18 seconds, they start booing. Twenty-five minutes of booing and boredom would have been awful, but these two fighters were picked because no one thought that would be the case. The other nightmare scenario would have been if the ref let the fight go on too long. When Junior knocked Cain down and then delivered a couple blows, Cain quickly became defenseless. But the ref jumped right in, and thankfully for Fox, because if he lets it go and Junior keeps punching a defenseless man on the ground, that’s when the people who still think UFC is human cockfighting would start writing their press releases. A dynamic knockout is hardly a nightmare. That’s MMA. It ain’t scripted.
IT WAS RAINING CELEBS: A 3pm red carpet may not sound like the sexiest thing, but the beautiful people (and Mickey Rourke) were out in full force. From 3-5, celebs jumped out of their limos and were whisked into a covered red carpet as rain poured down in Anaheim. If you like the bold-faced names, you could enjoy seeing people like Eric Stonestreet, Mandy Moore, David Arquette, Jenna Jameson (I just report, I do not comment), UFC legend Bas Rutten and tons of Fox and FX celebs like cast members from Glee, New Girl and Sons of Anarchy. Speaking of Sons, seeing a few SAMCRO members and Jameson in the same place made me think a cameo for her would be a natural. Someone call Kurt Sutter. And even Ronnie the Limo Driver from the Howard Stern show was in the house.
ABOUT THAT RIVALRY…: For those who think UFC hates boxing (and vice versa), this may throw some water on that fire: at the swanky post-game party Fox and UFC threw in a massive tent outside the Honda Center, the Pacquiao-Marquez fight was showing on every single TV in the venue, even as Neon Trees was playing a live concert and Lindsay Lohan’s ex was spinning tunes from a DJ set-up.
THE LUCKIEST MAN IN SHOW BUSINESS: Goes to Jay Glazer. The well-regarded Fox NFL insider is a huge MMA guy, as he trains fighters and lives in MMA circles when he’s not breaking big NFL scoops for Fox. So imagine his luck when the network he already works for goes out and snags UFC, and now his worlds can collide – all while he gets paid for it. Glazer looked like the happiest man in the world this weekend, and rightfully so.
FOX BOUGHT LOW: In the end, I think Fox bought low on UFC, as crazy as that sounds for something this popular and despite reports (I have not seen confirmed figures) that UFC’s pay per view numbers are down this year. But the fact is there is still a massive percentage of people that think the sport is too brutal, and many of those actually represent potential fans once they actually see it – which the Fox and FX deal will help happen. Mixed martial arts is no more brutal than boxing, but because of its history, it still has a lot of people to convince otherwise. That will just take some time. UFC is still very, very young.
And Fox and FX will help UFC with one of the biggest upsides it still has: creating more mainstream stars. UFC die-hards already know who they love and hate, as I saw firsthand when I ran into a fighter I know named Michael Bisping (who once threatened to beat me up on HDNet), and the Anaheim crowd absolutely rained boos down on him while he and I chatted on the arena stairs.
But there are guys like Jon “Bones” Jones who the mainstream sports world doesn’t know yet but have major star appeal, inside and outside the octagon, and that’s where Fox and FX are going to take UFC to a new level if all goes well. That’s where the upside is in this for everyone.
UFC on Fox could have gone better but it definitely could have gone much worse. The fact of the matter is Saturday night showed that Fox is exactly what UFC needed, and UFC can be a major player for Fox, FX and whatever Fuel ends up being down the road, for a long, long time.