The UFC is throwing one last shindig on FOX on Saturday night in Milwaukee, before moving in with its new broadcast partner, ESPN. It’s been an interesting run.
When the UFC signed its deal with FOX in 2011, there was still a movement in place — a movement frontiered by diehards, and fueled by casuals —towards the idea of “legitimacy.” Making MMA legit. And if we’re being honest, with such a fingers-crossed set-up in play, there really was a certain romance in imagining your aunt flipping channels and stumbling across a blood-soaked Nate Diaz in a cage floating double-birds at whoever’s blood he was wearing. Looked at like that, it wasn’t that FOX was inviting the UFC into an exclusive club so much as the UFC was busting in like the droogies in A Clockwork Orange, ready to wreak havoc.
The truth is, it wasn’t that big of a shock to the mainstream sports world’s system. The niche sport of MMA didn’t offend the masses, nor particularly lure them in. The people who wanted to watch, watched. The people who didn’t, didn’t.
The first event on the flagship, which took place on Nov. 12, 2011, was a bonus show featuring Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez for the heavyweight title. For anybody tuning in to MMA for the first time, it wasn’t a squeamish affair so much as anticlimactic one. Velasquez, who was considered the best heavyweight on the planet and had many gushing words spoke about him through a special two-hour broadcast, lasted just 64 seconds with Dos Santos. When he hit the ground it made a peculiar thud. People who followed the UFC understood the gravity of the feat (JDS is a f*cking beast!) but those who didn’t had a different take (so, wait…so…that’s it?).
Still, it was fun to watch the UFC try and sanitize its product the best it could for the prudish masses. Who can forget the canvas cleaners who’d come in after a particularly bloody prelim fight and paint over the crime scene? In some ways, the UFC on FOX was just like an episode of Forensic Files. On the surface, it was just some friendly folks who had dreams and discipline, fighting for their livelihood on the weekend. Spray a little Luminol on the canvas and there were pentagrams, hidden messages and blood splotches the size of the Black Sea.
There were many hits and misses during the UFC’s seven-year run with FOX, some of them more disturbing than others. The corporate underpinnings were awkward, if inevitable. With the increased visibility that comes with being on FOX (and its other platforms), Reebok signed on as the official sponsor of the UFC. What did that mean? That the walkouts turned into a homogenized ceremonial affair, everybody dressed like the members of a cult. The Dude Wipes era came to a screeching halt. So did the idea of Georges St-Pierre ever again rolling out in his gi, or Akihiro Gono in his dress. Everybody looked the same (which is to say, unhappy). Worse, the fighters lost out on sponsorship money, at a time when they should have been cashing in given the spike in exposure.
That part kicked in a disgruntled period in the UFC that still hasn’t sorted itself out. (It also kicked in the thoughts of unionizing, though all of that remains just thoughts — even as the UFC embarks on a new television deal worth many millions).
And there was the identity issue, of never quite knowing who to book on these FOX shows, who to relegate to the FOX Sports 1 platform, and who to stash away on the odd Fight Pass card in far-off Kallang. There was a time when No. 1 contenders were being highlighted on the flagship, thus serving to help sell an upcoming title fight on a pay-per-view. Personally, I thought that was the best strategic use of the platform; everybody knows who the champion is, so start revving the engine for the challenger who is coming for him/her.
But pretty soon it was more about showcasing champions who perhaps weren’t PPV material. Like flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, who fought on Big FOX three times in 2013. That evolved into the eye candy phase, showcasing the likes of Sage Northcutt, Paige VanZant and Michelle Waterson, the kinds of fighters that ordinary people wonder why they’d ever want to get hit in the face. That evolved into Kevin Lee versus Al Iaquinta, the bookend to the original JDS-Velasquez bout, and a fight with title ramifications so abstract and esoteric that even the matchmakers themselves have no idea what’s actually at stake.
Plenty of good has come from the FOX partnership — the kind of good that only a fight fan can appreciate. Who can forget when Nate Diaz upset Michael Johnson at UFC on FOX 17 and then said, “Conor McGregor, you’ve taken everything I’ve worked for motherfucker — I want to fight your fucking ass!” which sounded like, “Conor McGregor [25 seconds of animated muting]” at home? Diaz not only got a reprimand from Joe Rogan for cursing on live air, but he got millions of dollars by eventually getting the fight with Conor McGregor. That was an awesome thing.
Just as it was when the cameras found Diaz in the crowd during a visit to Texas, and he lit up his spliff for everyone to see. That was television magic. When in doubt, remind everyone that the UFC is not a PC league and no kosher airwaves can change the fact; it’s a league of heathens, mixed with the right amount of wholesomes, thieves, circus barkers, liars, blowhards, conmen, ex-cons, current-cons, cheaters, purists, movers, shakers and athletic freaks. It also has ridiculously amazing fighters who exemplify greatness in literal ways that ball sports can’t. That idea has continued to peak for itself.
And there were good fights, too. Justin Gaethje against Dustin Poirier at UFC on FOX 29 was never going to be anything other than a bombs-away orgy meant to blow the toupee off your head. Valentina Shevchenko’s victory over Julianna Pena had the feel of something special, especially coming on the heels of Jorge Masvidal’s TKO over Donald Cerrone. “Mighty Mouse” always fared well, even if the ratings for such shows didn’t do gangbusters. The biggest difference from show to show wasn’t gauged through action, but through the length of the product.
When the UFC played on FOX, it was a tidy two-hour, four-fight main card which began at 8 p.m. ET. That meant you get in a night of fighting and still make it out to the bars. The UFC Fight Night cards on FOX Sports 1 and 2? No such luck. Those were six-fight, three-plus hour extravaganzas that began at 10 p.m. ET. The groan that came over social media at the pacing of such events was not unlike the wails one could imagine coming from inside the walls of an asylum. The prayers are that ESPN corrects this problem. And we’ll know soon enough.
So how to summarize the UFC’s foray into broadcast television? MMA began as a sellable taboo just 18 years earlier. Getting the UFC on broadcast TV was a big deal, and its novelty didn’t wear off. If anything, seven years later the bigger concern is inundation. That too much of a good thing leads to indifference (MMA’s greatest enemy); that it wasn’t excessive violence that might turn the market off, but excessive exposure. That we might become immune to the extreme thing we’re watching. All of this goes into the learning curve that FOX had to deal with in partnering with the UFC, and ESPN will benefit from somebody else having gone first.
It all ends this weekend in Milwaukee, and if there’s one thing that the UFC maintained through its first major television deal it’s this: Edge. It’s still the same anti-PC sport with the same unruly players. And when a sport so full of chaos and rogue figures can succeed simply by being itself, well, that’s legitimate enough.