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Fortunes changed for five at UFC on FOX 8

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A lot has been said since the rating came out on Sunday for the eighth installment of UFC on FOX.

There have been excuses given or people using the number to say the sky is falling. A year ago, when the third UFC on FOX show did barely half the rating of the second, the question had to be asked as to whether or not MMA could sustain itself at the level of popularity needed for a live prime time show.

But we’re now coming up on two years since the one minute long Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos heavyweight title fight, the most heavily promoted UFC bout on television in history, was viewed by more than 9 million viewers.

What has been learned is this. The first show was an aberration. UFC never planned on putting matches that could be expected to do big numbers on pay-per-view on free television. There are really only a few of those kind of fights every year, far less than the dozen or so pay–per-view slots the company has to fill each year.

The idea was to put on exciting fights, such as top contender fights, or title fights involving champions who are not big pay-per-view draws.

UFC numbers are significantly bigger during football season. When FOX has that huge audience every Sunday of adult men, the prime UFC audience, to promote the day and matches to, the shows are a success.

Like everything in television, success is not determined by hardcore fans, but the ability to draw in average sports fans. You need names that audience is aware of. The two shows in December and January, which were both ratings successes, featured B.J. Penn and Rampage Jackson, names who have drawn big on pay-per-view in the past, but were no longer in title contention.

On April 20, with the best overall lineup UFC had presented on FOX including Benson Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez for the lightweight title, Daniel Cormier vs. Frank Mir and Josh Thomson vs. Nate Diaz, the show did similar numbers with the strong disadvantage of not being promoted during NFL games.

That card proved if UFC presents a show the audience wants to see, they can do well given Saturday night is considered death on television. What this weekend proved is just putting on a show, even headlined by a title match, isn’t enough.

The overnights came out to 2.04 million viewers, the lowest for any MMA show on a major broadcast network to date. That number will rise because the overnights measure 8-10 p.m. on all FOX stations. That meant it didn’t factor in the last 15 minutes of the show, during the main event. It also measures 8-10 p.m. on the West Coast, even though the show aired from 5-7:15 p.m.

Last year, there were two shows that did only slightly better. One went against a Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight, and headlined by Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller. The other went against the Olympics, headlined by Alexander Gustafsson vs. Shogun Rua. This has no excuse at that level.

It was simply a show that enough people didn’t want to see. There are so many UFC events in a calendar year that much of the fan base picks and chooses. Talking about the summer months, while a factor to a degree, misses the big picture.

If it was a show with names and fights people wanted to be, it would draw closer to 4 million viewers. Just the idea of a UFC show on FOX without appealing matches means barely half that.

The live attendance told the same tale. Even with Demetrious Johnson, the champion headlining, being from near Seattle, the locals who were there cheered him like crazy. But there weren’t a ton of them. The first time UFC went to Seattle, it drew a sellout 14,212 fans. The second show, on Dec. 8, drew another sellout of 14,412. Like the ratings, this did barely half that, with 7,816 fans.

It’s not necessarily that flyweights can’t headline. Johnson headlined a January show on FOX that did well, but he had Jackson for support. John Moraga became the first fighter in UFC history to go from being in the opening match on his previous show to the main event. That, in a nutshell, was part of the problem. People didn’t know him. All of his prior UFC fights aired on Facebook to audiences of less than 50,000 worldwide, meaning less than that in the U.S. It doesn’t even compare with the lowest rated Fuel shows.

Even though Rory MacDonald and Jake Ellenberger were legitimate welterweight top five fighters, the casual audience didn’t know them well enough, and they were really the main event to most fans. The originally scheduled Liz Carmouche vs. Miesha Tate women’s fight may have helped the ratings. But with Tate pulled to coach Ultimate Fighter, Carmouche faced Jessica Andrade, a Brazilian who had never fought in UFC.

John Dodson, who came off winning The Ultimate Figher reality show had far more exposure as a contender than Moraga. But the key was having a big-time name like Jackson fighting on free TV.

As far as the show went, it was a mixed bag. The small amount of fans there for the entire show loved the two Facebook fights with bantamweight Yaotzin Meza tapping out local fighter John Albert, and Justin Salas in a wild brawl, apparently ending the 16-year career of Aaron Riley.

FX had a strong second fight in Ed Herman’s controversial win over Trevor Smith via decision; which got the best fight bonus. Jorge Masvidal’s submission with one second left in the second round over Michael Chiesa, who was the second most popular fighter on the show, behind only Johnson.

But Germaine de Randamie vs. Julie Kedzie spent too much time in the clinch to entertain the audience. Darion Cruickshank vs. Yves Edwards looked good on paper but neither ever really turned it around.

In terms of the FOX fights, the story was MacDonald vs. Ellenberger. Dana White minced no words when it was over.

"I wasn’t too excited about the fight," he said. "When you get these fights where guys talk s***, the fights always suck. For Ellenberger to say he’s (MacDonald) not top ten and then not go out and prove it, Ellenberger did nothing, his punch stats were like zero."

If the fight that had the most interest delivered, the FOX show would have been good. But it didn’t, and even with the strong showing of Johnson, the show felt lackluster when it was over.

As far as fortunes changing for five, here’s the rundown:

- Johnson ended the night with a unique distinction. He’s the only champion on the roster to have beaten the current top four contenders in his class in current UFC ratings: Joseph Benavidez, John Dodson, Ian McCall and now Moraga.

That stat, combined with the way Johnson controlled the entire fight, came across like someone who has no competition in his class.

But in reality, he was rocked several times by Dodson in his last fight. He also had a draw in his first match with Ian McCall, that he could easily have lost.

Benavidez, considered by almost everyone as the current top contender, faces Jussier Formiga on Sept. 4 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. That will likely decides the next opponent for Johnson.

At 18-2-1, with Johnson threw out a challenge to do a superfight against the bantamweight champion. If nothing else, millions saw him dominate as a champion.

RORY MACDONALD - The controversy after the fight was if MacDonald (15-1) was partially responsible for stinking up the joint, or if he executed a winning game plan.

He won the fight, but he really didn’t help himself in the process. Most fans aren’t clamoring to see him fight again any time soon. Nor are they now waiting for him to get a title shot.

But the lasting negative impression will be mostly forgotten unless he puts on a similar performance in his next outing.

- While MacDonald’s work in winning the fight can be defended due to the result, for Jake Ellenberger, there are nothing but questions.

Ellenberger (29-7), sat there and said almost nothing at the press conference moments after White insulted his performance. He gave no real explanation past that he wasn’t himself.

White surmised freezing under the pressure. It’s a real mystery as Ellenberger is no neophyte. It was his 36th pro fight, and he’s main evented twice on prior UFC shows. He beat Diego Sanchez in one of the wildest fights in recent years, and has knocked out Nate Marquardt and Jake Shields.

Ellenberger is going to have a lot of second guessing in his future. His offensive output was so lacking that he not just lost, but may have made himself a risk to be put on a main card. And it wasn’t as if he was overwhelmed, as with a little more aggression, he could have won the fight.

He’s got nobody to blame for that but himself.

ROBBIE LAWLER - The 12-year journeyman fought his first ten fights as a welterweight, before moving up to middleweight at the age of 22.

Now 31, he’s moved back down, and won his last two fights via impressive knockouts over Josh Koscheck and Bobby Voelker.

While his overall win-loss record of 21-9, 1 no-contest, pales in comparison to MacDonald, he came out of the show as a bigger star.

Lawler came in as a usually entertaining fighter with a big knockout punch. But he was not looked on as a title contender, particularly considering how much depth the division has.

He appeared to be more going down the path of Chris Lytle, who had a long UFC career, picked up lots of bonuses, made a name for himself, but was never in a serious title hunt.

But the nature of this win on a night when two higher ranked contenders faltered, and it’s Lawler who people will likely be more excited about seeing in big fights.

LIZ CARMOUCHE - Coming off her loss to Ronda Rousey in one of the year’s most talked about fights, Carmouche (8-3) rebounded with a dominant second-round win.

In the original match up with Tate, the winner would have had a good chance of facing the originally planned Rousey vs. Cat Zingano fight. How much of Carmouche’s ability to use power and wrestling to control things was because of facing a less-grappling friendly opponent who appeared undersized for the division, or how much is her own improvement is the big question.

She scored a big win before the largest audience that had ever seen her fight. A natural next match would be with the Sara McMann (7-0) vs. Sarah Kaufman (16-2) winner on Aug; 28 in Indianapolis. Whoever wins that match would appear likely to be on the very short list of title contenders.

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