I'd planned to write something about the Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos fight today. But the fight lasted all of 64 seconds. Gotta feel for anyone who sat through eons of buildup only to make for the suds and miss the action. The UFC's debut on Fox was a flop. A disappointment on a grand scale. A few leg kicks from Velasquez, one overhand right from Dos Santos and that was the end of it. Dunzo. The card in its entirety.
I'm not saying the show disappointed because the MMA wonks say so or don't say so or don't say anything at all in prolix fashion. There's no point debating whether 5.7 million viewers is a success. That's a bigger number than any UFC fight has ever done. But if you wanted to watch MMA instead of a short-lived, unimpressive kickboxing match, you were out of luck on Saturday. After all, wasn't this event supposed to be about the mainstreaming of MMA? That was the meta-narrative here. There was so little of the sport on display.
The UFC claims it took a big financial hit to team up with Fox, although several 30-second, $100,000 Anheuser-Busch and Ford ads put the lie to that notion. Regardless, the fight would normally have made the UFC millions from pay-per-view buys. The tradeoff was the enormous audience, from where the UFC hoped to attract new fans. But airing a single fight between two powerful heavyweights who can resolve grievances hastily was always a bad idea. No way Velasquez-Don Santos had the publicity bang Dana White and company hoped for. We can only wonder about the caliber of "free" fights the UFC will give away in the future.
All of which brings us back to the Delphic subject of MMA's growth potential. What is the sport's ceiling? If you accept the idea that MMA is still a fringe pursuit about which most people are clueless, you can put more stock in White's predictions that MMA could be one of the biggest sports on the planet in a decade. If, however, you choose to believe that 18-35 year-old American males already know what MMA and the UFC are and, if they appreciate the sport, are already watching it, you have to accept that there's not a huge amount of mainstreaming left to do. At least not in America. As for the world, who knows?
What I can tell you in the most limited anecdotal sense is that at exactly 9 p.m. on Saturday night, I absconded from the after-party of my friend's wedding to find a bar showing the fight. I marched in in my suit and planted myself in front of the TV, procured napkins for note-taking and ordered a pint of the black. As it happened, the bartender was a kickboxer and happy to set me up. He turned the TV to Fox. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. We watched Curt Menefee and Dana White and Brock Lesnar stuffed into suit jackets. We couldn't hear what they were saying, but I could guess: This is a huge step for the sport, the two best heavyweights in the world on a major network in prime-time. For those of you who don't know what MMA is, here's how it works...and so on.
Far more interesting to me was the conversation taking place between the two middle-aged women eating dinner next to me.
"I don't get this extreme fighting," said one, looking at the TV.
"It's just not working for me," said the other.
"They're barefoot, but...."
The fight started. Then it stopped. I don't think anyone but me, the bartender, and the two women even noticed.
"Is that the end of it?" one woman said. "Is that it?"
That was it. And then she turned back to her food and didn't glance at the TV again. I returned to my after-party, failed to sneak away again to watch Pacquiao-Marquez, and drank. I drank heavily.