Saturday night's UFC on FOX show, more than any television show of the year, is going to teach an important lesson about UFC viewership.
Simply put: Are looks more important than great fighting skill?
This is not meant to cast aspersions — well, not too many — on the fighting ability of Paige VanZant, Michelle Waterson, or for that matter Sage Northcutt or Mickey Gall. VanZant's looks may get her more attention than all but a few women on the roster, all of which have accomplished far more at this point in their career. But her fights are usually entertaining. While there are a lot of pretty women, more importantly, a key to the attention she gets is that she comes across as tremendously likable on television, whether it's in a UFC fight or on her run on "Dancing With the Stars."
Northcutt, on the flip side, is resented in a lot of places because of his looks, the fact he's paid more highly than other fighters who have done a lot more, and has not performed all that impressively against lower-ranked fighters.
Yet, he's in a co-main event on what is traditionally one of the biggest UFC television events of the year.
Because it takes place in December, and gets promoted during NFL broadcasts, the last three years the December UFC on FOX show had drawn 2.8 million viewers on average, above the usual mark for a FOX UFC broadcast.
In 2013, the main event was Demetrious Johnson defending the flyweight title against clear top contender Joseph Benavidez. In 2014, it was a battle between two top-ranked heavyweights, former champion Junior Dos Santos and future champion Stipe Miocic, who put on a five-round war. Last year, it was lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos defending against bonus machine Donald Cerrone.
VanZant and Waterson is a good match-up, as far as evenly matched fighters. Waterson is more experienced, but has had less exposure in the UFC, and is giving up size as she's really a natural 105-pounder. It's the kind of fight you'd want to put on first or second on a FOX show, because on the network show you do want fighters who can capture the attention of the casual fan who doesn't usually watch MMA. VanZant's "Dancing with the Stars" exposure before more than 10 million viewers weekly earlier in the year makes her the perfect fighter to go on early in the show.
But as far as a main event goes, if you are just judging based on what they've accomplished, it's a stretch. A FOX main event is usually reserved for championship fights, or, if not, battles of top contenders. Neither VanZant nor Waterson are close to ready for Joanna Jedrzejczyk as fighters, nor could you justify a championship fight for either with a strong win. VanZant showed a lot of spirit, but not much skill, when she handily lost to the one top-tier opponent she's faced so far in Rose Namajunas.
Northcutt on the other hand, lost to Bryan Barbarena via submission, the same Barbarena who is facing a far more proven Colby Covington in a match put right in the middle of the prelims Saturday.
Gall became something of a recognizable name for beating CM Punk in September. But if it wasn't for Punk needing an opponent who had little experience, Gall would still be toiling on small shows in the Northeast. Even though he has two quick UFC wins, he's very much an unknown when it comes to just what level of fighter he really is since he's never been in with anyone who could win a UFC fight.
Once again, there is nothing wrong with this match-up. It's also the kind of a fight that, for all the same reasons, you'd want to open a FOX show with. But this is two guys who are light years from being ranked in the semi-main event of what should be one of the most-watched television fight cards of the year.
On the surface, it's almost ridiculous that both fighters are billed above the retirement fight of Urijah Faber, a future Hall of Famer who is a key part of the history of the sport, and has a long history of main eventing successful shows. But it is understandable. FOX shows are about building future stars, and neither Faber nor opponent Brad Pickett are going to be making the company big money in the future.
Northcutt and Gall may not either, but they are starting out and perhaps can. Northcutt is only 20, and he does have some skill, but take away the looks and he'd be lucky to be in the UFC. He would be toiling in the prelims if he didn't look like if he was from another era, like he'd be Mario Lopez's sidekick in "Saved by the Bell."
Few UFC shows on FOX are so obviously built on an appeal where it's not about people one step away from a title match, or a title match itself. So if this show does close to the same 2.8 million viewers, it says that the public is willing to watch lesser level fighters if they are good looking, and looks do mean marketability. If it does more then that, the message is stronger. If it does considerably less, the message sent is that looks and television likability don't matter to fight fans as much as seeing the top fighters in action.
Paige and Sage wouldn't be in the main events if key people don't already think they know the answer. But instead of theoreticals and assumptions, this is a show where the answer to that question on how much looks mean to television ratings on a fighting show can be very definitively answered.