Fortunes changed for five at UFC on FOX 9

With three consecutive wins on FOX, Demetrious Johnson has had the exposure to be a top star, and the wins to be one. He certainly has the fighting skill. But Saturday’s ratings show that making the public stand up and take notice is far from an exact science.

After Demetrious Johnson scored the most impressive win of his career, knocking the clear-cut No. 1 contender for his flyweight title out in stunning fashion, the next morning he became the latest example of a dilemma that has always been, and probably always will be, a part of combat sports.

That is, the best fighters are not necessarily the fighters that the public is going to be most interested in. Johnson, on Saturday, headlined his third FOX show in a calendar year, all in championship defenses. That actually means five network appearances leading up to the fight since FOX airs pregame hype shows that do more viewers than most live fight nights on cable do these days.

So the eyeballs have been there to see him. In January, he had a winning performances in retaining his title against John Dodson, on a show that drew good ratings, which in hindsight may have been more due to Rampage Jackson than anyone wants to admit. He submitted John Moraga on a show where numbers weren’t nearly as good. His fight with Joseph Benavidez was promoted during FOX NFL broadcasts the past few weeks, had 1.3 million viewers watching the hype special, and UFC events on FOX during football season have never failed to deliver strong numbers.


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He couldn’t have had a more worthy contender.  Benavidez had won seven of eight fights, his only loss being a split decision to Johnson. Benavidez’s stand-up had looked much improved over the past year under the training of Duane “Bang” Ludwig. And he and his team were on a major hot streak.

But with all of Johnson’s exposure on FOX, the show did 2.41 million viewers on the overnights. It was a night when much of the East Coast was staying indoors due to a blizzard, and when every other broadcast network was airing rerun programming.

The loss of Georges St-Pierre, whether permanent or not, a significant injury to Cain Velasquez, and Anderson Silva being 38-years-old covers three of the company’s biggest drawing stars. The sky isn’t falling, and there will be more events than ever next year, more fighters will be working in UFC and there will always be quality fights to make.
After Saturday’s show ended, but before the ratings came in, Dana White talked of 2013 as the year with the best fights in company history. That in itself has been a lesson.

Last week’s Mark Hunt vs. Antonio Silva fight seems to be the strong consensus of being the best heavyweight fight the company has ever put on in 20 plus years in existence. Yet, it was arguably only the third best fight of the past three months, a period that has included classics like Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson and Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez. And St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks wasn’t far behind.

The issue here is very clearly not product quality, nor one of noncompetitive matchmaking. And while injuries to Anthony Pettis and Matt Brown took away two key fights on Saturday, the company this past year has had far better luck when it came to injuries as during the snake-bit 2011 and 2012.

There is a problem with the number of shows and only a few major business difference makers. And the number of shows are going to continue to increase. There are too many places around the world that want live events and too many markets that the company wants to develop talent and a following in.

But for the average fan, it’s a schedule that is impossible to keep up with. Fans are going to pick and choose more and more what they watch, and many have gotten burned out.

Saturday was a big show with easy access. Granted, the idea for the show was Pettis vs. Josh Thomson for the lightweight title, and that match probably would have drawn better ratings. The event was hurt action-wise in losing Carlos Condit vs. Brown, but in reality, very few people who would have watched changed plans when that fight fell off.

The entire theory behind four shows a year on FOX was its ability to make new stars and create new fans, which would lead to more pay-per-view buyers and pay-per-view draws. But that theory hasn’t, at this point, proven to work out even though it makes little sense that it wouldn’t. Sure, Johnson is better known today, as is Benson Henderson and Nate Diaz, all fighters who have headlined multiple shows on FOX.  But FOX has still not come close to creating one big-five star. Strangely enough, the company’s biggest new star, Ronda Rousey, was created by Showtime, a station with far less exposure, and the company and Rousey’s own work with the mainstream media.

What we’ve learned is that as technology and television change, the value of airing on a network, while still the strongest possible platform, is meaning less and less as time goes on. We’ve also learned that just winning fights, even impressive championship match wins, is not a guarantee the public will see you as a star or go out of the way to see you fight. And a string of exciting fights doesn’t override star power and the laws of supply and demand in growing interest.

Saturday’s show didn’t have any matches that will be talked about in the same breath as the big matches in recent months. But the two big fights delivered, and Johnson and Urijah Faber both had spectacular winning performances.
So let’s look at how Fortunes Changed For Five on Saturday.

DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON – There is both good and bad in the way Saturday’s fight went for Johnson (19-2-1). The fastest champion in UFC history has now proven himself to be one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. But the flyweight division doesn’t have the depth most weight classes have. From the day it was formed, it’s been Johnson, Benavidez, Ian McCall and a series of largely unproven names.

Johnson has now beaten Benavidez twice, and both Jones and Benavidez have beaten McCall.

There are always going to be opponents to plug into title matches, but that’s not the same as being able to garner interest in their fights. Newcomers like Ali Bagautinov and Alpetkin Ozkilic have looked good so far, but few fans can even pronounce their names yet. Bagautinov was likely put in the pay-per-view opener at UFC 167 specifically for the exposure since, with two exciting wins, he looks to be the best bet for the title shot. But that shot would do marginal numbers on television and poor numbers if forced to headline a pay-per-view.

Josh Sampo looked good in his first UFC fight, but also failed to make weight, and no way should be awarded a title shot. John Lineker could have been the next contender, with three straight knockout wins in UFC competition, but he’s failed to make 126 in three of his last five fights. He should have to make weight at least twice in a row before getting a shot.

Zack Makovsky, a former Bellator bantamweight champion, beat Scott Jorgensen Saturday night in his UFC debut, after taking the fight on ten days notice. Even though it’s his first UFC fight, the division that has so many issues that he may not be far from a title shot.

JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ – Benavidez (19-4), with a clear-cut knockout loss, has been put in the unenviable Rich Franklin and Junior Dos Santos purgatory. That’s being likely the second best fighter in the weight class, but having lost twice to the champion, you are almost directionless. Franklin was at least able to switch weight classes. But for Benavidez, he really is small for 135s today and there’s nowhere else to go.

Johnson last night said that he figured he had not seen the last of Benavidez. But it’s going to take a long win streak, unless someone knocks Johnson off. The way Johnson has been performing, that could be a long wait.

URIJAH FABER – There are auspicious records in the annals of UFC history, that say you’ve been a very good fighter for a long time, but they are the ones nobody wants.

Michael Bisping has the record for most wins without ever getting a title shot.  Faber has two of those records.
Faber (30-6), if he doesn’t win his next title shot, will go down as the single greatest bridesmaid in UFC history. Faber doesn’t want to look at it that way.

He was the WEC’s featherweight champion from March 17, 2006 until November 5, 2008, with five title defenses. He noted that the WEC was owned by Zuffa, and was the home of the best fighters in the world, and he considers it equivalent to holding a UFC title.

Saturday’s win over Michael McDonald makes Faber 19-0 in non-championship fights, a record that no non-UFC champion who has faced the level of competition he has can match. Since he last held a championship, five years ago, almost all his non-title fights, nine in all, have been against legitimate top level contenders.

He’s also lost five consecutive championship matches, another record. There are always reasons. He got sloppy in his first fight with Mike Brown, and broke both hands early in the rematch, that he still came close in. He lost to Aldo, who is a bigger guy and one of the best fighters of his era. He dropped Dominick Cruz three times but lost a decision, and then suffered a broken rib early in the fight with Renan Barao.

The term “gifted title shot” and Urijah Faber are often spoken as of as if they were synonymous, but he has yet to get one shot that wasn’t clearly the right business move at the time of the fight, nor given an easy path to any shot, except perhaps the Brown rematch where he only had to beat Jens Pulver.

This time it’s four wins in a row against quality opponents to where there is really no other choice but for Faber to face the winner of Cruz vs. Barao on Feb. 1 in Newark, N.J. But the world’s oldest perpetual high school senior surfer looking guy will be 35 by the time that fight comes around. This would probably be his last chance ever to add to the record he wishes he didn’t have.

CHAD MENDES – Mendes, battling a sinus infection that was clearly taking a toll on him just a few minutes into his win over Nik Lentz, still won a clear-cut decision to improve his career record to 16-1.

Mendes is trying to break his own Chael Sonnen-like record of being the guy who beats almost everyone but fails to win the big one. As a high school senior in 2003, he took third in the state of California. As a college senior in 2008, he was undefeated and ranked first in the nation until losing in the finals of the NCAA tournament.

As a MMA fighter, his only loss was a first round knockout in his only title match, at UFC 142, against Aldo.

He’s won five straight, four by knockout, with Saturday’s fight costing him a shot at the UFC’s most consecutive knockout wins record. If Ricardo Lamas beats Aldo for the title on Feb. 1 in Newark, N.J., Mendes, who has been the No. 1 contender as long as UFC has had official rankings, would likely get the next title shot. If Aldo retains, as expected, the only viable contenders would be Mendes and Cub Swanson (20-5).

EDSON BARBOZA – In Saturday’s best fight, Barboza (13-1) came back from a near first round finish at the hands of Danny Castillo to win a majority decision in a fight that wasn’t without controversy.

Barboza’s game of hard leg kicks, and beautiful spinning kicks took Castillo apart in the final two rounds and there was no doubt who did the most damage for the bulk of the fight. Still, this was a case of judges reluctance to give 10-8 rounds. The first round, where Castillo dropped him twice, bloodied him with shots on the ground and was close on chokes seemed like a 10-8, but only one judge scored it that way. With half-point scoring, Barboza could have gotten 10-8.5s in rounds two and three, and you could even make a case for a 10-8 third for Barboza.

Still, UFC President Dana White after the fight said he thought it was a draw, and that the first round was a clear 10-8 for Castillo, with Barboza taking two and three.

“It was closer to a 10-7 than a 10-9,” White said.

Barboza still needs a real signature win to hit top ten, but with a 7-1 record, probably deserves a test of his kickboxing abilities from either Jorge Masvidal (25-8), Bobby Green (22-5), who beat Pat Healy on Saturday, or even Nate Diaz (17-9).

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