On Nov. 12, 2011, the day that the UFC made its debut on Fox with a heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, it was competing with a pay-per-view boxing card in Las Vegas headlined by Manny Pacquiao.
On Saturday, the UFC will open the ESPN era with a flyweight title fight between champion Henry Cejudo and bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. And yes, Pacquiao will once again be doing his thing in Las Vegas, taking on Adrien Broner in yet another pay-per-view boxing match at the MGM Grand Garden.
Despite the similarities, though, things are dramatically different in 2019 after the UFC finished its seven-year run with Fox and transitions to a new rights deal with ESPN with Saturday’s card at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The UFC is infinitely stronger than it was in late 2011, and much of that is due to the exposure it received on Fox. Even though the ratings never approached the 5.7 million peak it received for the Velasquez-dos Santos fight, not only did more U.S. fans than ever see the UFC on Fox, but they got an education in mixed martial arts from Fox’s shoulder programming that they hadn’t gotten before.
The most remarkable thing, perhaps, about the UFC’s Fox era is the broadcast talent it discovered among its fighters. Heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier is in a class all his own, both in the cage and behind the microphone. Cormier is a magnificent broadcaster who helped explain a sometimes difficult-to-understand sport clearly, simply and articulately.
Former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz seems to know what a fighter is going to do before the fighter does. Cormier and Cruz stand out, but so many have excelled at the job like Tyron Woodley, Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping, Paul Felder and Miesha Tate, among others.
They helped make the fanbase more knowledgeable and that impact can’t be underestimated. The UFC still controls the production, and so most of ESPN broadcasting team will be familiar. For Saturday’s debut, it will be Jon Anik doing play-by-play with Cormier doing color. Karyn Bryant will be the studio host with Evans, Bisping and Megan Olivi.
ESPN executives sought out the UFC’s rights even when the network already had an overwhelming amount of live sports rights and had recently entered into a seven-year partnership with Top Rank for boxing coverage.
Saturday’s card will be on both ESPN and its online streaming service, ESPN+. In a twist, though, preliminary fights will be on ESPN before it transitions to ESPN+.
Russell Wolff, the executive vice president and general manager of ESPN+, said it was important for ESPN to be in the UFC business because it is a global sport with a large — and growing — fan base.
Just like it did when Fox launched FS1 in 2012, the UFC is going to help push the growth of ESPN+, which debuted in April.
Partnerships only work, though, if they help both sides and…