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Waterson vs. VanZant draws biggest UFC television audience in nearly three years

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Saturday night’s UFC on FOX 22 show, headlined by Michelle Waterson’s win over Paige VanZant, peaked at 4.8 million viewers and was the second-most watched UFC on FOX event that wasn’t headlined by a title fight.

UFC on FOX 22 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For the second time in recent months, there is a new significant star in the UFC based on audience reaction.

But in both cases, the new star lost quickly and the question becomes what to do next.

On Saturday, it was Paige VanZant, who was considered marketable going in, but her first main event on FOX proved that theory correct perhaps more than anticipated. The show, from her home base in Sacramento, Calif., averaged 3,178,000 viewers and the period from 10 to 10:15 p.m., which covered her loss to Michelle Waterson, averaged 4,800,000 viewers, the show's high point.

Because the fight only lasted 3:21, the quarter hour average measures a lot of time both before and after the fight, so the actual fight viewership was likely greater than 5 million and would have increased had the fight gone longer.

Google search numbers, which can help break down what the casual public is interested in, saw VanZant as the fifth-most searched for topic in the U.S. on Saturday. The other two that likely helped the rating were Urijah Faber, who was 12th, and Sage Northcutt, who was 18th. The negative is that the FOX show is there to make new stars. VanZant and Northcutt both lost handily, and Faber retired after his win.

The other example was C.M. Punk, who came in with notoriety from pro wrestling, and helped the show, headlined by a heavyweight title fight with Stipe Miocic vs. Alistair Overeem, do more than double the buys that the Miocic title win over Fabricio Werdum did earlier in the year. But Punk also lost handily, to Mickey Gall.

While Punk's future in UFC is questionable, VanZant lost before to Rose Namajunas, and has increased her star power since then. A lot of her increased notoriety likely came from "Dancing with the Stars." If anything, history shows VanZant losing may not even hurt her marketability, since while she is not a top contender level fighter, she is very much a UFC-caliber fighter and her fan appeal isn't about her won-loss record but her television likability. With Punk, the jury is out on whether people would be interested in him after a loss, and he's shown no signs of being a UFC-caliber fighter.

The VanZant vs. Waterson fight was the second most-watched UFC show on FOX that didn't have a championship fight, behind only the Jan. 28, 2012 show, which featured Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis and Chael Sonnen vs. Michael Bisping, with title shots at stake in both fights. And that was only UFC's second show ever on network television, so it had far more of an early novelty appeal than now, when such events are commonplace.

Saturday's show had no title shots at stake to winners of the top matches.

It was the best number for a UFC televised event in nearly three years, since the Jan. 25, 2014 show, which featured Benson Henderson defending the lightweight title against Josh Thomson. That show did 3,220,000 viewers on average. It had the advantage of being a five-round main event where the decision was up in the air until it was read. Had Saturday's main event gone five rounds, it would have topped that overall average.

Even more impressive is the number was drawn for a show that went head-to-head with NFL football, as a Miami Dolphins vs. New York Jets game did 4,390,000 viewers on the NFL Network on Saturday night, although the FOX network is in significantly more homes than the NFL Network.

The prelims, headlined by Paul Craig vs. Henrique da Silva, two largely unknown to the public but undefeated fighters, did 679,000 viewers on FS 1, a number that is in the usual range of what such shows would do.

The pre-fight show did 131,000 viewers and post-fight show did 139,000 viewers, both on FS 1.

Bellator also had good ratings news on Friday as a taped show from Dublin, Ireland, headlined by King Mo Lawal's decision win over Satoshi Ishii, averaged 643,000 viewers. It was the most-watched Bellator event since Sept. 16, when a live Cheick Kongo vs. Timothy Johnson fight averaged 686,000 viewers.

The fact a taped show outrated the last five live shows, plus did significantly better than the prior week's live show from Europe aired out of prime time (529,000 viewers), seems to indicate one thing for most viewers. The fact the show isn't live doesn't make a difference when it comes to viewing, and that airing on tape in a better time slot, is significantly superior in drawing an audience than going live for European shows that take place outside of U.S. prime time.

Bellator was the third most-watched sports event on Friday night, trailing a Los Angeles Lakers vs. Philadelphia 76ers NBA game on ESPN, which did 1,116,000 viewers, and a college football game on ESPN 2 with North Dakota State vs. James Madison FCS semifinal playoff game that did 1,065,000 viewers on ESPN 2.