In 2008, FOX Sports chairman David Hill used the word “abhorrent” to describe the sport of mixed martial arts.
Hill’s tune changed dramatically in August when FOX announced, with much fanfare, a landmark seven-year deal with MMA promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship. The deal includes four live prime-time UFC fights annually on FOX and up to six on FX. In spring 2012, a revamped The Ultimate Fighter reality show will move to FX and feature live fights weekly. Pre- and post-fight shows and other UFC programming like UFC Unleashed will air on FX and FUEL TV.
The first UFC on FOX event is a big one, presenting a live heavyweight fight between titleholder Cain Velasquez and challenger Junior Dos Santos on Nov. 12 at 9pm ET.
“We are very proud and very happy to be giving, for the first time ever on network TV, the UFC heavyweight championship,” says UFC President Dana White. “Everybody loves the heavyweights. But to really go out for the first time on FOX and deliver to millions of people who have never seen this sport before … I can guarantee you, if this fight goes 30 seconds or 30 minutes, this is going to be a fight right here!
“I wanted to go with a fight that I knew — if I had to bet anything and had to bet everything — that I knew would be a great fight, and I know that these two are going to bring a great fight on Nov. 12,” White continues.
It’s little coincidence that FOX chose its UFC debut for Nov. 12, the same night as the Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez Pay-Per-View boxing match. The UFC event will be a great warmup for the Pacquiao bout, but on another level, it’s a convergence of two combat sports with diverging TV popularity. UFC has seen massive growth, attracting the elusive young male audience, and has now hit network TV. Boxing has now largely become a niche sport. Major fights that used to be on free TV are now premium and pay-per-view fare.