The UFC's television ratings this year have decreased from last year, but for anyone following the sport closely, that shouldn't be a surprise.
There haven't been the quality of big fights and fighters since the UFC ended 2016 with such a bang. There were so many big fights in late 2016 that they had no major stars ready to fight when the new year started. So at the beginning of the year, the UFC was paying he price for such a strong ending of the prior year.
For the most part, the shows that haven't done well, are shows that weren't expected to do well.
Saturday was something different. UFC's debut at the Nassau Coliseum on FOX, was hardly the deepest show when it came to name value. There were no title fights on the show, or even a fight where it looked like the competitors were battling for an immediate title fight. From a drawing power standpoint, it was really a one-fight show, the main event with Chris Weidman against Kelvin Gastelum.
After three straight losses, Weidman was battling for his standing as one of the top middleweights in the sport, which one more loss would clearly take that perception away. Gastelum had issues making 170, but in moving to 185, he'd essentially gone unbeaten against three name fighters, Vitor Belfort, Nate Marquardt and Tim Kennedy. There were questions, since all three opponents had clearly seen better days, and Gastelum did have the Belfort win overturned due to a marijuana positive the day of the fight. Gastelum had actually seemed better at 185, but this fight would determine if he was too small for the elite in the division.
On paper, it looked like an interesting fight, and it delivered, with a strong show. But it didn’t do so well with the viewers, finishing as the third lowest FOX special in history. After such a strong 2016, where the summer show with Holly Holm vs. Valentina Shevchenko did the best summer numbers ever on FOX, and the December show with Michelle Waterson vs. Paige VanZant did the best overall number in years, the huge decline this year can’t be blamed on being part of a long-term pattern. But with the UFC opening up negotiations for its next television deal, which would start in 2019, the importance of the ratings has magnified.
Unlike with Demetrious Johnson vs. Wilson Reis in April, the second lowest, you could note that Johnson isn't a big draw and that Reis wasn't a big name as his opponent. Weidman has had enough exposure, including headlining several pay-per-view events. It's not that the show should have major numbers with its limited star power depth, but the numbers being near record low levels couldn't have been expected for a Weidman-headlined event.
This has to ask the question as to why, on a free show, did so many regular viewers not watch, and what does that mean as far as the product goes. With the UFC television contract with FOX expiring at the end of 2018. and the volatility of cable television today, the value it is to networks is often determined by how the shows are doing now. One bad rating and steep decline from the show on a similar date last year in an of itself is not that bad a deal. But if becomes a pattern, that becomes cause for concern.
Gastelum nearly finished Weidman at the end of the first round, but Weidman came back in rounds two and much of round three, before getting the submission.
Weidman is back as one of the company's top middleweights. Gastelum, even though losing, was not overpowered and never felt too small for weight class. Still, Gastelum was talking about moving to 170, and you can't blame him. One day after being in the hospital for issues having to do with cutting weight, Gastelum fought current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley to a split-decision loss.
The result has to put in his mind that in a healthy state he could be champion at welterweight. It's clear he can be top ten at middleweight, but it's very much a question if he could be a champion in the bigger division. So it makes sense Gastelum has talked about moving back to welterweight. But it's also a weight he twice failed to make in his seven UFC fights in the smaller division.
Let's look at how fortunes changed for five from Saturday's show.
CHRIS WEIDMAN - Weidman (14-3) should next face Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (24-5). The other top contenders are mostly people he's already fought. Weidman tried to push the buttons of middleweight champion Michael Bisping, but Bisping has Robert Whittaker as his probable next opponent, so Weidman is going to need a win over a name fighter to keep his championship hopes alive.
KELVIN GASTELUM - Gastelum (14-3, 1 no-contest) has to first decide what weight class to fight at. At middleweight, Anderson Silva (34-8) has no opponent and the two were scheduled to fight last year before Gastelum's pot suspension nixed the bout.
At welterweight, a name that sticks out as a possible opponent would be Rafael dos Anjos (26-9).
DARREN ELKINS - Elkins (24-5) scored a split-decision win over Dennis Bermudez on Saturday. With round one going across the board to Elkins and round three to Bermudez, the fight was determined by a second round that could have gone either way. Media scores for the fight on MMADecisions.com were close as well, with 53 percent for Bermudez, 41 percent for Elkins and six percent even.
But with Cody Garbrandt injured, and T.J. Dillashaw in line for the next shot, that leaves Dominick Cruz (22-2) as the opponent that makes the most sense. And Rivera sensed that himself, challenging Cruz, who was at the Nassau Coliseum doing the commentary, after his win. It's the perfect fight to make because the winner should establish themselves as the next title contender.
DENNIS BERMUDEZ - Bermudez (16-8) lost the worst type of fight, one which could go either way and which a win at the current time in the bantamweight division would have made a big difference in his career.
For Bermudez, a fighter he can face next is Yair Rodriguez (10-2). They are both action fighters so it would probably be entertaining, and keeps Bermudez with a strong opponent so the close decision wouldn't hurt him badly in matchmaking.