It is without question the most important fight in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and it will also be a huge financial loss.
"We're going to get smashed on this fight, but it's an investment in the future of the business," UFC president Dana White said. "You don't go on free television and make your money. You don't. That's just not how it works."
UFC makes its network debut Saturday with one fight and only one fight airing. It's not so much about the fight or the fighters, but rather showcasing the world's premier mixed martial arts organization to a new audience. Spike TV, the UFC's long-time broadcasting partner, is in 98 million homes, sure, but that's not even close to Fox, one of the big four networks. Fox has a reach longer than Jon Jones and packs a punch more powerful than Chuck Liddell in his prime.
The concept is simple: take the financial hit now on a heavyweight title fight that will garner attention, interest and new fans by the punch. To put it simpler: you have to spend money to make money.
The first Ultimate Finale on the night of April 9, 2005, did something similar as Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar staged a 15-minute brawl/launching pad for a new sport. Bloodied, beaten and bereft of breath, Griffin and Bonnar actually increased ratings by the round that night. Word of mouth -- and phone calls and texting -- is a powerful tool. And that was before Twitter was invented.
Velasquez and Dos Santos have the capability to do something similar. They could go five rounds. Or there could be a knockout in the first 30 seconds. That's the thing: you don't know what will happen, you just want to be there when it does.
"We made this fight the first fight on free TV for a reason," White said. "These guys, stylistically, both are aggressive. Both fight."
Zuffa LLC has owned the UFC for more than 10 years, and White has been there since Day 1 along with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. They have done more than 100 fight cards in that time, but this one is different. This is the one that gets them another 10 years, another 100 fight cards and another 10 million fans. It's the springboard to live "Ultimate Fighter" shows on Fuel TV, to more shows on Fox, to increased exposure on a major network.
UFC is not the first MMA promotion on network TV. Strikeforce did that with NBC several years ago, albeit in the wee hours. Same with Bellator. Strikeforce also aired more recently on CBS, and when a scuffle broke out after the fight was over, well, it hasn't returned to that network since.
"You never rattle the cages of the ratings gods, but we expect to be pleasantly surprised on Sunday morning," Fox Sports chairman David Hill said.
A popular talking point in the days since UFC and Fox agreed to this seven-year deal (which technically doesn't begin until January 2012) has been the return of big heavyweight fights to free television as in the old days of boxing. Believe it or not, folks, there was a time when championship boxing matches took place on free-per-view network television. The pay-per-view model ended all that.
"What boxing was to my generation, UFC is to my son's. By the end of these seven years, UFC will be mainstream," Hill said.
Ah, yes, "mainstream." That's been the buzzword in this niche sport. The quest to go from fringe sport to accepted sport to legitimate athletic endeavor worthy of the same competitive respect granted to baseball, football, basketball and every other long-established sport.
"To get people to take these athletes serious and the sports serious and to finally be watching Fox NFL or any of these big . . . the World Series or whatever it might be . . . and to see spots and commercials about the fight airing on Fox, it's definitely one of the proudest moments I've ever had in being in this business," White said. "No matter what, you know we're going to deliver. We're on Fox - the biggest, baddest network on the planet. We couldn't ask for anything more. This is a dream come true."