2011 has been the UFC's hardest year since exploding into popularity in 2005. A string of main event cancellations and uncertainty about its future on free television has seen the UFC posting weaker TV ratings and pay-per-view numbers than it has in several years.
The return of light heavyweight champion Jon Jones against popular former champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at this Saturday's UFC 135 in Denver is the first in a series of events that hope to turn that trend around.
Following quickly on its heels will be a two-title fight UFC 136 on October 8. Then we'll have UFC 137 with the promotion's most popular champ Georges St. Pierre headlining on October 29.* Shortly after that, on November 12, Fox TV will air the Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos UFC heavyweight title bout.
UFC on Fox will be the promotion's debut on American broadcast television (discounting ION). It will also be the second-ever UFC title fight to air live on TV in the states and only the third to be shown free in the States.**
The UFC has its work cut out for it to break Mixed Martial Arts into the mainstream though.
The response to last weekend's Floyd Mayweather vs Victor Ortiz bout, which completely overshadowed the UFC Fight Night 25 discussion online, even among MMA fans, shows that boxing remains mainstream in a way that MMA just is not.
Sure it isn't an apples-to-apples comparison since the Mayweather pay-per-view was a once a year mega-event and the UFC event was a free card on Spike TV. The UFC Fight Night card was their fourth live fight event on Spike TV this year. It got even less promotion than the normal Spike TV card because the UFC and Spike TV are winding down their relationship now that UFC has signed with Fox TV.
Nevertheless, the huge response to the Mayweather fight shows what actual mainstream attention is like. The role of Floyd Mayweather himself in generating all that attention cannot be over-emphasized. The man is a genuine star in a way no one coming out of MMA can even approach.
Jon Jones has the talent to emerge as a star, but so far he's anything but. UFC 128, Jones' debut as a pay-per-view headliner did a good but not great 450,000 buys. He fought two fights down the card at UFC 126 in front of 725,000 pay-per-view buyers. The two UFC on Versus events he headlined in 2010 each did in the neighborhood of 1 million viewers.
UFC 135 will be a very interesting test of Jones' drawing power. He's facing Rampage Jackson, one of the biggest draws in the game and yet it's not the match that fans and the UFC originally wanted. Jones was set to face former teammate Rashad Evans in a bout that would have had enormous heat since Jones once trained with Evans and the two are now bitter enemies. Nevertheless, Jones vs. Rampage should do well on pay-per-view.
Velasquez vs. dos Santos is an even more critical test for the sport and the promotion. Pulling the fight off the UFC 139 pay-per-view card and putting it on Fox was a brilliant gamble by the Zuffa brass. They will lose a lot of revenue and profit, but by putting the biggest possible fight they could on Fox is a smart investment.
The attention given the fight as well as Velasquez and dos Santos individually by the Fox Sports media team should dramatically raise the profile of the fighters and the organization. Neither of the heavyweights is a big star even with UFC fans but the exposure will give them an opportunity to become stars with a great fight.
The UFC has a long way to go to match the kind of attention that Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao generate, but with the Fox TV deal and UFC 135 this weekend they are taking a huge step on the road to the mainstream.
*Even UFC 137 has not been immune from the 2011 curse, losing its main event of GSP vs. controversial Strikeforce champ Nick Diaz when Diaz blew off two straight press events for the fight. GSP now faces Carlos Condit in a much lower-profile fight.
** 2007's UFC 75 aired on tape-delay on Spike TV hours after it happened in the UK; UFC on Versus 6 will feature a bantamweight title bout on October 1.