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Bantams battle for respect as free TV looms

Anyone with lingering doubts about the pecking order among the UFC’s weight classes needs only get a load of the following juxtaposition.

On Saturday in Washington, D.C., Dominick Cruz is set to make the second defense of his bantamweight title against Demetrious Johnson at UFC Live 6 on basic cable TV in what most observers believe will be the UFC’s final broadcast on the Versus Network. If ratings are in keeping with the last couple of UFC Live events, the audience will hover in the range of 750,000 viewers.

A little more than a month later, Cain Velasquez will defend his heavyweight crown for the first time against Junior dos Santos on Fox, in prime time and on the heels of a slew of advertisements during the network’s mainstream sports coverage. Viewership -- on this we’re all crossing our fingers -- will be well into seven figures.

As the UFC hunted around a few weeks ago for a fight it could use to headline its first broadcast on network television, these two bookings must have been no-brainers. After all, the company needs to make a big splash during its Fox debut and matchmakers know full well the fight-friendly mainstream public can be counted on to tune in for heavyweights.

For bantamweights? Not so much. At least not yet.

It’s been nearly 10 months since the UFC absorbed the remnants of the WEC and the assimilation of 135- and 145-pound fighters has gone about as well as could be expected. The UFC continues to hold firm that it will promote feathers and bantams with the same high-profile zeal as its better known weight classes and to date, you have to give the promotion credit for sticking to its guns. It headlined UFC 132 with Cruz’s first title defense against Urijah Faber and two weeks from now featherweight champion Jose Aldo’s bout with Kenny Florian will be the co-main event of UFC 136.

Additionally, season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show -- the last before SpikeTV is also ditched for the Fox Family -- debuted last week as the first ever to feature 135- and 145-pounders. That fact, maybe more than anything else, underscores the UFC’s commitment to getting the little guys over with its fan base.

Still, at least in the public’s eyes, feathers and bantams may not quite be there yet. Though UFC 132 didn’t do terribly on pay-per-view, its reported 350,000-375,000 buy rate also isn’t exactly the gold standard. Without an organization specifically geared to showcasing their talents, they have faced a bit of an uphill climb with mainstream fight fans, many of whom weren’t familiar with their work in WEC and some of whom still carry the age-old, boxing-based prejudices against smaller fighters.

Now, as the UFC shifts its focus to network TV and likely ends its relationship with SpikeTV and Versus -- which for three-plus years was the exclusive platform for the company’s bantamweights and featherweights -- questions remain about the Octagon’s newest, smallest weight classes.

How will 135-pound and 145-pound fighters ultimately fit in this new era of bigger stages and higher stakes?

At least in the short term, they'll probably continue to be relegated to cable. Precisely what the UFC’s cable television offerings will look like after it moves to Fox remains to be seen, but FX and Fuel TV figure to play prominent roles. It's also a good bet you’ll see the 135-pound and 145-pound UFC titles regularly represented on these smaller networks. This will serve the dual purpose of getting featherweights and bantamweights more exposure, while reserving the company's bigger draws for bigger, more important shows.

That’s not fair, but it’s the current state of things.

Will the day soon come that talents like Cruz, Faber and/or Aldo will headline a major UFC broadcast on network television? Not just yet, but I believe it will. The 135-pound and 145-pound fighters are too good and too exciting to be denied for long.

For now though, they'll have to settle for supporting roles.