This weekend the UFC goes head to head with the only opponent left that can still hit back - professional boxing. Unfortunately for mixed martial arts fans, it's a bit of a mismatch. In the blue corner is Floyd "Money" Mayweather Jr, one of boxing's best, a star as famous for his 24/7 hijinks and talk show appearances as he is for his beautiful craft in the ring. And in the red corner? Jake "Who" Ellenberger and Jake "Wait, isn't the other guy named Jake" Shields.
As you can see, it's a fight the UFC has already conceded. The UFC is on a mission to build new stars on free television, using Jon Jones on Versus and even booking title fights on cable. Not this time. They made the mistake of going head to head with Mayweather once before. In September 2009 Mayweather's fight with Juan Manuel Marquez destroyed UFC 103 at the box office.
Mayweather earned more than a million buys on pay-per-view while the UFC limped to the finish line with less than 400,000 buys. Before the bouts, many in the boxing community were projecting around 600,000 buys for "Money" Mayweather. Instead he exceeded all expectations and the UFC was careful never to cross promotional paths with Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao again. The UFC may win the overall PPV battle in 2011, but they want no part of boxing's biggest draws in direct competition.
Mayweather is a star and a brilliant fighter. His opponent Victor Ortiz is the kind of aggressive young fighter a promoter dreams of. Not only that, Ortiz is a hard charging southpaw who often overwhelms opponents with power punches. Sound familiar? It should. Many consider Ortiz a stylistic warmup for Floyd prior to a fight with Pacquiao in 2012.
Not that this bout is a glorified squash. Ortiz is younger, stronger,and naturally bigger. He's also overcome tremendous adversity in his life, surviving hard times that would make even the most mentally strong break. If he manages the upset, it's a great feel good story, the birth of a star.
In the cage, the UFC will be represented by two fighters who on occasion have faced considerable criticism for their cautious style. Shields, especially, is noted for a game plan that values position over all else. He failed to draw an audience on network television, and an attempt to help the UFC gain traction leading into their new deal on Fox seems destined to fail as well. Shields, unlike most fighters positioned in main events has actually lost viewers during his bouts, rare in a sport that sees ratings build to a main event peak.
The prefight buzz for this bout is non existent. Shields has been understandably out of the public eye since the death of his father in August and Ellenberger is doing his level best to minimize interest. In an interview with Fight Hub TV he called Shields "just another guy" before going on to suggest that his opponent wasn't even as good as some of the unknowns he'd fought on the UFC undercard (HT: Fight Opinion):
I mean, honestly, I think Carlos Rocha, the guy I beat back in February, I think he was more dangerous than Jake Shields.
Comments like this beg the question - if Ellenberger can't even get excited for a fight with Shields, why should anyone else care? This is a promotional strategy that works for no one. If Ellenberger does pull of the win, so what? He's just explained why it's meaningless - after all, per Ellenberger, Shields isn't even any good. A smart fighter builds his opponent up. Even if he knows in his heart of hearts the guy is a bum, he keeps that to himself. It looks better to wax a star than it does to dust a bum.
Of course, boxing often wins the battle of the main events. There's something epic about a boxing headliner that doesn't really translate to MMA. Where boxing typically falls short is in the overall presentation. The UFC has done a good job convincing fans that all of the fights matter, giving the undercard, even one stocked with no names and fighters with no legitimate pro prospects, added significance.
That's not the case this weekend. Not only does boxing handily win the main event, it wins the undercard battle too. SBNation's boxing blog Bad Left Hook breaks down the undercard action and admits that this has the potential to be a great event:
There are things to complain about with this card, but the fights themselves really should be good. You may want to hate -- I admit I kind of wanted to -- but the trio of undercard bouts could see a ton of toe-to-toe action leading into an intriguing main event between an aging superstar who is a once-in-a-generation talent and a potential next generation superstar who seems to have found himself as a welterweight. If this card even gets close to living up to its overall potential, it could be a hell of a night of fights.
In the end, boxing scores a first round knockout by virtue of its stellar main event, superb undercard, and savvy marketing. The UFC however, will put up a better fight in November when their debut on Fox goes against Manny Pacquiao. For the first time since UFC 103, the promotion is preparing to go head to head with boxing's best. That's a battle that might go to the final bell - should be interesting to see.