This Saturday night, the Ultimate Fighting Championship broadcast its 27th event on Fox Broadcast Television. The main event featured Derek Brunson vs. Jacare Souza live from Charlotte, NC. The 20,000 seat Spectrum Center, home of the Charlotte Hornets seemed tempered and underwhelmed through the twelve fight card. It was a card devoid of any true MMA draws, and it effected the enthusiasm of everyone involved. The first Fox event of 2018 was a far cry from the first UFC on Fox event all the way back in November of 2011.
Back then, the attitude around the UFC was almost celebratory. The promotion was so hot that the first Fox event wasn’t even part of the contracted deal between the two, but rather a gesture of goodwill by both companies. The UFC was so happy to have the legitimacy Fox gave them. Fox was excited to bring a young, fresh sport to their channel with it’s hip, young audience. Optimism was abound.
That first Fox broadcast, not even truly a fight card, but rather a single televised Heavyweight Championship fight, was a highlight moment for the sport. A toast to their future success, the UFC offered on broadcast TV what would have traditionally been a PPV main event. The promotion was showing their new partner just how good their shit was. It’s the typical drug dealer move; the first high is always free.
Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez was coming off a legacy defining destruction of Heavyweight superstar Brock Lesnar at UFC 121. A million people had watched Cain Velasquez humble the formidable Lesnar on PPV, and the UFC hoped he had gotten some rub from the performance. An undefeated heavyweight champion in Velasquez seemed ready to take over the Mexican combat sports market. In Junior Dos Santos, the UFC had a legitimate threat to challenge Cain. At the time, the excitement surround the matchup between these two couldn’t have been higher. It was the most highly anticipated heavyweight fight the UFC had ever put together that didn’t include Brock Lesnar. To have it broadcast live on Fox seemed almost surreal.
The sport seemed like it was stepping forth into a new realm of popularity. It was dubbed “The Fox Era”.
Fast forward a six years, and The Fox Era has faltered. The electricity of that Heavyweight championship fight has evolved into four fight Fox cards, bloated with uninspired video packages and commercials for future PPVs. Plus an endless reel of the Fox card’s bastard cousin, FS1’s six fight never-ending cards, most of which end around 1 am and remove all joy from fight fans’ hearts. Long gone are the high profile matchups like Cain vs. JDS. They’ve been replaced with a main events like Jacare/Brunson, without a title implication in sight.
With the UFC’s new ownership current negotiations with Fox to renew the broadcast rights for MMA’s flagship promotion stagnant, Fox is more than happy to let events like Jacare vs. Brunson to wallow in obscurity and fail to draw substantial ratings. For proof, during Fox’s highest profile sports broadcast of the year, the NFC Championship game, UFC on Fox went entirely unmentioned. The UFC, for their part, seems equally content to fill these Fox cards with lesser names, saving their shrinking pool of stars for PPV cards and main event spots that can sell out local markets.
All this amounts to a product the seems to have never lived up to its promise. MMA fans entered The Fox Era with the hope of MMA being brought to new heights. But it seems instead that the first Fox event might have been a high point for the sport. Surely, that night represented the high point for optimism for mixed martial arts. In that moment, the sport seemed unstoppable, inevitable.
In the six years since, with MMA being molded and cookie-cut into a mainstream product, the essence of the sport is under siege. While the competition and technique of MMA continues to escalate, the spirit and joy inherent in combat sports seems to have been lost. Somewhere in packaging the beautiful spectacle of no holds barred violence for a wide audience, something essential was lost in translation. The only question that remains is, can Mixed Martial Arts recover its soul, before it’s killed forever by small men in suits? Only time will tell.