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Ultimate Fighting Is Ready For Its Close-Up

The UFC is at a crossroad this weekend with a new TV contract and a potentially epic championship matchup

The Ultimate Fighting Championship takes its next leap forward on Saturday night. For a company — and an industry — where the narrative over the past seven years has been as much about gaining mainstream acceptance as about producing great entertainment, their debut on network television and the beginning of their multiyear deal with Fox represents the latest step in the ascension of mixed martial arts into popular culture. And when challenger Junior dos Santos (13-1 overall, 7-0 in UFC) takes on title holder Cain Velasquez (9-0 overall, 7-0 in UFC), the UFC will be firing their latest shot into boxing’s ailing side by attempting to produce that one specific thing that boxing misses most: a superstar heavyweight champion.

When the UFC debuted on basic cable with weekly reality show The Ultimate Fighter, it was January 2005. Their current heavyweight champion was in his first year of wrestling at Arizona State University. They could not have been further away from getting paid a reported $90 million per year to air their fights on network television; in fact, UFC owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta had to use the profits from their Las Vegas casinos to pay for the production costs of their new television show. After a famously exciting fight between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin at the Palms casino produced an incredible climax to the end of that first season, Spike network executives met with UFC president Dana White in an alley next to the casino to sign a contract for future seasons, presumably with production costs included. Now that their television partnership is ending, the jilted folks at Spike will be counterprogramming against the live UFC show on Fox by airing a marathon of classic UFC fights that they still have the rights to air. Oh, and after their casino chain went into bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, the Fertitta family undoubtedly used some of the profits from the UFC, by then valued to be a billion-dollar company, to prop up their casino business. A lot has changed in seven years.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: Big-money boxing fights are still far more lucrative than anything the UFC has put together. The UFC 100 show headlined by former WWE professional wrestler Brock Lesnar produced about 1.7 million pay-per-view buys, which represents the largest audience for a UFC pay-per-view by about 500,000 buys. The Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather fight in May 2007, however, set the record for pay-per-view buys at a robust 2.4 million. In terms of revenue, that’s a difference of more than $30 million. This UFC deal with Fox aims to develop the sort of Mayweather-sized stars that will produce a 2.5 million-buy pay-per-view fight, even if it means giving up some revenue right now.

About 75 percent of the UFC’s revenues come from pay-per-view, which is why it’s so interesting that they’re taking a fight for the heavyweight title and putting it on television for free. Lorenzo Fertitta estimates that he’s trading $10 million to $15 million in pay-per-view revenue in the hopes of gaining 100,000 new pay-per-view buyers. That could increase the average UFC pay-per-view audience by more than 30 percent, so if the company actually convinces that many homes to start purchasing pay-per-views, the long-term financial benefits are pretty clear.

As with The Ultimate Fighter in 2005, the UFC is hoping to develop new fans by presenting their product to an audience that enjoys a relatively similar product. Spike aired The Ultimate Fighter after episodes of the highly rated Monday Night Raw in the hopes that it would lure fans of pro wrestling to watch a soap opera in which the fights were real.1 On Saturday, they’ll air their heavyweight fight in what White, a former boxer himself, calls ” … a throwback to the old days of boxing.” The hour-long special will air for free on Fox just before the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez pay-per-view broadcast begins. White undoubtedly hopes that groups of people purchasing the boxing match or watching it in bars will get in front of the television an hour early and watch a fight that blows the Pacquiao card out of the water. Neither Dos Santos nor Velasquez have Pacquiao’s raw skill or natural charisma, but if Velasquez can retain his title in an exciting fight, the UFC will be able to highlight a fighter with two popular assets that Pacquiao will never have: Size and a Mexican passport.

When Velasquez won the heavyweight title by stopping Lesnar in the first round last October, it provided the UFC with its first real asset in their attempts to get Mexican-Americans to start watching MMA. Despite the fact that four of the company’s seven current champions aren’t of Caucasian descent, UFC crowds tend to resemble the audience for hockey. The company tried pushing lightweight fighter Roger Huerta as a Mexican-American superstar in 2006-07, even getting him onto the cover of Sports Illustrated, but Huerta was an average fighter who publicly complained about getting only $50 per day to do press tours and eventually left the UFC to explore an acting career. The UFC’s hope is that Velasquez, who was born in California to a migrant lettuce farmer, can convince the same large Mexican fan base that surrounds Marquez and the last generation of Mexican boxers to get behind a dominant Mexican-American champion. It’s no coincidence that Velasquez’s win over Lesnar (which was an exception to the traditionally lily-white UFC audience) and his upcoming fight with Dos Santos were moved outside of Las Vegas, the UFC’s traditional top market, to Southern California.

Velasquez will have to get by on his success alone. He lacks the flair and dazzling striking ability of a fighter like Anderson Silva, and he doesn’t have the natural charisma of a Chuck Liddell. His interviews, both with the media and inside the cage after fights, are milquetoast. He’s humble and reserved. That makes for a great foil against a heel like Lesnar, but it’s not the makings of a standalone superstar. His strengths — an inexhaustible reserve of endurance previously unprecedented in the heavyweight division, elite wrestling, a hard chin — are subtle and likely difficult for new MMA fans to appreciate. Stories about MMA fighters turning down opportunities to face Velasquez when he first turned pro abound in MMA circles, and it’s hard to blame them; fighting a then-unknown fighter with a lot of talent and a boring style would have been a good way to look bad and get cut from the UFC roster.

The champ does have a lot of power in his hands, and after years of training at the legendary American Kickboxing Academy camp in San Jose, he’s developed sound technique to put behind them. After weathering an early flurry from Lesnar in the first two minutes of their championship fight, Velasquez was able to knock out an opponent who outweighed him by 25 pounds down (actually first with a knee to the body) and then out on the ground. In his defeat of former PRIDE heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in February 2010, Velasquez was able to outbox the fighter who had been regarded as the best boxer in the history of MMA’s heavyweight division, if not all of MMA. First, Velasquez controlled the tempo of the fight with a series of leg kicks, preventing Nogueira from getting comfortable in the pocket, where he presumably held a sizable advantage with his boxing. Then, when “Big Nog” ventured in to strike, Velasquez dropped Nogueira with a classic combination — a counter right hook to the jaw and a left to the temple — before finishing the job on the ground with strikes. The first-round TKO represented the first time that a healthy2 Nogueira had been stopped3 in a fight.

Big Nog represents the closest reference point for Dos Santos. Nogueira isn’t just Dos Santos’s idol; he’s the leader of Dos Santos’ camp, his jiu-jitsu trainer, and essentially his body double. Like Nogueira, Dos Santos’ striking game is built upon his rare level of boxing proficiency for an MMA fighter; in fact, Dos Santos might be the best pure boxer in the heavyweight division in the history of the UFC. Excellent boxing for a UFC fighter usually means decent fundamentals and the patience to work a jab, but Dos Santos’ boxing is known instead for his extraordinary proclivity with the uppercut.

A rarely seen punch in MMA, Dos Santos throws uppercuts out of bizarre, unexpected positions with great accuracy and otherworldly power. His upset knockout of veteran Fabricio Werdum is the perfect example of the sort of damage Dos Santos can do with his uppercut. He also used the uppercut to stop Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic: and was able to throw it to the body to gain the advantage against mammoth heavyweight Roy Nelson. His uppercut is like a pitcher who throws a knuckleball in 2011; because it’s such a rare strike in MMA and there are so few people capable of landing it with the sort of consistency and explosiveness that Dos Santos can pull off, it’s difficult for fighters to prepare for in training.

The biggest difference between Nogueira and Dos Santos is where the fight will be most intriguing. Nogueira was regarded as the finest heavyweight jiu-jitsu practitioner in MMA, capable of employing inventive submissions to win fights in which he was otherwise being dominated. You could not count out Big Nog until the bell rang. Dos Santos trains under Nogueira and is a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but nobody outside of his camp (which calls it “spectacular”) knows if Dos Santos’ jiu-jitsu is any good, because he’s never needed to show it off in an MMA fight. Dos Santos’ boxing has been dominant enough to win fights on its own, and when opponents have tried to take Dos Santos down in the UFC, he’s used his lanky 6-foot-4 frame and the elements of the Octagon to avoid being taken to the mat. Typical takedown stuff from Dos Santos sees him absorb the opponent’s energy, stay on his feet, and backpedal into the cage, where he uses the momentum from the bounce to spin out of the takedown attempt and extricate himself. On the other hand, Velasquez was able to take down a two-time All-American amateur wrestler when he fought Lesnar, so he should be able to get down Dos Santos. And that’s where the fight enters the unknown; if Dos Santos really has effective jiu-jitsu, he should be able to neutralize Velasquez on the ground, improve his position, and even possibly tap Velasquez out if Velasquez gets careless. On the other hand, if Dos Santos’ jiu-jitsu isn’t really all that spectacular, Velasquez could just ground-and-pound his way into a stifling victory.

It’s not difficult to handicap the game plans for these two fighters. Velasquez will likely retain the leg kicks he used to keep Nogueira off-balance, but with more concerns about Dos Santos’ ability to knock him out standing and fewer worries about getting submitted on the ground, Velasquez is likely to shoot in for takedowns far more frequently. He may try to let Dos Santos lead with an early flurry before countering, something Velasquez employed with great effect against Lesnar. Dos Santos also punched himself out during the first round of his three-round fight with Nelson and was gassed for most of the second round as a result. Although he seemed strong during his unanimous decision victory over Shane Carwin in his last fight, Dos Santos’ cardio is still a question mark, and that goes double in his first UFC fight to be scheduled for five rounds.

On the other hand, Dos Santos is sure to have the striking advantage and is more likely to win by a flash knockout or a sudden TKO. While they both have a 77-inch reach, Dos Santos could be able to use his size to get better angles and force the quicker Velasquez to chase him around the Octagon. He’s a better fighter in the clinch than Velasquez, and could follow Lesnar’s lead in trying to hurt the shorter Velasquez with knees. And if Dos Santos’ takedown defense is as good as it’s looked in the past, it’s hard to see how Velasquez wins the fight. The champion is also coming off of rotator cuff surgery following the Lesnar fight and will be in the cage for the first time in 13 months, so there are doubts that Velasquez will have the sort of elite cardio he exhibited before the time off.

Interestingly, there’s a huge disconnect between the public perception of the fight and the opinions being proffered by professional fighters. Velasquez is favored at -170 at the Las Vegas Hilton, while Dos Santos’ odds as the underdog are at +150. Those numbers suggest that the market sees Velasquez as the winner of this fight 61 percent of the time. Meanwhile, 12 of 16 pro fighters polled by Sherdog.com thought that Dos Santos will win on Saturday night.

If there’s something the pros are missing, it might be related to strength of schedule. Dos Santos’ record is impressive and it comes with a list of “name” opponents, but very few of them were at their peak. Carwin was coming off of major neck surgery and was 25 pounds lighter than his traditional fighting size. Gabriel Gonzaga was three years removed from his famous upset of Cro Cop and would be cut from the UFC after losing his next fight. Wins over Cro Cop and Gilbert Yvel came years after those fighters peaked in Japan. His only win versus an elite fighter in something close to the prime of his career was the knockout of Werdum in 2008. The MMA-ELO website, which uses the same Elo method employed in chess to rate grandmasters, lists Velasquez’s strength of schedule as superior to that of Dos Santos.

What will happen? The fight seems likely to go one of two ways. If it ends in the first four minutes, it’s likely to be from a Dos Santos punch. As each minute passes, though, Velasquez’s advantages in cardio and wrestling become more valuable. A tired Dos Santos is far less likely to resist Velasquez’s takedowns, and unless he can match the champion’s cardio reserves, he won’t be able to keep up in the later rounds. Expect Velasquez to win by TKO, perhaps as early as the end of the second round.

Of course, nobody yet knows what will happen with the simultaneous fights that the UFC will be undertaking outside of the cage. Can Velasquez catch on as a Mexican hero and turn a generation that might otherwise idolize Saul Alvarez into MMA die-hards? Will the UFC get a boring Pacquiao win and another year of endless flirting with Floyd Mayweather to make boxing look outdated and stale? And can network television take a sport that’s still illegal in the state of New York and grant it the popular legitimacy it craves? An exciting fight on Saturday night and the heavyweight star emerging from it would go a long way toward making all that happen.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Bill Barnwell:

Vegas & The Packers’ Quest To Go 16-0
The All-Bettis Team
NFL Midseason Report: The NFC
NFL Midseason Report: The AFC
Vegas Sportsbook Review: Caesars Palace
Breaking Down the Suck for Luck Campaign
Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor

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Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, College Sports, People, Sports, Television, The U, UFC

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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