Viewpoint: Moving Pieces

By: Tristen Critchfield
Jun 11, 2013
Fuel TV provided fighters like Chris Weidman with an invaluable platform. | Photo: Keith Mills/

The relationship between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Fuel TV spanned approximately 16 months, with 10 events providing around 30 hours -- give or take -- of live mixed martial arts coverage.

It began in the heartland of America on a winter night last year and ended on Saturday in a steamy gymnasium in Brazil. In between, there were countless complaints regarding the accessibility of the niche network, which devoted nearly half of its airtime to UFC content once the promotion inked a seven-year deal with Fox Sports Media Group in the summer of 2011. While Fuel TV was not available on all cable and satellite providers, those who were able to watch the events witnessed their fair share of history.

The former action-sports based network played host to the emergence of burgeoning stars such as Alexander Gustafsson, Chan Sung Jung, Chris Weidman and Renan Barao; it broadcast renaissance moments for fan favorites like Wanderlei Silva and Cung Le; and when the UFC wanted to break new ground in Sweden, China or more remote locations in Brazil, Fuel TV was often the destination. Not too shabby for a network that originated from an energy drink-infused base of skateboarding, motocross and BMX.

Nothing was more extreme than violence the UFC brought, however, and while the numbers might have been disappointing by the Las Vegas-based organization’s standards, MMA content consistently delivered the highest ratings on the channel. Fox was using the UFC to draw eyes to one of its lesser-known entities, but the promotion used the relationship to further its own agenda, as well.

UFC on Fuel TV 10 was a perfect example of Zuffa’s ulterior motives, specifically catering to an international audience. It was the promotion’s second straight venture into a Brazilian outpost that was not Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, and the card was, for the most part, constructed to appeal to fight fans from the South American nation, with little regard for viewers elsewhere.

Sure, the headliner between Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira had some sizzle, and bouts like Thiago Silva-Rafael Cavalcante and Erick Silva-Jason High delivered interesting narratives, but for the most part, the UFC’s 10th offering on Fuel TV was difficult for even the sport’s most devoted acolytes to get behind.

The co-main event featured the welterweight finalists of the under-the-radar second season of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” -- Leonardo Santos and William Macario -- in a bout that hardly inspired comparisons to the groundbreaking scrap between future UFC hall of famers Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar at “The Ultimate Fighter 1” Finale. Still, tears were shed as Santos celebrated his induction into “TUF” immortality -- an honor that seems to mean less and less with each iteration of the show.

File Photo

Werdum won the final fight on Fuel TV.
Other former “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” alums were also given a push. The charismatic Rony Mariano Bezzera toppled “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” competitor Mike Wilkinson in the first round. It was his third straight opponent from a recent “Ultimate Fighter” season. Likewise, castmate Daniel Sarafian had little trouble dispatching the unheralded Eddie Mendez in just more than two minutes.

All three of the aforementioned bouts took place on the main card, prominent placement for fighters lacking a significant connection with the casual fan. Again, that was never the intention. Like its forays into Sweden and China, the UFC’s international cards are stocked with as much local -- that being a relative term in some cases -- talent as possible. UFC on Fuel TV 10 was celebrated as much as it was for its surplus of quick finishes and crowd-pleasing submissions. The action played out the way it did, in large part, because many of the guys who were supposed to win did so emphatically.

The idea being that the likes of Bezzera, Sarafian and Santos can easily transition to a Fortaleza or Jaragua do Sul when the UFC makes a return trip. On a larger platform, with a larger viewership, this model might not work as well.

For most, the end of Fuel TV is a welcome change, as Fox Sports 1 is expected to be present in some 90 million homes from its Aug. 17 inception. The channel is Fox’s challenge to ESPN’s 24-hour sports behemoth, and the UFC will have a prominent place at the table next to established commodities such as Major League Baseball, NCAA football and basketball and NASCAR -- a far more powerful group than the X-Games set.

The UFC is no bit player, either, as the launch of the new network is highlighted by a loaded fight card in Boston. In one sense, this would not seem to be much different than the UFC’s debut on Fox, but going from Fuel TV, which was in anywhere from 30 to 35 million homes, to FS1 is undoubtedly a big deal. Any attempt to challenge the Worldwide Leader is going to be an uphill climb, and Fox executives clearly need to assemble an All-Star lineup to do so. Previously, Fox fight cards were regarded as some of the key events for the promotion’s success. That will not change, but now more eyes figure to be on the UFC more consistently than ever before.

That brings us back to events like UFC on Fuel TV 10, which will go down in history as the last of a breed. The day may be coming when the UFC no longer has the luxury of nurturing lesser talent in the manner it did on Saturday; the growing Fox Sports empire simply may not allow it. There will be ways to build the Bezzeras and Sarafians of the world, but come late summer, positioning them on a main card on free TV against overmatched competition could prove to be a less than desirable option.

Of course, the UFC can arrange its pay-per-view lineup as it pleases, and preliminary portions of such cards can always serve as a launching point for reality show darlings. The presence of sister network Fox Sports 2 -- Fuel TV’s official replacement -- could also prove to be significant, depending on its role. According to a release, four UFC events are tentatively expected to air on FS2 in 2014. At any rate, with Fuel TV no longer around, free television events centered on spoonfeeding prospects could be a thing of the past, or at least they should be. Surpassing ESPN requires a little more.

“Fans are ready for an alternative to the establishment,” Fox Sports Media Group Co-President Eric Shanks stated in a release announcing the launch of FS1 a few months ago.

That the UFC is at the forefront of that change speaks volumes about the promotion’s growth in recent years. Do not expect too many tears to be shed about the demise of Fuel TV, at least by fight fans, but the short-lived relationship between the promotion and network served as a necessary steppingstone to the current destination.

The UFC is nearly two years into its relationship with Fox. Already it feels like the landscape is again changing, and that involves far more than the introduction of a confusing naming convention for FS1 events. The UFC on Fuel TV era is over. Now it is on to bigger and better things.

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