The UFC is starting its 2013 campaign with an explosive main event… but a relatively lousy card.
Okay, that latter part is exaggerating a little bit. But Saturday’s UFC on Sportsnet: Belfort vs. Bisping, whose main event just got a little more interesting after the festivities at Thursday’s pre-fight press conference, is a bit underwhelming overall, at least for a North American audience.
Yes, it’s understandable. Seeing as it’s in Sao Paulo, it’s filled with Brazilian talent, a practice we’ve become all too familiar with here whenever the UFC heads to Canada. But for the second straight year the UFC begins its calendar in mid-January down in Brazil, and if that’s a trend the organization is planning to establish, I think that could be a mistake.
The UFC had a great card just three weeks ago as its year-end show saw Cain Velasquez put on a clinic and Joe Lauzon and Jim Miller fought put on a fight of the year type performance. But after a 2012 year that saw a bunch of downs, both in its cards on paper and in viewership numbers, wouldn’t you want to start off with more of a bang in 2013 and really get the momentum rolling?
Last year’s UFC 142, which took place on Jan. 14, had a title fight, with Jose Aldo successfully defending his belt against Chad Mendes in stunning fashion, and had a decent (well, interesting anyway) co-main event with Vitor Belfort fighting Anthony Johnson. But very similarly to this year’s opener, there was very little top-name talent beyond that, and no other matchups of major significance or with very truly compelling storylines.
This year’s offering may actually be a little worse.
Quick thoughts about the main event: It could be one of the best non-title headliners of the year. Both Belfort and Michael Bisping are bona fide top middleweight contenders, and we know that Bisping will get the title shot with a win, so there are major implications. If Belfort wins, he won’t get Silva right away only because he lost to him less than two years ago. But if he keeps winning in his return to 185 pounds, who’s to say a rematch won’t be in the cards?
Not only are they top contenders but they are both veterans with long histories and big followings, and they are also strong personalities. Those personalities butted heads (nearly literally) after Thursday’s pre-fight press conference, with (surprisingly) the Christ-speaking Belfort — not the potty-mouthed Bisping — the one initiating the hostility.
For a matchup that has already produced more than its “fair” share of trash talk, Thursday’s dustup only made the main card of the year’s first free card on FX in the U.S. that much more anticipated (and promotable, of which the UFC has doing plenty).
But there is a distinct drop-off after the headliner. The co-main event is a matchup of middling middleweight C.B. Dollaway and newcomer Daniel Sarafian, who had a successful run on TUF Brazil — not exactly a bout with strong division implications. Rounding out the four-fight main card is a heavyweight tilt between Gabriel Gonzaga and Ben Rothwell and a lightweight contest between Thiago Tavares and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Both figure to be fantastic fights stylistically, but not ones that really have you eager to know what’s next for them.
And the undercard is filled with Brazilians and lesser known fighters, at least to the general, non-hardcore MMA public, which is what they are hoping to attract on FX.
Having a card seemingly low on lustre comes at particularly bad time considering that Bellator is making its much publicized debut on the UFC’s old home, Spike TV, Thursday night, and is doing so with two fantastic title bouts featuring two of its top stars.
Is the UFC worried about Bellator? No. Should they be? Maybe.
Bellator has been gaining a lot of traction lately. Its new Bellator 360 show, similar to UFC Unleashed, averaged 487,000 viewers for its first two-hour episode, and it is going hard with title fights and big tournament bouts in its first couple events.
Meanwhile, it might actually be in an advantageous position on Spike vs. FX. While both cable channels reach about the same number of homes in the U.S. (100 million), I would venture to guess that Spike’s demographic is more tailored to the type of programming that would target the average fight fan, whereas FX is a little broader and tailored to viewers of TV dramas and sitcoms. I’m definitely speculating here, but I could definitely see Bellator drawing the audience it hopes to now that it is on Spike.
Given this, I think the UFC would have been wise to have, say, switched the order of its first two UFC events this year, or at least offered a little more top-name talent familiar to the North American fan.
But that’s not to say the UFC’s card is junk. It’s filled with great fights (and I’m not just saying that because Sportsnet is the broadcaster here in Canada). If you’re a fan, you’ll get your money’s worth (That is to say, for a free card, it’s great.)
I’m also not saying the UFC should always have better cards than this. I’m just saying they should have kicked off the year with a better one. Not for my sake, or those of hardcore MMA fans, but for the sake of continuing to grow the sport’s exposure.