Saturday night's sixth rendition of UFC on FOX, minus the technical issues that took the analysts out of play for much of the show, looks to have answered major questions about the series long-term.
It now appears it's the season, as much as the product, that determines the ratings. Of the four shows promoted off FOX's football coverage, all four were ratings successes, by a wide margin over the other two. Saturday's show came in with questions about its marquee value based on headlining with Demetrious Johnson vs. John Dodson for the flyweight title.
Neither fighter was a big name. Johnson just became the first flyweight champion in September. Yet, based on the overnight ratings, the show finished ahead of the Dec. 8 show that had Benson Henderson vs. Nate Diaz, who are far bigger names, for the more established lightweight title. Both shows also had a former major pay-per-view draw coming off a series of losses with B.J. Penn in December and Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson on Saturday. Those are the type of fighters who have only fought on free TV once or twice in their entire careers, and even if their careers are past their peak, they are two of the sport's best-known names.
There are a lot of goals a UFC on FOX show should have. One, perhaps the biggest, is creating new stars in front of the most eyeballs possible so they can draw later on pay-per-view. The first two matches, a featherweight bout with Ricardo Lamas beating Erik Koch and the lightweight bout with Anthony Pettis beating Donald Cerrone, both accomplished those goals. It really didn't matter who won as long as the winner looked impressive. Pettis, in particular, couldn't have possibly looked more impressive, nor sold himself as a title contender any better. Lamas, largely unknown to the casual audience, also dominated his match.
Glover Teixeira, another fighter that it was important to expose to the masses, beat an in-condition Jackson, but didn't finish him.
The title match was more about establishing a new division, and having the winner whoever it would be, coming off to the public like a special fighter. There are questions about the size of the flyweights. In MMA, only B.J. Penn and Urijah Faber have shown substantial drawing power at less than 170 pounds.
Johnson and Dodson are both listed at 5-foot-3, and that's being generous. When the bout started and they were standing next to 6-foot-4 inch referee John McCarthy, it almost looked comical. But by the end of the fight, nobody should have been laughing.
There was no denying their athletic ability or skill set. It was a given going in that the match would be fast, since the two were probably the two fastest fighters in the organization. When it was over, Johnson came across as a deserving champion, dominating the final two rounds.
It's important at this point from a marketing standpoint for the two new divisions, flyweight and women's bantamweight, to be positioned as main events to establish the championships as meaningful. Even if this show didn't do well in the ratings, there was an argument that sometimes you have to give something up in the present to build the future. Going in, more people were likely interested in Jackson vs. Teixeira and Cerrone vs. Pettis, but when it was over, the flyweight bout came off the most important because of where it was placed.
So let's look at five whose fortunes changed.
DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON - The UFC's first-ever flyweight champion (17-3) used an innovative and diversified offensive attack to take the later rounds in retaining the title. He survived a series of second-round knockdowns. While he's probably not going to pull big numbers defending the title on pay-per-view yet, perhaps ever, he established his name with a larger fan base.
The problem with flyweights, more than any UFC division except perhaps the newly-created women's division, is a lack of obvious contenders. The best fighters aside from Johnson and Dodson appear to be Joseph Benavidez and Ian McCall, who meet this coming Saturday at UFC 156 in Las Vegas.
The problem is Johnson just beat Benavidez. And if McCall wins, Johnson faced him twice last year in the quest to win the title. There is a story in that the first fight was a draw, but ended up McCall pounding on Johnson and having him close to being finished. You could strongly argue McCall should have won the first, Johnson clearly took the rematch, so a third match is warranted should McCall win on Saturday.
Dana White, after the show, was even discussing a possible Johnson vs. Dodson rematch off the controversy of whether McCarthy should have deducted a point for an illegal knee Johnson threw. The knee was clearly accidental, but did do enough damage that the doctor was called. If the point was deducted, the unanimous decision would have been a majority draw, that would have set up a rematch.
QUINTON JACKSON - The biggest established star of the show, Jackson (32-11), is at a major career crossroads. His contract with UFC expired with the fight, and he was stating adamantly, that he feels disrespected by UFC and it was his last fight with the company. But at 34, he has no intentions of retiring. He talked about trying boxing, or fighting MMA with another organization.
As far as his loss to Teixeira, his third in a row, he offered no excuses and admitted that he is no longer a top-tier fighter. He excused his loss to Jon Jones, noting Jones is the champion. He excused his loss to Ryan Bader, because he came in with a knee injury that required surgery.
After the show, he comparing himself to Gary Goodridge, an MMA pioneer who he spoke with many times. Goodridge told him at the end of the day, it's all about being entertaining. Goodridge was never really a top-tier fighter, but had a long career in Japan as a name fighter because he took the mentality he's there to put on a show.
The lay of the land is very different from in 2007, when Jackson started with the UFC. Japan is dried up, and there is nowhere to go where Jackson is likely to be able to make anywhere near the kind of money he's made the last six years. Even if he couldn't make that kind of money in UFC going forward, he still would likely be able to earn more there than anywhere else.
Perhaps he could go to Bellator. He's actually the type of fighter that would be good for Bellator to have if it could get him at a reasonable price, as he would walk in and be by far the biggest name in the company. But the $1.38 million that Jackson has reportedly averaged in his six years under the Zuffa umbrella is probably not reasonable for a promotion that is a long way away from being able to produce big money pay-per-view events.
UFC also has the right to match an outside offer. With Bellator as its major competitor, it could use that to hold up such a deal. For that reason, no matter what he says - even though most believe he is serious today - few would be that surprised to see him in the Octagon again.
But hopefully he doesn't wind up like Goodridge, who took a terrible beating by being knocked out so frequently late in his career. While he provided a lot of entertainment, fighting that kind of "kill-or-be-killed" fan pleasing style takes a sad toll when one is past their prime.
RICARDO LAMAS - Lamas (13-2), a Chicago native, was able to ground Erik Koch, and destroy him with elbows in the second round. The win should put Lamas in a five-man mix as far as the potential next opponent for the Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar featherweight title winner this coming Saturday.
Lamas scored a win over a fighter who was scheduled to face Aldo for the title. Koch lost his chance when he was injured.
Lamas submitted Cub Swanson (18-5) in 2011, one of the big five contenders. Nik Lentz (23-5-2), who defeated Diego Nunes on Jan. 19 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, did not win as impressively as Lamas. It was also not as exciting a fight, nor on as big a stage, and he doesn't have the quality of wins in the division.
Chad Mendes (13-1), who faces Manvel Gamburyan on Feb. 23 in Anaheim, has already lost to Aldo.
The wild card is Chan Sung Jung (13-3), better known as "The Korean Zombie". Jung has been out of action since May and doesn't have a fight scheduled yet. But in his favor, both because of his nickname, his fight style, and his memorable battles with Leonard Garcia and Dustin Poirier, if he was healthy and available, he'd be the name that will likely generate the most interest of the five.
ANTHONY PETTIS - Pettis (16-2) was the fighter who benefited the most on Saturday night. Donald Cerrone had fought 54 times between MMA and kickboxing, and had never been stopped by strikes. Pettis did so in just 2:35 in the first round.
Dana White outright said Pettis was getting the shot at the winner of the April 20 lightweight title bout with Benson Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez. Besides winning, Pettis charmed the audience, talking about wanting the title, and spending time with his young daughter. A potential Henderson vs. Pettis rematch is not just a title fight, but probably the single-most anticipated bout possible in the division.
GLOVER TEIXEIRA - Teixeira (20-2) was put against Jackson on the big stage to give him a chance to beat a well-known name and shoot his name value up. He won all three rounds over Jackson, outstriking him when standing. He also took Jackson down seemingly at will, and Jackson historically has had solid takedown defense.
He certainly helped himself, but as far as the explosive win where fans would watch and salivate over the prospects of a potential mach with Jon Jones, it wasn't that kind of a win. Still, he's now gone seven years without a loss. But the ball seems to still be in the court for the winner of the Feb. 23 Dan Henderson vs. Lyoto Machida match. to be the one the public sees as the top contender. But Teixeira has put himself with Alexander Gustafsson, and Phil Davis, on the short list.