by Ken Pishna – MMAWeekly.com
A few slim years ago the Ultimate Fighting Championship, nary any mixed martial arts organization, couldn’t land a television deal unless they were willing to shell out the bucks to suffocate in the latenight air alongside Tony Little and Ginsu.

Despite many promised deals and miscues, the UFC stuck to their guns and never gave in to the networks that wanted them to pay for air time, believing that they had a product that, once given a chance, could stand on its own in the ever fickle television market. Today the same networks that once shunned MMA can’t seem to get on board fast enough.

The UFC has taken over Spike TV, FSN airs both the International Fight League and Pride Fighting Championships, and the ink is still wet on Showtime’s deal to air the newly formed EliteXC. But this appears only to be the jumping off point for MMA in America.

It has been common knowledge for quite some time that the UFC has been courting HBO, the premier premium cable television network. That relationship now appears to be on the verge of consummation. In comments made to Pedro Fernandez of RingTalk.com, HBO’s Larry Merchant stated, “People look at it [UFC] as real wrestling. And next year HBO and Showtime, they both will test the waters and see if this works. I don’t know what Showtime is doing, but we’ll do four and see how it goes.” Merchant also indicated to Fernandez that if the response is good, HBO was prepared to consider airing more than the initial four broadcasts.

Merchant is a longtime special analyst on HBO Sports’ broadcasts of “World Championship Boxing” and “HBO Pay-Per-View” alongside Jim Lampley and Emanuel Stewart.

When Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the UFC, acquired World Extreme Cagefighting, speculation was rampant that Zuffa would place the WEC on HBO. All the while, UFC president and co-owner Dana White denied those claims, continually stating that a deal with HBO was coming soon and that it would be the UFC on the premium network.

Alongside the confirmation of the UFC on HBO, various independent sources have confirmed to MMAWeekly that the WEC will not renew their deal with Mark Cuban’s HDNet and has instead opted to go with the newly-revamped Versus network. One source close to the situation indicated that the deal calls for six shows over the next year on Versus — three shows aired live and three tape-delayed shows.

The first Zuffa-owned WEC event is set to take place at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 20th. There was no confirmation as to whether or not the event would be part of the broadcast deal with Versus, but it would only make sense considering the new ownership and the January 20th event’s move from Lemoore, California to Las Vegas.

The January 20th WEC event features a headline bout between Kit Cope and “Razor” Rob McCullough for the lightweight title formerly held by Hermes Franca. The contracts of Cope and McCullough were both acquired by Zuffa when they purchased select assets from the now defunct World Fighting Alliance.

Formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network, in its new incarnation Versus bills itself as “an anytime destination for people to satisfy their primal need for competition with in-depth coverage of exclusive live events and original programming including the NHL, America’s Cup, Field Sports, Professional Bull Riders (PBR), The Tour de France, Mountain West Conference College Football and more.”

The Versus brand was launched in September 2006, and the network is available in approximately 70 million television households in the United States (as compared with 90 million television households for Spike TV).

Mixed martial arts has long been satisfying people’s primal need for competition, so the WEC should fit in nicely on the Versus network.

HBO, Showtime, FSN, Spike TV, Versus… and the list will surely grow. That sure is a long way from slicing tin cans with a knife.