What did we expect of UFC on network TV?

November, 14, 2011
11/14/11
1:14
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Junior Dos Santos Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireIncoming: It didn't take long for MMA critics to go on the attack after UFC's network debut.
Heading into its network debut on its 18th birthday, guessing games as to how the UFC would fare tended toward the optimistic. Numbers like 8 million were very casually discussed (if loosely grasped). The 2008 Kimbo Slice/James Thompson high point number of 6.5 million on CBS became a sort of agreed-upon benchmark to how we’d view its success.

The whole thing had a "chasing the brass ring" feel, where the Nielson Ratings became as much the story as the heavyweight title fight between Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez. And many of the curiosities toward Saturday night’s card had less to do with the fight and its proportions as it did the simple translation of a niche sport into popular consciousness.

That was the tricky bit.

So how did it do? It would be easy to say pretty much as expected, but expectations heading in were all over the place.

The maiden UFC on Fox show drew in an average of 5.7 million viewers, and that’s a strangely modest number that supports all points of view. It was disappointing (Dan Henderson/Quinton Jackson on Spike did 5.5); it was a success (5.7 million is a great first step).

As for the content? People are equally split. Sixty-four seconds was anticlimactic; flash knockouts are exciting. The decision to make one fight a centerpiece was a bad one; the idea to showcase a free heavyweight title bout was a stroke of brilliance. Back and forth.

It’s all how you crook your head.

The truth is that UFC on Fox was pretty good and things played out fairly decently. There was hype that this was the greatest fight in MMA history, which plays roulette with expectations. There wasn’t time (or material) to contextualize how dos Santos/Velasquez coming together was akin to Ali/Frazier for the casual viewer in question, so loud comparisons were made to speed things along. It ended in 64 seconds, the way any MMA fight can. To that end, it was a true representation of the sport, and much different than boxing no matter which golden era we’re dealing in. Just as if the fight had went five rounds with Velasquez wrestling dos Santos to the canvas and pounding him until the scorecards were read. There are variables.
Ferguson/Slice
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comCBS' Kimbo Slice, right, versus James Thompson is still the benchmark for MMA success on network TV.

That’s part of the sport. It’s not boxing. This is a combat sports medley that dishes up its charms over time.

And with a seven-year partnership, that’s all that FOX and the UFC have is time. In the course of that partnership, people will either appreciate the intricacies of the sport, of they won’t. They’ll realize that champions in the UFC are made to be beaten, or they won’t. Things move very fast by design. Nobody that wears the belt is protected, which means there’s a level of vulnerability to the champions that can’t be found elsewhere. It makes sustained champions that much more of a marvel.

It’s a model like no other, and it takes time to form a healthy collective idea about a sport. Right now the UFC is still in the stage of opening minds.

And there are those that don’t believe it will succeed. The International Business Times ran an article after UFC on Fox that made the case that MMA was never meant to be a mainstream sport.

“The problem is that few people are interested enough to watch the intricacies of Greco-Roman wresting or Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” writer Michael Nunez wrote. “There are too many limbs, too many possibilities, and while the fighters struggle to position themselves for a submission maneuver, most fans are left bored by the stalemate.”

He went on to say, “It's not the management of the UFC that will prohibit the sport from moving forward. The UFC will continue to expand its brand name recognition, and people will continue to tune in and watch the big fights. [Mixed martial] arts isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and, therefore, UFC won't be going anywhere either. But as for UFC being part of a dinner conversation in most American homes, that will never, ever happen. The sport is too volatile on too many levels.”

There are plenty of people who feel this way. The counter argument could be that that’s the very reason it continues to succeed and grow. Variables, intangibles, constantly changing belts, style clashes, grappling intricacies, the dictation of wills, the potential for sudden finishes, and all the nuances therein. If fighting is innate to us, MMA seeks to connect the dots. The idea that it should be confined to something suited for simpler tastes is to miss the point. Possibility is the name of the game.

This weekend’s UFC was its first big television event. It didn’t tell us much more than we already knew, namely, that longtime fans of MMA, who’ve long been told theirs is a niche sport (and worse) for years, feel a personal stock in the brand. They came along the whole way to the sport’s transcendent moment, and if it didn’t take on first glance, that’s a familiar feeling.

It’s going to take a while for the broader range to see it mainstream anything. That the day will arrive is not a certainty, but when you think about how you came to love it, how you did away with the adjective “casual” in your own way, it probably feels inevitable.

And it can’t help but make you care about how MMA is perceived.

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