- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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As anxious as the 32 contestants comprising this season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series were to kick off Friday’s premiere, there are another 80 or so fighters already employed by the UFC who were just as amped.
That’s referring to the promotion’s roster of bantamweights and featherweights, many of whom transferred to the Octagon in early 2011 following a merger between the UFC and WEC.
While a dedicated mixed martial arts fan will tell you it’s actually these lighter-weight classes that produce some of the best action, that revelation has not yet shown up in the UFC’s decision-making when it comes to constructing events.
Since the introduction of the 135- and 145-pound weight classes, a mere six bantamweight and nine featherweight fights have been placed on the main card portion of pay-per-view cards.
To put things in perspective, heavyweight fights on main cards equaled the total of those two weight classes during the same time span. In all, 135-pound fights made up just 6.1 percent of main card fights; 145-pound fights counted for 9.2 percent.
Those percentages fall lower when discussing headliners. Through 19 pay-per-view cards since the merger, only two -- UFC 132 and UFC 142 -- have been built around a lighter-weight class main event. Neither produced exceptionally good numbers, according to reports.
Again, the action is there. As UFC president Dana White puts it, “You’ve got to be dead to not like the lighter-weight classes.” In terms of marketability, however, these weight classes have not yet reached the casual fan.
With bantamweight stars Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz taking their rivalry to the “The Ultimate Fighter” in the series’ new live format on FX, there’s reason to think 2012 could see a significant spike in interest to those weight classes.
“I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been chosen for this position -- to bring a little bit of light to these weight divisions,” Cruz told ESPN.com.
“Me and Faber are good candidates for that. We speak well, we don’t like each other and we’re very competitive. I definitely see this helping out the 135 division and, in hand, it will help 145 and 125.”
The reality series has a history of producing more interest in its coaches than the contestants, especially in recent memory. The most notable example of that Season 10, which culminated in a light heavyweight fight between opposing coaches Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson at UFC 114, which reportedly drew more than one million buys.
As White says, the show provides a closer look at these guys as coaches -- even more so, in some cases, than a "UFC Primetime" or "UFC Countdown" show can.
With a built-in rivalry already existing between Faber and Cruz, the two have split two prior fights and will meet again in July, the show has the ingredients for a major draw -- one that will hopefully accelerate the growth of the entire division.
“One hundred percent, this show is the biggest step so far,” Faber said. “It’s not that people don’t enjoy these weight classes, it’s just they haven’t been exposed to them yet.
“It needs something that peaks people’s interest and this is the fight to do that. I’ll be here doing my part, answering questions. I’m not the guy typically wanting to harp on something that’s not positive, but if they want to ask that question of why I don’t like the guy to let more people know, I’ll be here to tell it.”
This process of building the lighter-weight classes was, of course, expected to be just that -- a process.
Cruz, who has defended the belt twice in the UFC, says the divisions are actually rising faster than he anticipated. The fact the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” on FX features bantamweight coaches will continue to push that.
“Of course, it could always be better,” Cruz said. “In a perfect situation, we’re all fighting for millions on pay-per-view. But it’s a newer weight class. It took over 10 years for the UFC to build where it is today and now it’s on that rocket. It’s not going to take 10 years for the lighter-weight classes to get that recognition.”