Saturday, May 05, 2012

UFC on FOX is still a work in progress


By John McMullen

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FOX was supposed to be a game-changer for The Ultimate
Fighting Championship but the relationship has stumbled out of the gate.

To be fair, no matter how you look at it, getting the sport of mixed martial
arts on one of the four major networks was a coup for Dana White but thinking
that alone would take it to the next level has already proven to be specious.

Part of it has to do with ESPN, the be all, end all in professional sports
these days. When the Mothership in Bristol thought there was a chance to land
the UFC television package, coverage was expanded, especially for the major
fights.

Now that the TV package is off the table and it was spurned, ESPN is back to
treating UFC like a minor league sport, a constant in the way the network does
business. In the past ESPN has amped up its coverage of things like NHL and
even fringe sports like Arena football when those sports were under its
umbrella.

As far as a legitimate news gathering organization, ESPN is about as reputable
as FOXNews or MSNBC but that doesn't mean it's not powerful -- in fact it's by
far the most important tool White has to reach casual fans on any given day,
whether he wants to admit that or not.

That said both FOX and NBC have plans on challenging ESPN's dominance over the
next few years and getting in on the ground floor with an upstart might be
the more prudent move for the future.

Consistent coverage on ESPN could generate an extra 200,000 buys for a major
pay-per-view bout but UFC would always play second-class citizen behind the
NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball with the network.

The other side of that theory, however, is that a successful FOXSports cable
franchise would eventually lure more and more programming away from ESPN and
UFC would be in the same position.

The UFC came out swinging with its first event on FOX offering a marquee
heavyweight title fight in which Junior Dos Santos took the crown from  Cain
Velasquez, a bout that likely would have garnered well over 500,000 pay-per-
view buys.

UFC on Fox 3, like No. 2 back in January was more of a scaled down affair,
featuring a pair of future contenders if things go as planned, Nate Diaz and
Johny Hendricks.

Hendricks, a former NCAA national wrestling champion at Oklahoma State, did his part
although it was razor close. He was matched up with another high-level
amateur grappler in Josh Koscheck, who has already had two chances at
welterweight king Georges St, Pierre.

Koscheck was able to match Hendricks' grappling but got caught by a number of
solid left hands in the third round, which likely cost him the fight. The
three judges all had it 29-28, with two going for Hendricks. Koscheck
certainly looked like the loser, sporting a badly swollen right eye leaving
the cage.

Diaz, the younger brother of the controversial Nick Diaz, has been red-hot at
lightweight recently. A first-round submission win over former Pride champ
Takanori Gomi and a dominating win over Donald Cerrone put him in line for the
winner of the Benson Henderson - Frankie Edgar title bout.

Jim Miller, a New Jersey native had other ideas and a "homefield" edge. That
all ended when Diaz connected with a solid left hand late in the first. By the
second round, Diaz was feeling it and taunting Miller, who took the bait and
kept rushing in until Diaz, a a black belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, caught him in
a guillotine choke at 4:19 of the frame.

All in all it was an entertaining night but one that lacked star power.

The ratings will tell the final story but White clearly hasn't figured out the
best formula yet for FOX. At this stage, however, it seems silly to give away
major fights for free since PPV revenue is still UFC's largest source of
revenue.

As for the FOX coverage itself, it's been a mixed bag. The network's theme
along with Curt Menefee hosting carries cachet and makes the sport come across
as a major event but White playing carnival barker during the first show
didn't help. MMA legend Randy Couture and Brian Stann are huge upgrades in
that regard.

Meanwhile, in-house announcers Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan should also be
replaced in favor of FOX announcers to make things seem more like a legitimate
sporting event and less like an entertainment vehicle like World Wrestling
Entertainment. Think about it -- does the NFL, MBA or MLB insist on hiring
their own announcers?

The mere thought of that is absurd and if you're concerned with Joe Buck's
knowledge of the sport, get in the studio and teach him and the other FOX
talent.

In the end, UFC on FOX 3 proved to be a mixed bag. Despite being in the New
York market at the IZOD Center in North Jersey, fewer media members showed up
and attendance was paltry.

Understand most major newspapers and websites that cover MMA at this point
still pair it with boxing and Floyd Mayweather was fighting Miguel Cotto in
Las Vegas in what will surely be one of the two or three biggest fights of the
year.

This was easily the least publicized UFC show on FOX to date and going head to
head (kind of at least) with the Mayweather/Cotto PPV was to be kind a
questionable strategy for not only ratings but perhaps more importantly
perception.

On this night in the fight world, UFC was finishing in second place no matter
what. Picture Golden Boy Promotions putting a Bernard Hopkins fight against
UFC 100 or a Brock Lesnar bout.

The point of this whole thing is to presumably grow the audience and if
anything, MMA's coverage among national news outlets has waned since the FOX
deal.

Meanwhile, bouts on FUEL TV, the little known network that FOX plans to spin
off as a sports channel, are significantly down in ratings from the company's
old home on Spike TV. Ditto for The Ultimate Fighter reality show on FX.

Sometimes it's prudent to take a step backwards in order to take two forward.
I'm not sure that was the UFC's plan when this deal started but it has to be
now.


THE UNDERCARD:

The FOX broadcast opened up with an entertaining heavyweight slugfest between Lavar Johnson and Pat Barry. Johnson, who is less than two years removed from a drive-by shooting that nearly took his life, survived Barry's improved ground game early and eventually battered the former K-1 fighter with a barrage of punches at 4:38 of the opening round.

"This feels great to get another win here," Johnson said. "I’m a big fan of
Pat, so I was really excited when we made this fight happen. With our styles,
I knew it would end like this for one of us. The fight got off the ground and
it ended up where I wanted it to and I was able to do exactly what I did to
Beltran. Pat didn't go out as easily, but I hit him with a big shot that
finally put him away."

Submission specialist Rousimar Palhares looked the part and nearly submitted Alan Belcher a few times before Belcher turned the tables and TKO'd him with some devastating ground and pound at 4:18 of round 1.

"I've been training my whole life for this and I think this win puts me in the
top of the division. I’m improving time after time and I trained a lot of
antibiosis positions in camp and it was instinct to counter what he did on
the ground," Belcher said. "I want to be the guy that takes the belt off of
Anderson Silva because I know I’m the one that can do it."

The FUEL TV portion of the preliminaries started with featherweight Dennis
Bermudez earning a unanimous decision over the much taller Pablo Garza. The
compact Bermudez used his strength and wrestling game to dominate Garza,
especially from the clinch.

"Wrestling is my go-to, but he kept hitting me from a distance and I wasn't
able to get inside like I wanted to," Bermudez said. "But you can't win a
fight backing up, so I kept pushing and pushing and putting him on the
defensive. Losing is not acceptable and if I want a win, I'm going to go out
and take it just like I did tonight."

"I should have tried to stand up with him instead of attacking from the
guard." Garza said after the setback. "The slams weren't doing a ton of
damage, but that last one took a little out of me. Dennis did everything I
expected, I just didn't execute my game plan like I needed to."

Lightweights Danny Castillo and John Cholish were the first to hear it from the crowd, engaging in a fight with little action until a massive slam by Castillo ended round 2. Cholish went for a desperation triangle late but was never close and Castillo earned the unanimous decision, 30-27 on all three
scorecards, thanks to a number of takedowns.

"It's always great to get a win," Castillo said. "It wasn't my best
performance, but I've been working hard in the gym. I should be knocking guys
out, but for some reason I'm not. My next fight will hopefully get me one step
closer to the strap, but I've got a lot of work to do."

Green-haired flyweight Louis Gaudinot got the crowd back into things with his
pre-match antics and he and John Lineker also delivered in the cage with a
slugfest. Gaudinot eventually won in the second round by putting Lineker to
sleep with a guillotine at 4:54.

"I have nothing but respect for John, he's shown a lot of class all week. We
were here to bang tonight and I think we proved that the flyweights belong and
that we can excite the crowd," Gaudinot said. "I heard the crowd go nuts and I
loved it. I didn't think I had enough time to get the choke in, but I went
ahead and went for it anyway. I locked it in tight and I felt him go out and
told the ref that it was over."

"We both threw a lot of strikes and I feel that it was a great fight for me
and the fans," Lineker added after recovering. "In the end, he was able to get
the choke in very tight and there was nothing I could do."

Brit welterweight John Hathaway won a unanimous decision over Pascal Krauss,
battering Krauss with a number of hard shots and knees. By the end a visibly
dazed Krauss was just handing on.

"I was able to drop him a few times and he recovered quickly, so I knew I had
to capitalize on any opportunity that I got," Hathaway said. "I'm working all
areas of my game and I felt quicker, stronger and more aggressive in this
fight. I've been successful in this division so far, and I’m ready to keep
pushing forward."

In an entertaining flyweight affair, John Dodson overcame a possible broken left hand in round 1 to edge Timothy Elliott, who hadn't lost in three years, by unanimous decision.

"I hurt my hand in the first round and I had to throw other types to strikes
to do damage," Dodson said. "I had a tough opponent and he challenged me the
way UFC guys are supposed to. This was a war for both of us and I’m ready to
get back in there and fight again as soon as I can."

In the final FUEL TV bout lightweight Michael Johnson easily oupointed Tony
Ferguson, a former winner of TUF.

"Me and my training partners worked real hard on this one," Johnson said.
"This fight was a little short notice, but there’s no such thing as that
anymore. This was a great matchup for me and I feel like I could have gone 20
rounds of standup with him. The sky’s the limit for me and my goal this year
is to make and stay in the top ten in the lightweight division."

In the opening bout televised on UFC's Facebook page Karlos Vemola survived a
tough first round and caught Mike Massenzio in a rear naked choke at 1:07 of
the second in his debut as a middleweight.

"He was a tough opponent," Vemola said. "I felt really good during the first
round. He was working me hard in the first round, but I weathered the storm
and started landing my own shots. This is the lightest (middleweight) I've
ever been in my life and I felt great."

"I fought well and felt like I was controlling it, but I could feel myself
start gassing in the second," Massenzio explained. "I felt fatigued and
started losing position and he got me."

The other Internet match saw Roland Delorme, who replaced an injured Johnny
Bedford, survive a devastating short knee to the head before topping Nick
Denis with a choke just one second left during the first round in a battle of
Canadian bantamweights.

"I did exactly what I wanted to do in this fight," Delorme said. "All I wanted
was to perform and do my absolute best. He rocked me pretty good, but I wasn't
giving up. I have to be knocked out to give up. I knew when I locked in the
choke that he was either going to go out or tap out."

"We had some great exchanges throughout the entire round and I landed some
good punches, hammerfists and I got a good judo toss in there too," Denis
countered. "I felt like I was controlling the round and landing what I needed
to land to stay on top.

"Then things turned for the worse and he landed a good one on me. He dazed me
pretty good and he got a takedown on me that I don't even remember coming. He
locked that choke on tight and I was trying to wait out the round. I don't
even remember tapping, but the replay doesn't lie."


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