5 YRS AGO – COLUMN: Fighting for Acceptance – What the spectacular UFC 139 Shogun vs. Henderson main event means and where UFC goes now

By Bjorn Hansen, MMATorch columnist

Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (artist Grant Gould © MMATorch)

Five years ago this week, MMATorch columnist Bjorn Hansen examined the spectacular Shogun Rua vs. Dan Henderson fight and it’s potential impact on the sport of MMA and the UFC brand. Five years later, you be the judge of whether it had the impact Hansen speculated it might.

Both men were exceedingly exhausted. The crowd electric and rapturous yet confused about who actually won. It was a time when the UFC needed an epic performance if it wanted to survive in a new promising market. A riveting back and forth brawl left fans yearning for more. Move over Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonner; you two no longer stand alone as the UFC’s most important fight.

Junior dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, Dan “Hendo” Henderson, and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua are the newest tenants. Griffin and Bonnar did their thing, and it would be an impossible task to try to reduce the significance of that fight. Although still uncertain today, these previous fights could have spectacular implications for UFC’s long-term viability in a cut-throat market like network television. Any number of fights could have taken place. Yet we were befittingly lucky. The full scope of the sport showcased on its biggest stage during the timeliest of times.

Global Conquest Possible?

If this sport realizes its full potential someday in the (not so?) distant future, we will recognize this week as a gift, a promising omen if you will, graciously bestowed on us by the MMA gods. How is one to explain this phenomenal execution during this past week?

Instead of lay and pray or unbridled inertia, we got balls-to-the-wall action. Many were derisive when Dana White bandied the idea that MMA could be THE global sport of the future. It’s not going to be soccer in the U.S., even though the rest of the world cherishes it. And despite how much Americans love their “football,” the rest of the world just flat out doesn’t get it or even care to try in the first place.

Dana’s argument however had great reason and logic back then – and even more so today. It is that MMA is in the unique position to transcend all cultural barriers by virtue of its visceral and primal nature. Add cultural heritage to the mix and you have a strong offering. How can Mexico not enjoy rooting for Cain Velasquez? Or could you conceive Brazil not appreciating world great, Junior dos Santos? Which Americans would have found Dan Henderson’s last two performance dull and yawn-worthy?

The Full Scope

Junior and Cain showcased the dynamic explosiveness our heavyweights are capable nowadays. They highlighted the dangerous nature of a single mistake in MMA. Cain hesistated, and Junior pounced. Sixty four seconds later, it was a wrap. Part of what makes MMA great is the possible suddenness to its finality. Not only do you not now WHO will win, but you don’t know WHEN the fight will end.

Another aspect of MMA’s attractiveness to sports fans is the prospect of a full-blown back and forth war; not a hyperbolic metaphorical one involving an inflated ball, but a true battle. During these skirmishes, fighters can push themselves to the brink of despair, only to find the minutest of opportunities to continue fighting. One of the best examples of this was none other than UFC 139’s main event, Hendo versus Shogun.

Full contact punches connected, flurrying finishes attempted, and dangerous mounts were achieved during this instant classic. Every time one fighter was on the verge of defeat, he fought back with the shrewdness only a veteran can muster.

Shogun used clever misdirection by successfully threatening with leglocks when Dan was grounding and pounding over him going for the finish. After Shogun had Hendo mounted in the later rounds, when he started punching Dan’s face in, Dan always turned to his side, just enough to entice Shogun to halt the attack and go for the submission.

Normally, this is fatal mistake made by rookies, but Dan never entirely gave up his back. As soon as Shogun went for the submission, Hendo would turn right back into a safer, supine position. In complete survival mode, he admirably managed to do this for an entire round and survive Shogun’s late onslaught.

First there was speed, explosion, and power. What followed was gritty determination, clever guiles, exciting uncertainty, all wrapped up in the form of two ultimate warriors going for glory.

Are these the perfect ingredients for success? A veritable primordial soup of mainstream acceptance? Only time will tell.

Maybe Dana’s right. Maybe this has all the global potential FIFA, the NBA, the NFL, and MLB all fantasize about but fail to achieve. It remains a fantasy for the UFC as well at the moment, but opportunity beckons. I was starting to believe it may not happen because of this annoyingly prolonged mainstream absence.

But with this combination of knockout and epic war, as a memorable double dose introduction to America’s uninitiated, we may have just started knocking on the door. Even though a dedicated few have long cherished this sport, to some this was their first taste.

Could anyone have concocted a sweeter first taste? Be grateful and appreciative MMA fans, for Dana’s bold premonition of the past breathes strong life in the present…

However, commercial imperialism is only possible after firmly securing your homeland.

The Vicissitudes of Life

Using the pay-per-view business model, the UFC grew from the dark ages of straight-to-VHS, to its current position. Before The Ultimate Fighter, this model struggled. Then Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar happened, and the UFC mushroomed its fan base into a respectable, reliable source of profit. The grand stage that Spike provided was just enough spark to get UFC locomotive chugging and running.

And run it did. By UFC 100, with Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre gracing its main event, and the momentous occasion of celebrating the centennial age of its events, the UFC propelled past the symbolic one million purchase mark. Well above; 1.6 million to be exact. This momentum carried over into its next event, with a, Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn headliner, garnering a respectable 600K-plus purchases.

Sensing opportunity, the UFC hit the pedal to the metal. Many forewarned the dangers of oversaturating the market. The opportunity seemed too much for the UFC to pass up, and the year of 2011 bore the brunt of this overreaching. Several main events were canceled, and with other stars tied up in future events, there remained only in-card replacements, essentially elevating each fight one rung.

As a result, PPV purchase patterns have suffered. Only a purported 270K witnessed this epic fight between past Pride powerhouses, Hendo and Shogun. Ouch. Many mark this as a bellwether to evolve the UFC’s business model. In many ways, we find ourselves much in the same position pre Griffin-Bonnar. The business model is in question and the answer may lie, as it surely did in 2005, in the broader viewing audience captured by network and cable television. That’s right, we can solve our PPV problems on complimentary television (but do we want to?).

Network television is a merciless neighborhood, and there’s no better big brother to have around than Fox and all of its affiliates. Normalizing the market’s saturation is a given. But which source of revenue is most attractive? More pointedly, where do you pool your best fighters?

The Road Less Travelled

PPV or Fox? Determining that golden mean will be the key balancing act for the UFC during 2012. It comes down to this: which is more desirable, going for PPV profit which is more certain today, or trying to score high ratings on Fox and FX in the desired demographics and thus command more money from Fox tomorrow? The crossroads have befallen the UFC’s path. It is time to test Dana White and the Fertitta Bros. mettle.

Fighting for mainstream acceptance is the Championship of business aspirations for the UFC. The time is now; either the UFC blossoms into an accepted sport, in the biggest of stages, or it stagnates and remains a sport restricted to cult fandom. The process will be long, arduous, and uncertain, but one couldn’t have scripted a better beginning.


Bjorn Hansen first wrote columns for MMATorch.com beginning in February 2010. He resides in Bodø, Norway.

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