Jeremy Lambert: The UFC put together “the greatest fight card ever on network television” this past weekend. And while the action maybe didn’t live up to all the hype and was quickly overshadowed later in the night by Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Manny Pacquiao, there were definitely a lot of things that went right for the company on Saturday night.
In the main event, Ben Henderson turned in a star making performance by dominating Nate Diaz and defending the lightweight title. Even though the fight was one-sided, it was still very exciting thanks to Henderson constantly working in all positions while mixing in some new techniques and Diaz’s durability, especially on the ground. In the main two undercard fights, Rory MacDonald and Alexander Gustafsson put a beating on former champions BJ Penn and Mauricio Rua respectively, leaving many to believe that the torch has officially been passed to the new generation.
The overnight rating for the show came in at 3.4 million viewers from 8-10 pm, but that number got a huge increase thanks to the overrun (which was the entire Henderson vs. Diaz bout) and ended up averaging 4.4 million viewers from 8-10:40 pm. While these numbers are still down from the first two UFC on FOX events, they’re still up significantly from the last two. The 8-10 number could be considered slightly disappointing given the card quality, but this partnership isn’t about a one night ratings grab.
Samer Kadi: A lot of expectations were put on the UFC’s latest installment on FOX, and justifiably so. The company’s previous showings on the network were far from disastrous, but they had generally failed to set the world on fire. To say that last weekend’s outing was the homerun show to kick-start years of enthralling UFC action on FOX would be disingenuous, but the higher-ups at Zuffa ought to be rather pleased with the way the action transpired.
A high profile show will almost always live and die by its main event. And while Ben Henderson’s triumph over Nate Diaz was not the fight of the year most were anticipating, it was still a highly entertaining affair which saw both competitors exhibit true world-class MMA skills. Even in a rather one-sided defeat, Diaz had his moments, never stopped working, created scrambles, and was generally tireless off of his back, which truly helped the bout stand out from your average 50-45 decision.
The night’s big winner however, was the UFC lightweight champion, Ben Henderson. What “Bendo” did inside that cage was nothing short of special. While Diaz had been dominated on previous occasions, he was never beaten up from bell to bell the way he was this past weekend. Henderson brought a terrific game plan, spot on execution, unusual techniques and set-ups, and combined them all to perfection. He set a frantic pace from start to finish and simply outclassed his opponent.
The real issue is whether the audience at home was appreciative, and to what degree. The audience’s response will decide whether this will be remembered as a true star-making performance or just another main event.
Jeremy Lambert: Ben Henderson did everything asked of him on Saturday night, besides finish Nate Diaz, but who in the UFC has finished Nate Diaz? He brought all elements of MMA to the table and completely shut down an elite fighter. Diaz, known for his relentless striking on the feet, was taken out of his element by the more diverse and smarter fighter. The champion slowed down the challengers with leg kicks, baffled him with punches to the thighs, and kept him off balance with takedowns.
The third round in particular showcased the talents of Henderson and proved that he’s a special fighter in this sport. It would be a shame if the fans watching this event didn’t appreciate what they saw in Saturday’s main event. If they didn’t, it’s not only their loss, but it’s a huge blow to the UFC moving forward.
FOX is primarily being used to build up PPVs. Henderson’s last effort on PPV did less than 200,000 buys, which is an extremely disappointing number. “Smooth” put on a performance to remember this past weekend, but will that performance be remembered a few months from now when he’s most likely headlining a PPV against a fighter like Gilbert Melendez or Anthony Pettis, neither of whom would be considered draws in the sport.
The other two big fights on the card may have been just as memorable, but possibly for the wrong reasons. Mauricio Rua and BJ Penn, two of the most beloved and well-known fighters in the sport, were completely dominated by younger and more talented competitors. While Rua was at least competitive and had his moments against Alexander Gustafsson, Penn was decimated and utterly destroyed by Rory MacDonald.
Samer Kadi: Moving forward, the UFC might consider making FOX a home for lighter weight title fights, and that includes the lightweight division. That is not suggest that every sub 155-pound title fight should take place on FOX, but those divisions are simply not drawing on PPV. What better way to warm up the audience to Jose Aldo than showcasing his unique talents on FOX? It would in fact be a smart strategy to have Henderson’s next fight take place on FOX as well, as he would have already established a certain familiarity with the audience, and his exciting style and peculiar charisma could well win them over in time.
For their part, the youngsters performed on FOX — albeit to different degrees — and took advantage of the opportunity presented to them. Rory MacDonald has been touted as the next big thing at welterweight for a while now, and he confirmed it with his win over BJ Penn. The latter may have looked old and frankly, somewhat depressing, but MacDonald still had to shine, and shine he did.
His ever improving striking was on display, and it now compliments a downright scary top game. MacDonald’s talent, well-roundedness, and athleticism separate him from your average prospect. Call it a hunch, but not only will MacDonald turn into one of the division’s top contenders – something he may have already accomplished – but he will consistently trigger fan interest. Adopting a “heel-ish” approach was interesting, and MacDonald has gotten people talking, with many already expressing their distaste for his attitude, which, oddly enough, is a positive thing.
Gustafsson on the other hand, was not as impressive. Technically, his defensive striking left a lot to be desired and he was repeatedly tagged with the same telegraphed overhand right. Moreover, despite his immense reach, he has yet to learn to utilize it properly, and allowed his opponent to get on the inside far too much. Of course, Gustafsson will continue to improve. After all, he has already done remarkably well in the division at a young age, but pairing him with Jon Jones at this point in time will be criminal, as it only means a brutal loss followed by an uphill battle towards another title shot, and fans claiming “we don’t want to see Gustafsson get crushed by Jones again.”
Jeremy Lambert: Of the two young fighters on the undercard, MacDonald was clearly the more impressive fighter. Even though BJ Penn isn’t what he used to be, especially at 170, he’s still a very talented fighter. Against MacDonald, he looked like a boy fighting a man. It was quite sad to see Penn, a former two division champion and one of the most touted fighters of all-time, offer up little to no offense against a 23-year-old in the biggest fight of his career. While Penn has lost on numerous occasions, with the exception of the second fight against Georges St. Pierre, he’s never looked as pedestrian as he did on Saturday night.
While MacDonald may not have won any fans with his showboating in the third round and anti-charismatic post-fight interview, at least the fans have likely formed an opinion of him. Either they want to see him put his talent on display again or they want someone to knock him off his high horse. Money is money to the UFC and MacDonald, it doesn’t matter how it’s spent.
Unlike MacDonald, Gustafsson didn’t quite ignite the same response. While the young Swede looked fine against the former light heavyweight champion, he didn’t quite live up to the hype and praise the announcers and analysts were throwing his way prior to the bout. That’s not to say that he isn’t talented and won’t one day be contending for the belt, but most were expecting him to put on a performance equivalent to MacDonald’s, and he fell very short of that.
It’s not quite fair to completely write off the old guard after Saturday, but fans who tuned in definitely saw the future of the sport on the biggest stage possible. Penn, should he continue to fight, and Rua can be competitive and beat the majority of guys they face, but three weeks shy of 2013, they can no longer hang with younger fighters who are less broken down and have more to fight for.
Samer Kadi: The old guard looked just that: old. “Shogun” Rua will turn 31 later this month. In MMA terms, that is almost considered “young.” However, years of epic battles, intense training, a laundry list of injuries and multiple knee reconstructions have completely broken down the electrifying Brazilian’s body. To put it in perspective, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva will turn 38 in April of next year, yet his speed, movement and explosiveness make his former Chute Boxe partner look like a senior citizen. Rua is good enough to beat some good light heavyweights still, but it is becoming evident that his body no longer allows him to compete at the absolute highest level. He is getting by on his otherworldly durability and massive power, but getting fatigued two minutes into a fight cannot cut it at this level.
For his part, Penn needs to retire. He could hang around, beat some of the lesser fighters at welterweight or lightweight, but as someone who has long prized himself on daring to be great, you have to wonder what that accomplishes as far Penn is concerned. After all, money has never been an issue for the Hawaiian. However you choose to interpret his career, the fact remains, Penn is a multi-divisional champion who has achieved far more than most fighters ever will — inconsistencies or not. At this point however, the beaches of Hawaii should sound much more appealing than a eight sides of steel.
There was much to take away from last weekend’s UFC on FOX 5. Henderson defended his title for the second consecutive time, Gustafsson and MacDonald emerged as contenders, and Penn and Rua passed the torch. For the Zuffa brass however, none of that matters if the FOX isn’t happy with the ratings.
Jeremy Lambert: All FOX has wanted from the UFC is quality cards. They didn’t get that the past two times, which led to lesser promotion on the network. They got that this time around and responded by pushing the event at all cost. Is 3.4 million viewers (not counting the overrun) enough to keep FOX satisfied? That’s a question for them. They’re used to college football and baseball pulling about the same ratings (again, not counting any overrun), but those aren’t one off events. Of course, unless you’re Dana White, you shouldn’t expect UFC to pull the numbers that baseball and football do on a consistent basis.
The big picture for UFC on FOX is PPV. If the event this past Saturday leads to Ben Henderson being able to draw 400,000 on PPV, this event would be considered a success. Let’s not forget that this is a long term partnership between the two and that the end game, at least for the UFC, is to increase their PPV buys.
As long as the UFC provides FOX with quality cards and FOX is happy with the numbers, FOX will be happy with this relationship. UFC on FOX 5 was an example of the UFC making their partner happy in the present and hoping it will pay off in the near future.