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Analysis: UFC finding right balance with Saturday’s fifth Fox card

UFC and Fox celebrate first year of partnership with fifth card

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, left, and challenger Nate Diaz pose on Thursday Dec. 6, 2012 in advance of their main event Saturday on a UFC televised card.

Watching how the UFC has handled its Fox cards since signing with the network last year resembles spying on a chemist tinkering with a variety of substances in a lab.

The Las Vegas-based promotion started aggressively on network television, staging a heavyweight championship bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos in its inaugural event on Fox. The card shattered mixed martial arts ratings records with a peak of 8.8 million viewers, but the model wasn’t sustainable.

The UFC can’t regularly give away its biggest fights on free television because of the money promised through putting them on pay-per-view.

So it adjusted for UFC on Fox 2, which featured important fights, with mainstays like eventual winners Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen, but none of the championship variety. The card delivered with as many as 6 million viewers but underwhelmed in terms of action.

For the next two Fox cards, the UFC booked a handful of slugfests that promised the back-and-forth swings that made the sport popular in the first place. The fights drew rave reviews, but the ratings plummeted. Fewer people watched the third and fourth Fox cards combined than either of the first two alone.

Time will tell how Saturday’s UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle fits into the narrative, but it sure seems like UFC President Dana White has concocted the perfect mix of elements.

There’s a title fight in the main event — between Benson Henderson and Nate Diaz for the lightweight belt — which would headline a lesser pay-per-view card. The two other top matchups — a light heavyweight showdown with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua versus Alexander Gustafsson and a welterweight grudge match with B.J. Penn against Rory MacDonald — would make for strong co-main events on any pay-per-view.

Click to enlarge photo

Light heavyweight Alexander Gustafsson poses on the scale during the UFC 141 weigh-in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011.

All three bouts look like Fight of the Year contenders on the surface.

“It’s a strategic idea to put the best fights we can possibly put on Fox,” White said last week.

White’s maintained that as truth since first announcing the partnership with Fox, but it was becoming harder to believe as recently as four months ago. Let’s just say names like Alan Belcher, who knocked out Rousimar Palhares at UFC on Fox 3, and Jamie Varner, who lost to Joe Lauzon at UFC on Fox 4, hold little weight compared to legendary figures like Rua or Penn.

Shogun is one of the most popular fighters in MMA history, and pay-per-view sales were high in each of the three UFC cards he headlined as part of championship bouts. As recently as three years ago, Penn was one of the UFC’s top draws.

Look for UFC on Fox 5 to bounce back in viewership.

“As much as we ‘d love to and it’s fun, we don’t do ratings projections,” Fox Sports Media Group President Eric Shanks said. “It’s not a game that we like to play. What I will tell you is that the demographic makeups, no matter what the rating, of these fights is off the charts.”

Yes, the coveted group of 18- to 34-year-old males tune into UFC on Fox no matter the fights. A few more will because of the prestige of UFC on Fox 5.

The genius is that the promotion found a way to improve the product both without sacrificing a major pay-per-view payday and offering fights that can’t possibly disappoint.

It’s not as if Henderson, Diaz, Gustafsson and MacDonald couldn’t use more visibility in the form of millions of viewers to turn into more consistent pay-per-view stars, either.

“I’ve always believed you showcase these guys on free television and it helps build the sport,” White said. “It helps build these fighters and who they are.”

The UFC is showing its committed to that idea this weekend. Fans everywhere should rejoice.

It took a few failed experiments, but UFC on Fox 5 looks like a prototype worth following for the network television cards in the future.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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