I know what you’re thinking: it’s early September and TRB is just getting around to previewing the wrestling season now? When UNC pankrationistas have been murmurously anticipating the triumphant return from shoulder surgery of Zac “Crazy Arms” Bennett, the Johnstown Jesus, and the coronation of second-generation champion Corey “Make Mine Moxie” Mock since our near-near-near-miss at the NCAA Championships in March?
As it happens, there are so many subplots to the upcoming campaign that our crack writing staff has just begun to weave it all into a coherent narrative suitable to the pages of a sober sports website rather than a breathless telenovela; also, the schedule is currently unavailable on the team’s official website. The site’s stark yet bracing reminder, “THERE ARE NO UPCOMING EVENTS”, urges us all to carpe diem- for the beginning is nigh.
So this is still only the preview of the preview. But sometime in mid-November, slams and suplexes shall thunder meatily through Carmichael Arena as the student body wrestles its way into a packed Midnight Matness. There may also be some basketball around then. In fact, I’m quite positive there will. Because Duke and UNC basketball are obliged to publish their schedules in an attempt to drum up interest in their sport, I see there’s a gap on Saturday, Nov. 12, following Duke-Presbyterian at 4:30 and before Sunday’s intra-UNC tilt against Asheville, when the young, white, male audience ages 18-34 will have an availability.
Now, pro sports of any kind will always run second on the Road, but mixed martial arts brings up the rear. I figured that out early after moving to Chapel Hill and encountering any number of fervent sports fans who couldn’t give you Georges St. Pierre’s nickname on a bet (it’s “Rush”. Like the band, or the blowhard). Few bars in town showed UFC fights, and when my wife (who loves her MMA…almost as much as her Georgia Bulldogs) and I could find one, what crowds there were manifested precious little enthusiasm.
But hear me out, because Friday the UFC and Fox announced the first fight in their brand-spanking new deal: Cain Velasquez versus Junior dos Santos, Nov. 12 in Anaheim, for the UFC World Heavyweight Championship. This is your opportunity to witness history. More importantly, it’s your demographic duty. For the first UFC fight on network TV, Fox is counting on you (young, white) guys- it agreed to a 7-year, $100 million deal on August 18 because it means to cash in on that UFC core audience.
If you’re not white, congratulations: they want you even more. It’s almost 2012, and Fox and the UFC are taking a page from Romney and Perry by courting the Hispanic vote, to the point that the UFC is pitting defending champ Velasquez against Manny Pacquiao’s title defense that same night on pay-per-view. Velasquez himself continues to improve his Spanish- he’s Mexican-American but grew up speaking only English. If Velasquez wins on free TV, many among North Carolina’s considerable Hispanic population will get to celebrate “Brown Pride” (Velasquez’ chest tattoo) for the first time. If dos Santos wins, Brazilians will party loudly and colorfully wherever they are, quite regardless of whether they’re aware of some fight. I’m thinking not, pursuant to a recent conversation I had with a Brazilian girl- we were samba-ing at the time so I might not have followed everything, but apparently she’d only heard of the best MMA fighter in the world, her countryman Anderson Silva, because he knocked out (with a front kick to the face he learned from Steven Seagal- no, seriously) Vitor Belfort, who was really famous for sleeping with somebody on a Brazilian reality show, or maybe it was his wife on the same show, although later he found Jesus again and thinks watching porn makes you practice porn (somehow the telenovela got turned on again in here)…
So put off the hoops postmortems and enjoy the best deal in town- with this fight, the UFC’s giving away the loaf when they usually charge $45 for slices ($55 for HD). Pay-per-view is its bread-and-butter. But Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White, who run the UFC, believe this is a necessary gamble for the new eyes it’ll bring to the sport. And of course if the PPV numbers suffer, they’ve got $100 million to cushion the blow.
The main problem is how great a matchup they’ve got. The UFC’s stepping up in class, so naturally wants to muster the best show it can to begin. This one will put them on the map, for sure, but might redraw the map too. I’ll buy that the promotional value makes giving away the fight worth it, but the new audience brought in might expect just as big a fight, for the same no price, each and every time. It’s not like you get the Super Bowl every Sunday, so new fans, be converted, but try not to be too impressed.
For those accustomed to NFL-style presentation, Fox promises to bring to bear all its marketing and production might to enhance the show. The traditional UFC opening featuring a gladiator entering the arena is history- too cheesy for a network featuring football-playing animated robots? I just hope they don’t try to make the robot kickbox and apply guillotine chokes- you don’t want the public associating your new sport with that heartwarming new Rocky-meets-Transformers movie starring Hugh Jackman. You really don’t want them thinking, “Sure, this is good wholesome family entertainment, but is it fighting?”
Some of you may shudder at your last attempted conversion experience, as these aren’t technically the first MMA fights on network TV. Kimbo Slice’s EliteXC shows on CBS a few years ago, however, just took up space where real fights should have been. If you saw those, especially the one against James Thompson where his cauliflower ear swelled up and exploded, the first fight in history called by a referee out of disgust, try to forget it. Sadly, Gus Johnson’s MMA announcing career on CBS bloomed as briefly and purplely as James Thompson’s appendage. They both are deeply missed.
I’m not sure what has kept MMA from drawing a bigger audience heretofore, but surely among young men it’s not the violence, is it? Brain-scrambling is a bit distasteful, but that happens in football too, probably even more. OK, in football it’s technically incidental violence, a by-product of the sport rather than its point, as in MMA. But does it really matter that in football you’re trying to put the ball over a line? By that logic, when we landed in Normandy during World War II we were just trying to walk to Paris. Anyway, this may be one heavyweight fight not settled by knockout. Both sides are smaller for heavyweights and have strong cardio. They can knock people out but aren’t just punchers, and have skills on the ground as well as standing. This should be a long, intense, high-quality bout, probably lasting a money’s-worth five rounds.
Certainly it’s an auspicious time for UFC to seize the heavyweight championship: the heavyweight class in boxing lacks glamor, and most of the top fighters are foreign. Plenty of great foreign fighters work in the UFC, of course, yet many homegrown ones do as well (especially former wrestlers). And as an American, being an MMA fan rather than a boxing fan means never having to root for Floyd Mayweather. Which I think we can all agree is a good deal.
The ambition to bury boxing aside (a favorite talking point of Dana White’s), the main object for the UFC is to escape the combat-sports ghetto and invade the mainstream. Personally, I admit I’d like more people to get hooked. So if your demographic isn’t busy doing whatever demographics normally do on Saturday nights, check it out. Depending on how many overtimes Presbyterian takes Duke to, the basketball should have concluded by then. You don’t even have to watch the fight that much, just glance at the ring girls occasionally while Nielsen secretly scans your retinas.
If nothing else, think of the wrestlers: those poor, hard-working sods who’ll never get drafted, never plied with goodies by friends of the program. But in mixed martial arts they finally have a legitimate sport they can graduate to. The UFC is to college wrestling as China is to college basketball, the place where you’re free at last to punch your opponent in the face. Light heavyweight champ (and Bud Light salesman) Jon Jones was about to be an Iowa wrestler before he turned pro, Randy Couture (Scorpion King II!) was an Olympic alternate in Greco-Roman out of Oklahoma State, and Velasquez himself was a two-time All-American at Arizona State. Watch the UFC and support the dream of a student-athlete today!
Anyway, for the next two months I’ll be thinking of the wrestlers, and will be back on Nov. 11 with the fully fleshed-out, official TRB UNC wrestling preview extravaganza. Be sure to check it out, then tune in Nov. 12 for Velasquez-dos Santos to see what the fuss is about. Me and Rupert Murdoch will be glad you did.