When the UFC signed a big money, multi-year deal with FOX late last year it was a heralded as a new day for the sport of mixed martial arts. Long a staple in Las Vegas, the sport had spent the past five years gaining popularity around the world and now it would be on network TV.
Things certainly started off with a bang – both in the cage and the ratings. The first show, from Anaheim in November 2011, featured a heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos. But, giving away that type of a main event fight for free wasn’t the long term plan of the partnership. UFC sees the FOX shows more as a vehicle to expose future title contenders to a wider audience. And then sell those championship fights via it’s traditional pay-per-view platform.
Therein lies part of the problem with ratings for the last two FOX shows though. Initially, casual viewers were drawn in by the idea of seeing a huge fight, with a title on the line. The second card featured a former light-heavyweight champion (Rashad Evans) against a guy few people had heard of (Phil Davis). While the card also featured Chael Sonnen vs. Michael Bisping, the fight fans were waiting for Sonnen’s rematch with Anderson Silva – and you weren’t getting that one for free.
UFC on FOX 3, headlined by Jim Miller vs. Nate Diaz, looked good on paper. But, the May 5th card was probably destined to suffer in the ratings because they were airing a card largely filled with fighters the average sports fan hadn’t heard of – plus they were taking on a Floyd Mayweather bout the same night, opening weekend of The Avengers and the NBA playoffs. Although Cinco de Mayo has been a good date for boxing cards, UFC’s audience was down to 2.25 million viewers for the third FOX show – about half the number that tuned in for Velasquez vs. Dos Santos six months prior. As White has pointed out repeatedly, they did still win out in most of the key male demos though. It’s just the total audience drop off that caught the eye of many.
Unfortunately, things don’t appear to be any easier this time around either, as they’ll be going up against the Olympics on NBC. Like they always say though, the show must go on – and the card from Staples Center will be a real litmus test for the UFC.
Was the May show an anomaly? Can they bounce back by promising and promoting the fact that one of four fighters in the televised bouts will be getting a title shot vs. light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones?
The answers will come tomorrow via ratings.
Regardless, there are several fights that should deliver some great action inside the octagon tonight…
Prelims on Fuel TV at 5pm PST
John Moraga (10-1 record, 125.5 lbs) v Ulysses Gomez (9-2, 125.5) – This will be the UFC debut for both guys. Gomez is a grappling specialist who took this fight on just a few weeks notice. Both of his losses were by decision and another one isn’t likely here.
Michihiro Omigawa (13-11-1, 145.5) v Manvel Gamburyan (13-8, 145.5) – Gamburyan trained under Judo legend Gene LeBell and is related to former UFC fighter Karo Parisyan. After coming off of The Ultimate Fighter TV show, he was expected to be a bigger star, but injuries have slowed him down. He’s dropped to the 145 lb weight class and thinks his career is back on track. Look for a second round submission.
Oli Thompson (9-3, 232) v Phil De Fries (8-1, 1 no contest, 235) – Toss up fight. Take De Fries.
Rani Yahya (16-7, 145.5) v Josh Grispi (14-3, 146) – Yahya has the advantage on the ground, but this should be a quick win for Grispi.
Wagner Prado (8-0, 205) v Phil Davis (9-1, 205) – Yes, the same Phil Davis mentioned above. He’ll look to score a big submission win here and get back to main card status. If you like long-shots, Prado is +575 to win. You don’t see many fights past +350 in the UFC these days. So, a win by Prado would be much more than a mild upset.
Nam Phan (17-11, 145) v Cole Miller (18-6, 145) – Will be an all or nothing fight, edge of your seat or snooze fest. Phan can be one of the most frustrating fighters to watch because you know the talent is there. On the other side, Miller’s weight cut will be offset by his height advantage and that should help him earn a decision in the MayorsManor sleeper pick for Fight of the Night.
Main Card on FOX at 8pm PST
DaMarques Johnson (18-10, 171) v Mike Swick (14-4, 170) – Swick was a rising star several years ago, but he hasn’t fought in two years due to an injury/illness. Age plays a major factor in the UFC and the time off probably hasn’t helped him much. Johnson won Submission of the Night and Knockout of the Night in his first two fights after being the runner-up on season nine of The Ultimate Fighter. He’s gone 2-3 since then. However, right of the gates on FOX, look for him to score a big upset over Swick.
Jamie Varner (20-6-1, 2 no contests, 156) v Joe Lauzon (20-7, 155.8) – Easily one of the better fights on the show, could even end up as Fight of the Night. Varner is a former World Champion who is on a bit of a comeback ride after being cut by Zuffa (UFC’s parent company) in 2010. A win here over Lauzon is not out of the question either. Oddsmakers have this as a pick ’em fight. Lauzon, no Varner. Wait, go with Lauzon. No, first instincts are usually right – Varner.
Ryan Bader (15-2, 205) v Lyoto Machida (17-3, 201) – The physique (Bader) vs. technique (Machida). We’ve never been high on Machida, yet he’s won 17 of his 20 fights. At the press conference on Thursday, Bader claimed he’s not the same fighter he was in the past. Even so, Machida is the better all-around fighter and he’ll leave the octagon with a TKO win in the second round.
Brandon Vera (12-5, 1 no contest, 203.8) v Mauricio Shogun Rua (20-6, 205) – Like Varner, Vera is tying to create a big comeback story after being cut by the UFC. In 2006 he KO’s former heavyweight champion Frank Mir at the UFC’s debut inside Staples Center. Don’t look for a repeat performance here. Rua should not only win, but knowing that a title shot is on the line, needs a spectacular finish.
We’ll be covering the event live from the arena and should have some post-fight notes and quotes on twitter.
To see dozens of notes Dana White shared after Thursday’s press conference, click here for our recap of him talking about him pushing Forrest Griffin to retire, drug testing, Rashad Evans moving weight classes, Anderson Silva vs. Nick Diaz and so much more.