After years of trying to muscle its way into the mainstream, Ultimate Fighting Championship has arrived with Saturday night's heavyweight title bout between Cain Velasquez and Javier Dos Santos marking UFC’s network television debut (FOX, 9 p.m. ET).
And who should UFC be going against Saturday but the fight game’s one-man stimulus package, Manny Pacquiao, who is defending his title on the same night against Juan Manuel Marquez.
Is this a referendum between boxing and mixed martial arts?
Not the way UFC president Dana White sees it.
“What could be better?” White said earlier this week, noting that his bout will kick off an hour before Pacquiao arrives in the ring.
To White, it’s not a choice, but a chance for fight fans to see two great — he hopes — bouts.
That such a day has arrived, with Velasquez-Dos Santos kicking off a seven-year, $700 million deal with FOX — an investment that suggests UFC and boxing might be seen by some as contemporaries — was hard to imagine a decade ago. Not just for sponsors, network executives, fans and media, but even by White.
It was then that Sen. John McCain famously referred to mixed martial arts as human cockfighting and that the sport was banned from television, even pay-per-view.
“Porn was allowed on pay-per-view,” White said. “We were not.”
As for sponsors?
“We’ve gone from Condom Depot to blue-chip sponsors,” White said.
The deal with FOX does not start until January, but the network approached White to see about putting on a prime-time bout earlier, one which he described as a trial run. FOX will broadcast four fights a year with six fights live on FX. The reality show “Ultimate Fighter,” which proved wildly popular on Spike, also moves over to the FOX family of networks.
There are nine bouts on Saturday’s card at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., but the only one that will be broadcast by FOX is the heavyweight fight. A one-hour special will lead into the Velasquez-Dos Santos fight. The preliminary fights will be shown on FOXSports.com.
If the two fighters are familiar to UFC fans, the broadcast will be an opportunity to introduce them to an audience beyond the sport’s core demographic of 18- to 34-year-old men.
Velasquez, a former wrestler at Arizona State, won the title last October by beating Brock Lesnar, but during the fight, Velasquez (9-0 MMA, 7-0 UFC) tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder and has not fought since.
Dos Santos, the Brazilian, has also waited a while for his title shot. With Velasquez hurt at the time, Dos Santos planned to fight Lesnar last June, but the former champ pulled out because of illness and Dos Santos won a third-round knockout over replacement Shane Carwin.
If there was any anxiety in either fighter, they were saving it for Saturday night.
Both referred to the fight as, essentially, another fight.
As for White, it was a little more than that.
The entree into prime-time television has been more than a decade in the making.
But as much as White wants an exciting, entertaining fight and to take advantage of the opportunity to attract new fans, there is always the possibility of a quick knockout.
“I’m a basket case,” he said. “I’m more of a control freak this week than I’ve ever been. This hasn’t been a good week. Ask me Monday. If I haven’t dropped dead before Saturday and I get to Monday, it’ll be awesome.”