The first UFC on Fox was a “bonus” that we had never asked for, nor did we complain when we got it (or, at least until Cain Velasquez made the work too easy that night for Junior dos Santos). That was the table-setter for the seven-year relationship between the UFC and Fox -- a heavyweight championship fight, broadcast as a privilege to fans as a red carpet, prime time affair.
The event was so touted and singled out that Benson Henderson and Clay Guida, a guaranteed piece of entertainment that night, was relegated to Facebook status with no chance for TV air time.
In retrospect, it seems impossible that a bout like that would get neglected. But it kicked off a new era, and the triumph didn’t belong to the new champion dos Santos alone. He was the small picture. The real triumph belonged to the UFC and to MMA in general, for breaking down the partition between niche and mainstream.
Here we are after four network TV shows, and that wild-on-paper first one remains the biggest.
Since then we’ve seen some reaches, some cautionary tales and some "must never" repeats. There was Rashad Evans against Phil Davis, a pair of wrestlers who were intent on three rounds of nihilistic frustration. There was the Jim Miller/Nate Diaz fight that barely seemed audible in communicating to crossover audiences. There was Brandon Vera/Mauricio Rua, the fight with the golden Jon Jones sweepstakes, even if merit and good sense were the compromise. The fights on that card panned out great, if only it wasn’t going head-to-head with the Olympics.
And if, you know, the stakes were more sellable.
Yet for all those free shows -- shows that turned the media into ratings weathervanes -- none had the full artillery that we know the UFC is capable of. That changes in December for the fifth show. Whether it’s been put together on pressure to deliver after these so-so showings or otherwise, the fifth Fox card is a rare showcase of excitement, relevance and meaningful stakes.
It’s the kind of card that brings back the “ultimate proving ground” notion. The card, barring injury, controversy and fluke interventions, has it all.
There’s a belt on the line, as Henderson defends the 155-pound title against Nate Diaz. There’s a No. 1 contender fight between Alexander Gustafsson and Mauricio Rua. And then there’s Rory MacDonald and B.J. Penn, a scrap so fun to think about in nature that people speculated it might be the headliner for the show. The event is so stacked that it’s third on the depth chart.
When you break down these three fights -- and the UFC is working on a fourth fight, let’s not forget -- it looks like a blowout show. The idea of Henderson encountering the younger brother of “Stalkton” is enough by itself. Any Diaz brings polarity to the cage -- a Diaz fight is a talked about fight. And here is younger brother Nathan challenging the flying confidence of bigger/stronger/more athletic Henderson, who is setting out to break all of Anderson Silva’s records.
That’s a great stage for a title fight.
The others are showcases. The young Swede Gustafsson needs to beat a “Shogun” caliber opponent to warrant a title shot. Well, that’s what he gets. And if his name weren’t being bandied about as the last big intriguing fight for Jon Jones at light heavyweight, maybe this thing doesn’t attract. But his name does have that glint to it, and if he beats Rua, we can then begin comparing his long reach with Jones’ without adding the “he’s still green” asterisk.
Likewise, if Rua wins his stake for a title shot is no longer in question. He’ll have earned the right to fight again for the belt.
The last fight is classic, and you can thank all 38 of those stitches over MacDonald’s eye for jumping it from a pay-per-view to a free fight. Penn and MacDonald has the two ships passing in the night vibe. There’s Penn and his Hall of Fame resume coming out of “retirement” against the 23-year old MacDonald, who is so serious that he changed his nickname from the juvenile-sounding “Waterboy” to “Ares,” the Greek god of war.
Know why that one is fun? Because there’s a sense that MacDonald is moving closer and closer into his mentor/training partner Georges St. Pierre’s space. St. Pierre will have already fought Carlos Condit a couple of weeks earlier. If he defends the welterweight belt, and MacDonald shows up and blasts Penn as so many suspect he will, the inevitable conflict takes on added drama. Drama’s half the game.
In MacDonald and Gustafsson there is the future. In Penn and Rua, there are storied careers. In Diaz/Henderson, there is high voltage entertainment with a title on the line.
That’s a fun night of fights, worthy of a big pay-per-view event. But it’s free, and that’s telling. What exactly does it tell us? That the ultimate proving ground on Dec. 8 extends beyond the fighters. It extends to the UFC itself.
And the UFC is loading up to meet the challenge.