I took the advice of Spike TV and decided to watch Brocktober last night on their network. Zuffa has produced three half-hour long “Primetime” specials to hype up the upcoming Brock Lesnar vs. Cain Velasquez fight happening later this month at the Anaheim Pond (Honda Center) in Southern California. I wish I never had taken Spike’s advice. I was as bored with the first episode of Primetime as I was watching this season’s Ultimate Fighter show featuring Josh Koscheck doing his best Ken Shamrock impersonation as a coach.
If there was anything that was hammered home more in last night’s Primetime show, it was this — Brock Lesnar is once again going to have to carry his opponent in generating fan interest for the fight. I thought Shane Carwin was boring leading up to the July fight but Cain Velasquez takes that to a whole new level. He’s a nice guy and a talented fighter but he simply can’t escape being boring in workouts or interviews. He also has a tendency to say a few things that make you go, “Huh?”
It was interesting to see how UFC presented Velasquez on the Primetime show. They heavily pushed the angle of him possibly becoming “the first Mexican heavyweight champion” despite the fact that he was born in California. Zuffa showed footage of him doing Spanish-language interviews trying to put this angle over. Even in those settings, charisma is not a word you could come up with. He’s a quiet, relatively unassuming guy with a “Brown Pride” tattoo. That’s about it when it comes to what most fight fans take away from seeing him.
In addition to his interviews, Zuffa did a profile on his father who works the fields as a lettuce farmer. It was juxtaposed to footage of where Brock Lesnar grew up in Webster, South Dakota. Even when it came to talking about agriculture, of all things, Lesnar’s story was far more interesting to watch. I almost thought I was watching RFD TV there for a second.
What struck me as a dual-edged sword coming out of the Primetime show was how Brock Lesnar fights in the UFC are now no longer so much about his opponent but rather all about him. The fans who hate him will pay to see him get beat up and the fans who love him will watch his fights no matter what. He’s by far the strongest drawing card in Mixed Martial Arts and the most intriguing giant that the business has seen. Bob Sapp made an impact in Japan but he did so with a sometimes-cuddly side. Brock Lesnar is anything but cuddly.
Zuffa is desperately hopeful that Velasquez can somehow catch lightning in a bottle and attract new fans but I don’t see it happening, even if he does beat Lesnar later this month. Some people have ‘it’ and some don’t and he doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor that a simple eye test from a fan can see. The Primetime show last night didn’t really give the viewers at home any new reason to want to see the two men fight. I came away watching the show with more of a mild shrug than anything else.
That is not the kind of reaction UFC needs right now. They are coming off of a horrific UFC 119 PPV that drew a reported estimate of 275,000 buys. A well-deserved low buy rate for a card that should have been put on cable television instead of PPV. UFC 119 was more of a product of Zuffa’s ambitious scheduling and PPV over-saturation more so than anything else. They are in danger of killing the golden goose if some of their bigger events later this year do not deliver. I want to see the company do strong business because it helps all of us who cover the sport. So, the idea of rooting for failure with a sport dominated by one major promotion is not something I’m interested in.
However, the idea of over-saturation needs to be honestly addressed. Dana White recently criticized the notion of over-saturation in an interview for Rogers Sportsnet. On my own web site (Fight Opinion), I had a commenter claim that anyone who says that oversaturation is happening in MMA is being pretentious. This person is also a boxing fan. The truth about over-saturation of non A-level fights right now in MMA lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but the needle is starting to move towards those who have a negative outlook on where things are heading.
On the idea of over-saturation of product, let’s use the NFL as an example. One of the major issues coming up between the owners and the NFL Player’s Association is the idea of an 18-game schedule, which would be an increase of 2 games over the current 16-game format. The players, by in large, are opposed to an 18 game schedule due to an increased amount of injuries and a feeling that the NFL could hurt the golden goose by having too much product on television. What makes the NFL special is that it’s a six-month seasonal league on television and the rest of the year is all about the draft and off-the-field headlines with free agency. There is a belief in the UFC that there is no such thing as over-saturation and that the idea of slowing down or even implementing a seasonal format is a bad idea.
Here’s the difference between the UFC and a league like the NFL — imagine if every stadium looked the same, had the same TV production, and the only games you got for ‘free’ involved teams like the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders versus a young ‘upstart’ (like a Tampa Bay) while you had to pay to watch all the playoffs, the Super Bowl, and some mediocre Thursday night games in between. Would you be happy? No, you would be furious. You wouldn’t accept it. And yet, that’s what is happening right now. Paying for UFC 119 would have been the equivalent of having to pay to watch the Steelers face the Browns last season. Just because you could find some diehard fans to pay for it doesn’t mean it would be overall successful to the health of your league.
In addition to the amount of B-level, occasionally C-level fights populating undercards or even main cards on PPV events lately (think: Demian Maia vs. Mario Miranda), you also are being subjected to ‘cable cards’ that most people aren’t aware are taking place or simply don’t get fired up for because they don’t sense there is any star power on the shows. Combine this with the fact that The Ultimate Fighter is more about promoting a coach’s fight at the end of the season as opposed to actually generating new, real prospects and what you end up with is a shortage of guys who fans view as real superstars and a bunch of mid-level fighters who end up getting cut after a couple of losses.
This is the kind of over-saturation that has people worried. There’s a difference in saying that there’s overall saturation of MMA programming on television (Bellator, Strikeforce, UFC) as opposed to talking about the mediocre starting to make more appearances on shows UFC is pushing as marquee events. More competition is better for the sport and when that competition presents fights and production differently from each other, that is even better. It’s fun and exciting. What isn’t exciting is cookie cutter, boilerplate standards that haven’t changed all that much in the last five years. UFC needs to develop more legitimate stars and be more selective in how cards are booked in order for the fans to feel that what they are watching is actually important. Unfortunately, if the fight quality of TUF 12 so far is any indication of things to come, you might not want to hold your breath.