Nobody ever said the fifth time's a charm, but that appears to be the case leading into the UFC's fifth major show on FOX.
So far the UFC on FOX series has been something of a work in progress, with Zuffa attempting to figure out how to draw viewers without giving away key pay per view main events and thus eroding their main source of revenue.
Past cards have consisted largely of a hodgepodge of name stars booked against less than name stars in match-ups that failed to connect with viewers and title eliminators that weren't built up as a big deal beforehand (see FOX advertising the Nate Diaz/Jim Miller number one contender bout with the bland slogan "four fights!" leading up to last May's card for a perfect example). As a result, the past two shows have pulled in ratings that can only be described as disappointing.
With this Saturday's UFC on FOX 5 though it appears both sides have finally found a winning formula. The show received a strong promotional push from FOX with consistent plugs during football games and the excellent Road to the Octagon special airing after the NFL last Sunday afternoon. Just as importantly the UFC lived up to their end of the bargain by putting together a PPV worthy card. Saturday's event has been advertized as the most stacked MMA card in history on network TV, and that's not just hyperbole.
The lightweight title hasn't drawn well on PPV since B.J. Penn lost it back in 2010 so it isn't like the UFC is giving up a huge money match by putting it on FOX, but the cache of having a title fight in the main event makes this card feel more important than prior shows headlined by largely inconsequential match-ups like Rashad Evans/Phil Davis and Shogun Rua/Brandon Vera.
What's more, Henderson and Diaz are almost guaranteed to put on a spectacular show. If one of the goals of the UFC on FOX series is to grow the fanbase and hook viewers into coming back for more in the future, you could do a lot worse than having two tenacious competitors blow the roof off the Key Arena in the main event Saturday night.
In today's environment it may be impossible for any fight to replicate the impact of the Griffin/Bonnar classic that helped put the sport on the map back in 2005, but the right performance from Henderson and Diaz has the potential to make one or both of them into big stars if FOX's heavier promotion of this show leads to a concomitant increase in viewers. Diaz in particular - with his bad boy Stockton scrapper image - has the potential to break through to the next level in terms of starpower with a convincing victory.
As great as Henderson/Diaz promises to be, perhaps no fight has sparked the public's imagination quite like B.J. Penn versus Rory MacDonald. The lesson here is simple: there's no substitute for a name star booked in a compelling manner. In this case the interest lies in seeing whether or not the aging legend Penn has it in him to get past the dangerous young bulldozer that is MacDonald.
This fight is another example of prudent booking in that the UFC ends up a winner going forward no matter who gets his hand raised. If MacDonald wins, as many are expecting, the charismatically-challenged Canadian will add a signature scalp to his mantlepiece that will go a long way towards convincing casual fans he's a fighter worth paying attention to despite his interviews being duller than Ben Stein reading an organic chemistry textbook. If Penn can pull of the upset it will make for another great moment in the Hawaiian's storied career and set him up for a potential run at either the welterweight or lightweight title, depending on what he wants to do next.
Shogun Rua/Alexander Gustafsson is also a compelling fight, and - unlike last August's UFC on FOX 4 main event - one that actually feels deserving of title eliminator status.
Gustafsson's record admittedly gives him a much better claim to face Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title, but unfortunately for him his signature win over Thiago Silva came in front of a television audience of a mere 197,000 viewers on UFC on Fuel TV 2. It's great to win a main event in front of a capacity crowd in your home country and all, but it doesn't do anything to convince causal fans you're a star if the lion's share of them didn't see the fight.
All those promotional wrongs can be righted in one night here though. A victory on FOX over a legendary name and former champ like Shogun would instantly make Gustafsson a player to the casual fans who matter most when it comes to drawing on PPV.
If Shogun comes out on top his chances of rematching Jones for the title will likely hinge on how he looks in victory over Gusfatsson. If he can blitz the Swede early and score an impressive Chute Box-style KO then it will be easier to book him against Jones, but anything short of a decisive finish will make him a weak challenger from a drawing perspective. Of course, as Shogun knows all too well, a title eliminator in the UFC is about as binding a guarantee as a capricious eighth grader's word when she promises five different guys she'll go to the big Snow Daze dance with each of them (Uh, no, this isn't experience talking here. What would lead you to think that? You do believe me, right?). In other words, you're setting yourself up for heartbreak if you get your hopes up too high after Dana White says you're fighting for a title shot.
The risk the UFC runs in repeatedly ignoring number one contender stipulations when they aren't convenient for business is that pretty soon they start to lose whatever drawing power they have. At this stage in the game, unfortunately, I don't think that's a whole heck of a lot. A year or two of following through on these stipulations whenever possible might go a long way towards rebuilding them as tools the UFC can use to get fans invested in certain fights though.
However, that's neither here nor there at the moment. What's most important heading into Saturday's show is that it appears the UFC and FOX have figured out a blueprint for success on network TV: put together a main event featuring a title that isn't a huge draw on pay per view and fill up the rest of the card with name stars booked in fights that have compelling consequences.
While the jury is still out as to whether or not this formula will translate to success in the ratings, this Saturday night's show looks to be about as sure fire an artistic success as you can get on paper. As a fight fan, sometimes that's all you can ask for.
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