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When it comes to ratings, UFC pulls out all the punches

It's not about the money this time. It's about "Money."

Floyd "Money" Mayweather, the biggest pay-per-view draw in boxing, returns to the ring for the first time in nearly two years with a Sept. 19 fight against Juan Manuel Marquez.

That just happens to be the same night Rich Franklin and Vitor Belfort headline the mixed martial arts card at UFC 103 in Dallas. And that explains why the UFC announced last week that, for the first time in the promotion's history, it will air several preliminary fights live for free on Spike TV before the pay-per-view card starts at 10 p.m.

UFC is no stranger to counterpunching, er, counter-programming its competitors. Whenever the now-defunct Affliction promotion put on a live event, UFC retaliated. When Gina Carano fought Cris "Cyborg" Santos for the female title at Strikeforce's Aug. 15 card on Showtime, UFC aired the Brock Lesnar-Frank Mir bout and several previously un-aired fights from UFC 100 on Spike. You know, the card that reportedly did more than 1.5 million pay-per-view buys last July.

The males 18-34 ratings winner? UFC.

Regardless of sample size, the counter-programming battle between UFC, Strikeforce and pay-per-view boxing events bears watching in the next few months. It's the UFC's biggest battle aside from getting MMA legalized in New York and Massachusetts.

In a time where the dollars in our pockets lose elasticity by the hour, UFC competes for 45 of them each month. Boxing matches generally cost the same. The question for Sept. 19: Which promotion will receive our money and which will spend Saturday night and Sunday morning filing copyright claims with YouTube before too many watch the illegally posted videos by users?

We will ask that same question again on Nov. 14 when UFC 105 in Manchester, England, goes head-to-head with Manny Pacquiao, the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, against Miguel Cotto.

The MMA vs. boxing debate continues on a daily basis among fight fans, and it will gain more attention during fight week, and the days afterward when the number of pay-per-view buys start to circulate. The real fight, however, will occur on your cable bills.

Equally intriguing is the MMA vs. MMA counterattack waiting to happen. Last month, Strikeforce, the nearest competitor to UFC, signed top heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko. Last week, Strikeforce announced Fedor will fight undefeated Brett Rogers, most likely in late October or early November. The only open weekends in that time frame are Oct. 31, Nov. 7 and 28.

Might Strikeforce and co-promoter M-1 Global decide to test its newfound strength and go head-to-head with UFC 106 on Nov. 21, "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 10 Finale on Dec. 5, or UFC 107 on Dec. 12? Unclear. UFC president Dana White hinted at Thursday's UFC 102 news conference that he just might put together a third show for November.

In today's shaky economy, the safest bet is against the guy who says "No, I don't think Dana White will come up with something for whatever night Fedor fights."

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