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‘Mama, we made it’: For UFC fighters, MMA on ESPN is an opportunity to take sport to new level

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s a new era in the UFC.

For almost a decade, the world’s largest fight promotion has had a home with FOX.

But on Sunday night, at UFC Phoenix, the UFC makes its main-card debut on ESPN and for fighters competing on the card, it’s truly a dream come true.

“Honestly, I was never sure we’d ever get to this platform and to see that we’re here, it’s like getting to that mountain and saying ‘mama, we made it,” UFC bantamweight Aljamain Sterling said as he raised his hands in triumph. “This is the sports mecca. Everyone watches this channel. If you’re a sports fan and you’re home and you’re watching dishes, usually your TV is on ESPN and you’re just getting the highlights and keeping up-to-date with all of the sports going around, all of the news. It’s good to finally know we’re going to get that mainstream exposure and people will really start to see the talent we possess.”

But did they ever expect to see themselves showcased on the “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” or featured on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays? For former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, after watching the early days of the UFC, the thought seemed out of reach until a new generation of fighters emerged.

“When I first saw it, no,” said Velasquez when asked if he saw the UFC partnering with ESPN. “It wasn’t as refined as it is today. It was more kind of a freak show type of thing. But, as it became more legitimate, I knew the sky was the limit for [MMA]. When I first thought of actually going into it, before it was mainstream, I knew it could grow into something huge. I would say, with the fighter’s evolving to where they are today, we could make it a legitimate sport that people love to watch. So, a few things had to happen for that to happen and we’re doing it now.”

Former UFC welterweight turned coach Justin Buchholz, who was in town to corner Cynthia Calvillo against Cortney Casey, essentially echoed Velasquez’s sentiments on legitimizing the sport in the eyes of the casual fans.

“I was there when Roger Huerta made the cover [of Sports Illustrated]. It was inevitable,” Buchholz said. “The best boxers in the world fight on there, the best fighters in the world fight. Now, the best fighters in the world are in the UFC. It used to be the best fighters were in boxing exclusively, the best athletes and the best fighters. Our ruleset proves that. It was a natural thing coming. So, honestly, I would take a spot on an ESPN card all day unless we had pay-per-view points. Pay-per-view has been such an integral part of the sport for so long and that’s being changed right now. The ESPN card will be where the money is at. That’s where the popularity will lay.”

Bouncing off Buchholz and Velasquez’ comments, Nik Lentz, a 10-year UFC veteran, paused for a moment to reflect on his younger days in the UFC.

“Early in my career, I didn’t think about stuff like that,” Lentz said. “I was more worried about myself. But I remember when the FOX deal came out and the little robots came on the TV and you heard the NFL song, that was a pretty cool time. That was a big jump in our career.”

But not everyone is as enthusiastic about the UFC’s new broadcasting deal. Speaking with Kron Gracie ahead of his UFC debut against Alex Caceres, fighting on the biggest sports network in America doesn’t mean nearly as much as the actual physical test in front him.

“For me, honestly, I didn’t even know what [the ESPN deal] was,” said Gracie. “The UFC is already a big step for me. Everything I do is a step up. From when I competed in jiu-jitsu to the worlds to the blue belt, purple belt, brown belt, black belts, it’s always a step up. This is just the next step up. Everybody else has exceptions and everyone tries to put an enormous amount of pressure on me but I try to stay cool under pressure.”

Cacares, on the other hand, always knew “oldest sport in the world” would eventually reach the pinnacle of sports coverage.

“[MMA] was big centuries ago, a [millennium] ago. So it’d definitely be big now,” Caceres said. “It was just a matter of time when all of the ‘PC pansies’ get the f*ck out of the way and then we could start to get back into some real sh*t.”

As for what fans can expect moving forward, many, especially Sterling, envision more fighters pushing for a marquee spot on an ESPN card over the once-powerful pay-per-view event.

“It’s all about brand exposure, building your brand, building your image and just getting to that next level as an athlete,” Sterling said. “It’s tough as it is. It’s almost out of sight out of mind because there’s so many cards. One great fight could happens one weekend and another great fight happens next weekend, you kind of get swallowed up in that pack. So you have to find a way to separate yourself and what better way to do that than on ESPN?”

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