Ten years ago today, I wrote about a busy upcoming fall for UFC and evaluated the main events scheduled but wondered what they had ready to go in the winter and beyond, depending on match outcomes. Check it out below…
With three PPV events and one live two-hour Spike TV Ultimate Fight Night special between now and Nov. 18, UFC has to come up with four main event draws in a short span of time.
UFC 63 in Anaheim, Calif. on Sept. 23 headlines with Matt Hughes’s first PPV match since defeating Royce Gracie. Rather than taking on Georges St. Pierre, who had to withdraw due to an injury, they’ve inserted B.J. Penn, a strong replacement who holds a victory over Hughes in their last fight. The main undercard draws include Mike Swick vs. David Loiseau, Jason Lambert vs. Rashad Evans, and the return of “Little Evil” Jens Pulver against Joe Lauzon. No strong household names fill out the undercard.
The Oct. 10 UFC Fight Night from Florida headlines with Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock in their third match, a rematch of the main draw of one of the most successful PPV events of any kind in history this summer.
The Oct. 14 PPV in Las Vegas, Nev. (“Unstoppable”) headlines with Rich Franklin vs. Anderson Silva for the Middleweight Title and Sean Sherk vs. Kenny Florian in a solid undercard match. No other matches are announced officially, although there are reports of Keith Jardine vs. Mike Nickels in a battle of former TUF contestants on the card also.
The Nov. 18 PPV was supposed to headline with Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva in an MMA dream match of the two top light-heavyweights from the two top competing promotions. However, the match is off, and details of why aren’t known. Dana White is blaming the Japanese Pride executives for being unpredictable. Whoever is to blame, it’s disappointing for fans, but probably better for UFC. Silva doesn’t have enough mainstream drawing power at this point to justify the risk of him, while under contract to Pride (which is trying to make inroads into the U.S. while facing problems at home in Japan), beating Liddell, UFC’s top draw among its champions. Expect, instead, Liddell to fight on the Dec. 31 PPV instead against Tito Ortiz, assuming Ortiz makes it through his Oct. 10 match against Shamrock relatively unscathed. They still need a main event for this show as Tim Sylvia vs. Jeff Monson for the Heavyweight Title may not be strong enough to carry the main event slot.
Of the four big main events this fall season, the most intriguing is Franklin vs. Silva, with Hughes vs. Penn next. Liddell vs. Ortiz is the most marketable on PPV of the three PPV headliners because both are better known and more proven draws than the other four involved in PPV main events.
UFC has proven to be a master of building up matches, with its best work being done with the Stephan Bonner vs. Forrest Griffin, Chuck Liddell vs. Renato Sobral, Hughes vs. Gracie, and Tito vs. Shamrock hype in recent months. With an Ultimate Fight Night on Oct. 10 to promote Franklin-Silva, and with footage of Silva’s devastating knockout and trouncing of Chris Leben combined with Franklin’s marketable personality and exciting fight style, they have a chance to keep up a streak of great buy totals for UFC PPVs. Depending on how the fight goes, either Franklin or Silva have a chance to move into the category of UFC’s elite draws who are in their prime.
Weaker from a marketing standpoint is Hughes vs. Penn. Without Gracie as an opponent, Hughes hasn’t been on top of a hugely successful PPV. There is a great story to tell regarding the Hughes-Penn “feud,” so UFC should be able to turn this into a highly anticipated match among casual UFC viewers, not just hardcore UFC fans, if their track record of marketing recent matches is any indication. Mike Swick vs. David Loiseau, from a mainstream fan standpoint, isn’t the strongest undercard match. UFC will have to draw based in part on reputation and brand name more than the other fall PPVs.
Liddell vs. Ortiz should draw well, even though Liddell is considered a heavy favorite, because both are among UFC’s top four, if not top two, draws.
Fight Night should set an all-time UFC ratings record with Shamrock vs. Ortiz, not because of intrigue over who’s going to win, since even most casual fans who love Shamrock or are irritated by Ortiz, must have learned by now Shamrock is far past his prime. Key here is a competitive, satisfying fight, or another decisive, yet free-from-controversy knockout by Ortiz. Either way, Ortiz needs to look strong, and of course win, for the Liddell match to be a success on PPV.
UFC is weaker on ready-made sure-fire main events that mix credible top level even match-ups with marketable household names for the winter season. The ideal situation for UFC in the short-run in terms of producing match-ups that draw on PPV (assuming Wanderlei Silva is not an option) would be for some upsets to shake things up.
In the welterweight division, a Penn victory would set up a Hughes rematch or a Hughes vs. St. Pierre match to earn latter title shot against Penn. Meanwhile, there are marketable title matches down the line for Karo Parisyan, Sean Sherk, Diego Sanchez, and perhaps Frank Trigg and Joe Riggs to keep that division strong throughout 2007.
In the light-heavyweight division, if Liddell beats Ortiz, the most anticipated match other than a Silva deal being worked out would be Quinton Jackson. Forrest Griffin may be ready by late 2007 for a title shot, too. If Liddell loses, it sets up a rematch which would do huge business.
If Rich Franklin beats Silva, but it’s controversial or very competitive, a rematch in 2007 would be welcome and appropriate. There’s always a possible rematch with former champ Evan Tanner, although it’s not strong enough to headline a PPV. There’s David Loiseau and Mick Swick as possible challengers, among others, but all would have to be built up by UFC’s marketing machine.
The typically weak UFC heavyweight division can’t alone carry any PPV based on the current star power in the division, but it can co-headline with a strong undercard match as UFC hopefully spends some of the windfall profits from recent PPVs to strengthen this division.
Without Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock as legendary names to draw unusually high buyrates, UFC will need to continue to build stars from within, and avoid disappointing events such as UFC 61 to keep the faith among the mainstream fans who are sampling UFC on a regular basis for the first time that $40 is well spent often enough to justify the risk of a lousy show now and then – which is an inevitable part of UFC or any sporting event.