It's hard for some hardcore mixed martial arts fans to understand and process, but it's a hard truth we can't avoid any longer. UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, arguably the best fighter in the world, unarguably one of the top five competitors on the planet, is a virtual unknown outside of a small circle of diehards.
His two World Extreme Cagefighting headlining appearances averaged just 344,500 viewers and his UFC main event against WEC poster boy Urijah Faber barely cleared 300,000 buys on pay per view, just over half of the UFC's average event in 2010.
Nobody knows Cruz, despite his glorified status as one of the sport's best. The UFC is looking to change that, putting his next fight on free television, the headliner for a Versus event in October. Cruz's opponent will be Demetrius Johnson, a lightning quick grappler even more anonymous than he is. While some fighters, especially a champion of Cruz's caliber, would be crushed by the status downgrade, Cruz is taking it all in stride.
"Let the UFC do their job," Cruz told MMA Nation's Luke Thomas. "Their job is to market us. At the same time, our job is to do the best we can to market ourselves at the highest levels so we can make their job easier. I'm doing what I can to do that on Twitter, Facebook, as much media as I can. Getting out there doing seminars. Doing everything I can to put myself out there...If they want to put me on free TV to do it - let's do it. The UFC is smart. They have a plan. They obviously know what they are doing."
Some within the industry tell MMA Nation confidentially that they don't believe MMA fans are ready for a smaller star, despite the success of boxing headliners like Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. The numbers bear that theory out. The last four events main evented by a lightweight or lower weight class have done significantly below average numbers, despite having some serious fire power like Randy Couture on the preliminary card.
There's not much Cruz can do about that except win and continue to improve. The spot on basic cable will put him in front of more viewers than ever, more potential fans for him to win over to his side. It will be the first UFC title fight on free television since Dan Henderson took on Quinton Jackson all the way back at UFC 75. No one internally expects those numbers for this bout - as a television product the UFC has cooled down significantly.
Additionally, both Henderson and Jackson were better known fighters competing for what was then the most prestigious title in combat sports, the UFC light heavyweight championship. Cruz can't match that notoriety. If he could the promotion wouldn't be taking a step back to take two forward. This won't be the biggest television audience in UFC history. It will, however, be the biggest crowd to see Cruz - and a chance for his marketability to reach the level of his in cage ability. It's as though that has hardcore fans giddy with excitement.