Interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao defends his title against Micheal McDonald this Saturday in London, England. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

UFC building brand on Fuel TV with big international cards

This weekend, a UFC world bantamweight title fight headlines a card at the famous Wembley Arena in London, England.

And I’m guessing there’s a fair portion of people reading this right now who had no idea. Here’s why: add the word “interim” before “world bantamweight title”, and put the words “…on Fuel TV” at the end of the sentence. Kind of tends to kill the buzz a bit, doesn’t it?

Yet it really shouldn’t. For one, you can all but ignore the usual complaints about being an “interim champion” in this case. Renan Barao is the UFC bantamweight champion until Dominick Cruz gets healthy – and who knows when that’s going to be? Cruz has already had two ACL surgeries, and has been out for over 15 months. Anyone who’s a fan of fun fights should hope for a speedy recovery for Cruz, but at this point it’s pretty much impossible to speculate.

So Barao being interim champion is a good thing, because it keeps the division moving. And let’s not forget what a killer resume Barao has in his own right. He’s 29-1-1 as a pro, and a perfect 4-0 in the UFC. He’s competently disposed of big names like Brad Pickett, Scott Jorgensen, and Urijah Faber. He may be the future of the division – so why have him kill time, waiting on the huge question mark that is Dominick’s knee?

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move to the second issue: the fight is headlining a card on Fuel TV.

In the past, the cards on Fuel TV have been weaker in terms of star power, or big draws like world title fights. They’ve also suffered somewhat in the ratings; UFC on Fuel TV 6 drew the lowest television rating in UFC history (in it’s defence, it was airing in the morning, which isn’t traditionally a strong timeslot for Mixed Martial Arts) and the cards typically struggle to match what the promotion used to draw on Spike TV.

Yet there’s an interesting trend developing with the Fuel TV cards that signals the UFC’s commitment not only to the Fuel TV deal, but to their efforts to go global, as well.

This weekend, the UFC is coming to the UK with a world title fight. Traditionally, the UFC has struggled to promote world championship fights in England because of time zone difference. If you put it on PPV in the traditional timeslot, fans will already know the results through the magic of the internet, and probably won’t tune in.

The biggest championship fight the UFC has put on in England was the Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Dan Henderson light-heavyweight title fight at UFC 75 – and that was broadcast free on Spike TV. For awhile, it was the most watched card in UFC history in terms of TV ratings.

Then in a few weeks, the UFC is back on Fuel TV with another card, this time coming to the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. And again, they’re bringing a big main event: Brian mothaf’ing Stann vs. Wanderlei mothaf’ing Silva!

…Ok, so it’s not a UFC world title fight. But it is a battle of perhaps the two most beloved men in all of MMA. In one corner: the square-jawed former U.S. marine and legitimate war hero, who has devastating power in either hand. In the other corner: a bona fide MMA legend who fights like a barbarian chieftain (and looks like one, too). Anyone who loves a good scrap should be down to watch these two go at it. And you can’t help but feel sentimental about watching Wanderlei Silva fight once more in Japan, where he reigned for years as the top dog in PRIDE.

And that’s on top of a card that also features Diego Sanchez, Mark Hunt, Hector Lombard, Yushin Okami, and Stefan Struve. It’s loaded with some of the top Japanese fighters in the UFC today. It’s a good card – and once again, it’s on Fuel TV.

I’m really liking this move from the UFC. Before, having a primarily PPV-based model for promoting their fights meant the UFC couldn’t put on events outside a North American timezone. It often felt like the international cards got the short end of the stick when it came to big names, and big fights.

That’s all changed now, of course, with the UFC doing huge shows in Japan, Brazil, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere. And the Fuel TV deals means the UFC has the freedom to promote bigger cards abroad, cards that can make a splash in the local market, and still have a meaningful main event the can push the needle stateside.

Michael McDonald vs. Renan Barao would flop as a PPV main event. So would Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann, or last years Rich Franklin vs. Cung Le. But as free, televised cards, they’re all good enough fights to get fans to consider tuning in.

Will these stronger-than-average main events cause casual fans across America to run to their phones, call their service providers, and demand Fuel TV be added to their bill? I have no idea. But as far as promoting fights like this on Fuel TV goes, I think it’s a win-win for everyone involved. Fuel TV wins, because even the low six-figure ratings the Fuel TV cards draw on average is an improvement over what Fuel used to draw. The UFC wins, because they can promote bigger cards overseas, while continuing to build the brand on Fuel TV and entice fans to come watch with more meaningful fights.

And fans win, of course, because better fights are happening on (mostly) free TV.

Tags: Brian Stann Michael McDonald MMA UFC UFC On Fuel TV Urijah Faber Wanderlei Silva

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