There may have been more media hoopla for Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos. With the heavyweight title on the line, there may have been a greater bounty up for grabs. But as it pertains to the future of the sport as well as the UFC brand's health, Saturday's second UFC on Fox event is significantly more important than the first.
There are two basic reasons for this claim. The first deals with more abstract potential benefits and legitimization. The second is concrete and serves as a stress test of the UFC-Fox matchmaking model.
There is the potential for real image blandishment for MMA on Saturday should the UFC underscore the connection between collegiate wrestling and mixed martial arts. Let's look at the numbers. Of the six fighters competing on the Fox broadcast, four wrestled in college (Phil Davis, Rashad Evans, Chris Weidman, Chael Sonnen). Of those four, three earned All-American honors (Davis, Weidman, Sonnen). Of those three, one (Davis) was a NCAA Division I national champion (there were two national champions on the card before Mark Munoz withdrew due to injury). This is arguably the highest level of athletic pedigree on a MMA fight card ever for over-the-air broadcast television in North America.
Amateur wrestling, if nothing else, is respected as a legitimate athletic endeavor. Those who reach its pinnacle in America's colleges are revered for their skill, athleticism, toughness and tenacity in the training room. The image of MMA fighters as true athletes has certainly come a long way, but there is still a cognitive gap between the casual public's impression of the caliber of athlete involved in MMA and the actual caliber.
Obviously a lot rides on the actual performances of the fighters involved. A little over 60 seconds of action doesn't say much about MMA. 60 minutes of fight action has the potential to say quite a bit. A dull fight between hesitant if talented former amateur wrestlers would do little in the form of positive contribution. However, the right kind of output with the right kind of awareness campaign by the UFC could pay huge dividends.
The UFC can't overdo the connection between the two sports. Even among sports enthusiasts, wrestling isn't a popular spectator sport. Trying to tie the two sports too closely would also be disingenuous about the true amount of overlap. While many of the sport's top athletes cut their teeth in wrestling, many did not. There's absolutely a finesse to faithfully articulating the relationship between the two sports that doesn't overstate the case.
All I am suggesting is mentioning in passing the significant and accomplished amateur wrestling backgrounds of the main card competitors would be a major disservice to all parties involved. There's photos and footage of all the former wrestlers in their glory college years. Show them. Tell their story. Help the public better understand the quality of competitor before them. The UFC has no problem touting their fighters' athletic backgrounds for lobbying purposes. It's hard for me to see the downside on an actual event broadcast.
The second basic reason why Saturday's fight is more important than the first UFC on Fox was made ably by Dave Meltzer recently on Jordan Breen's Press Row podcast. Meltzer notes the architecture of this card could upend or solidify the very aim of this UFC-Fox deal. His argument is simple. On paper, this UFC on Fox 2 card is an ideal scenario for the UFC in terms of matchmaking and setting up future pay-per-view sales. The audience is being presented with two number one contender bouts. The aim of the Fox deal, ostensibly, is to showcase fights like this: those full of significance whose participants could greatly benefit from the added exposure to set up lucrative pay-per-view title fights in the not too distant future.
If Saturday produces huge ratings, there's real validation of the model. If it bombs, UFC will have to go back to the drawing board to figure out what kind of product they're reasonably able to put on Fox and generate interest.
Suggesting in advance the fight won't do high ratings because the card lacks major star power misses the point entirely. The object of the 'big' Fox platform is to showcase those fighters who need an injection of mass exposure but have all of the other raw material to be a pay-per-view draw. Placing already proven commodities on the Fox cards to jack the ratings is an artificial cover and could dramatically undercut the UFC's pay-per-view base.
The UFC is basically now left to luck on Saturday night. The promoter can only do so much to stack the deck in their favor. The rest of the fight game's magic is serendipity. UFC brass are following their Fox game plan by booking the right fights at the right time and placing them in front of the right audiences. They've done all they can reasonably be expected to do.
What's left are the known unknowns. Will the casual audiences show up? If they do, what kind of fights will they be treated to? Will they understand the quality of action they're watching? And will they buy pay-per-view events in the future that feature Saturday's eventual winners?
Those are important questions. They're also an order of magnitude of importance above the 'what's the deal with this MMA or UFC stuff?' queries the casual audiences watching the first UFC on Fox were asking themselves.
First impressions matter, but so do second chances. When the debuts are over, it's time to deliver. And deliver Saturday better.