By Brad Taschuk
While watching the NFL playoffs on FOX as so many other sports fans have over the past few weeks, I came across numerous commercials for last Saturday’s UFC event.
“The UFC hits the United Centre with a world title fight,” these ads boasted.
They never stated what belt was being fought for, and I found that odd. As someone who follows MMA closely I knew the belt in question was the flyweight title, but it was clear either the UFC or FOX was intentionally leaving this fact out of their promotion of the card.
The worry in MMA circles leading up to the card was that the casual fan wouldn’t tune in to watch two fighters as small as Demetrious Johnson and John Dodson, regardless of their skill. Despite these fears, the card averaged 4.2 million viewers, which puts it right in line with every FOX card not headlined by Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. More importantly, even with a proven draw like Quinton Jackson on the card, the Johnson/Dodson fight drew the biggest audience of the night, peaking at 5.2 million viewers.
Not only was this good news for Saturday’s card and the flyweights who headlined it, but it should help to continue the trend of the UFC being more willing to promote and showcase the lighter weight classes. In the past year, the organization’s shows on FOX have settled into a pattern which has seen the lightweight division become the flagship weight class for free TV.
Since the debut teaser show on FOX in November 2011, which consisted of just the one fight for the heavyweight title between Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez, there has been one 155-pound title bout on FOX (Benson Henderson vs. Nate Diaz) and two top lightweight contender bouts (Diaz vs. Jim Miller, and Anthony Pettis vs. Donald Cerrone). Diaz graduated from the Miller bout to December’s title fight, showing that the UFC is attempting to build interest in fighters and fights from FOX event to FOX event.
The network’s April offering aims to build upon that interest, as Henderson makes his second title defence on free TV against Gilbert Melendez. It comes as no surprise that the 155-pound division has been chosen to fill this role, as it is widely considered the deepest and most exciting in all of MMA. This comes in stark contrast to the view held even a few short years ago that lightweights weren’t capable of drawing any interest outside of the most ardent fans.
With the WEC being absorbed into the UFC at the end of 2010, that theory gave way to the idea that featherweights and bantamweights were too small for people to care about. The introduction of the flyweight division in 2012 created another target for that line of thought. However, after last year saw a dearth of viable main event fighters and draws due to numerous injuries and suspensions, the organization began to feature the lighter weights more prominently.
In January 2012, champion Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes became the first featherweights to headline a pay-per-view at UFC 142 in Brazil. July of last year saw Renan Barao and Urijah Faber become the first bantamweights to find their names on the marquee (although not by original design) when they fought for the interim title at UFC 149 in Calgary.
The Aldo-Mendes headliner in particular seemed to open eyes that lighter guys could carry cards. As a result we’ve seen the shift towards the lighter weights on the FOX cards, with the flyweight title fight given a chance to headline. Don’t think that these guys have reached a plateau though.
UFC 156 presents the biggest opportunity lighter weight fighters have had to show off their talents. While UFC 142 was a landmark card for the featherweights, this weekend’s Super Bowl card will mark the first time that the UFC has put its full promotional muscle behind fighters below 155 pounds. The “Super Saturday” card has traditionally been one of the UFC’s biggest of the year, and they have put together one of the very best fights that can be made in MMA right now to headline it, with Aldo defending his 145-pound belt against former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar. The only difference between this fight being made now and a couple of years ago is that the UFC is ready and willing to place it at the top of the card, and declare it the phenomenal fight that it is.
Watch four televised UFC 156 preliminary fights Saturday at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on Sportsnet East, Ontario, West and Pacific. Prior to that, catch two bonus early prelims on Sportsnet.ca at 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT.
It’s not just the featherweights who will get a chance to shine on Saturday night either. Top flyweight contenders Joseph Benavidez and Ian McCall will be the first 125-pounders not fighting in a title bout to be featured on the PPV portion of a UFC event, kicking off Saturday’s main card in a bout that could determine the next top contender. While this may not seem like a big deal, many fans have voiced their displeasure at lighter fighters being passed over for main card exposure in the past, and it seems the UFC is taking notice.
When the WEC was amalgamated into the UFC at the end of 2010, cards like this Saturday’s are what fans had dreamt of, and while it has taken a bit longer than expected, it seems the lighter weight classes have finally arrived.
Brad Taschuk is an MMA freelance writer and contributor to Sportsnet.ca. Follow him on Twitter @bradtaschuk.