Who Should Headline The UFC’s FOX Debut?

While the announcement of the deal between the UFC and FOX is still fresh in the minds of all MMA fans, attention is increasingly turning to what fights the UFC will put on the November 12th broadcast. At the moment it feels like we’re drifting towards a situation where the UFC books a card that is essentially a superior Fight Night, on a par with the bigger European cards such as UFC 105 or UFC 120. Already we have seen lightweights Ben Henderson and Clay Guida campaign for a final eliminator between the two to serve as the televised opener while rumors swirl that a battle between legends Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin may be the UFC’s choice for the headliner.

Such an approach would be a mistake as such a card will not attract the mainstream publicity the UFC needs to make a big splash with their first show on broadcast television. Ortiz vs. Franklin has name recognition amongst UFC fans but it’s hardly going to attract the mainstream or casual fan attention to drive the numbers up as it’s clearly a throwaway fight that means nothing in the big picture. And while Guida vs. Henderson would be an entertaining fight, the recent Guida vs. Anthony Pettis fight on Spike Television showed that such fights may excite the hardcore fans but they lack the larger than life personalities that bring in casual fans.

An alternative strategy would be to book matches that would allow the two biggest UFC stars in Georges St. Pierre and Brock Lesnar to feature prominently on the broadcast and in the build-up to the event. Assuming St. Pierre successfully defends against Nick Diaz and Lesnar is ready by November to set a date for his return that is actually relatively easy.

At the moment the welterweight number one contenders fight between BJ Penn and Carlos Condit is scheduled for UFC 137 but it would make far more sense being delayed until November 12th.  Not only does it directly involve GSP in the broadcast but Penn by himself is a proven draw and can be relied upon to have with Condit an exciting fight that leaves a positive impression amongst new viewers. The current plan for Lesnar’s return is for him to face off against old adversary Frank Mir, therefore involving Lesnar in the buildup to the Fox debut is as simple as booking Mir to appear on the show. Luckily, Saturday’s results create a marketable opponent for Mir that he should comfortably beat, as while Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is a genuine legend his excellent victory over Brendan Schaub shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking he has turned the clock back. With all the acrimony over the extent to which Mir’s victory at UFC 92 was the result of Nogueira fighting injured there’s also a readymade story to the fight.

An event featuring BJ Penn vs. Carlos Condit and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Frank Mir would strike the UFC’s desired balance between providing marquee names for the UFC’s first ever network television broadcast and protecting their pay per view business. But I can’t help think that this is one circumstance where business as usual just doesn’t cut it. The UFC’s debut on network television is a momentous occasion and one to which the organization should fully commit. If the UFC wants to secure the big ratings they need to enter their new broadcast deal with positive momentum they surely need to put on the biggest possible event. And for that they need a title fight.

Not only would a championship fight maximize the buzz surrounding the show but by moving to a one fight show it would free up broadcast time for the type of introductory packages that are essential if the organization is to explain the sport to a new fanbase.

There are two obvious champions to showcase, particularly as the event will go up against the start of the Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez pay per view. The first is MMA’s pound for pound king and reigning world middleweight champion Anderson Silva. In what is the biggest leap towards the mainstream in the organization’s history, it does make sense to lead with your best fighter. Coincidentally there were reports in the Brazilian press that UFC was going to try to have Anderson Silva defend against current Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson; a fight that UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta publicly stated early last week was under consideration. However since then there has been a volte face with UFC President Dana White being adamant that Silva would not fight on November 12th even after he got past Yushin Okami without taking any significant damage. That’s not surprising given the short space between the two events and the fact that Silva has grown into one of the organization’s biggest draws on pay per view.

The alternative is to more the heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos that is currently scheduled to take place a week later at UFC 139. While moving the fight would involve the cancellation of a pay per view, in reality the organization is not giving up much money. Neither fighter is all that hot with Junior Dos Santos having thoroughly neutralized Brock Lesnar’s marketability on The Ultimate Fighter while whatever momentum Velasquez had from beating the baddest man on the planet has been extinguished by being on the injury bench for a year. And drawing at the box office has been complicated by both shows being booked in the Southern California area.

So both fighters could use the exposure of featuring on the first-ever UFC network television special. And while their fight would get lost in the shuffle as just another pay per view headliner Velasquez vs. Dos Santos is actually the perfect fight to reach out to new fans on network television. With Hispanic fight fans sitting down to cheer on Juan Manuel Marquez against Manny Pacquiao later in the evening, November 12th is the perfect opportunity to introduce Cain Velasquez to the Mexican fanbase.

Additionally, the words ‘world heavyweight title fight’ have a cache to fight fans of a certain age, one magnified by traditional combat sports such as boxing and pro-wrestling having done such a rotten job of promoting and protecting their titles. A UFC Heavyweight Title fight on Fox could be marketed as the return of the heavyweight championship to network television, playing into Dana White’s long established narrative that the UFC is to this generation what boxing was to previous ones. Just imagine the handwringing articles from the boxing press wondering why the UFC’s heavyweight championship is featured prominently on America’s premier sports network while boxing’s has over the years struggled to get onto premium cable.

The UFC’s debut on Fox gives the organization the chance to showcase two of its best fighters and put over its world championships as being on a par with major sporting trophies such as the Super Bowl, Champions League and World Series that have all been broadcast on the network this year. Even if they don’t go as far as booking a world title fight, to make the best possible first impression it’s crucial they think big and book high profile fights that mean something to people other than hardcore UFC fans.

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