Tuesday's news that the UFC's traditional Super Bowl weekend event—held not in Las Vegas this time around, but in Newark—would feature a pair of lower-weight title fights was met with rave reviews from hardcore fans of mixed martial arts.
And why not? Dominick Cruz has been out of action for nearly two years, and we're finally going to see him step back in the cage for a long-awaited bantamweight title unification bout with interim champion Renan Barao. And we get to see Jose Aldo, one of the greatest fighters in the sport, taking on a new challenger in Ricardo Lamas that actually earned his title fight instead of being handed one because he's one of the more popular fighters in a featherweight division that lacks star power.
I'm excited about the card. I know I'm not the only one. Both title fights are ones I've wanted to see for quite some time, even though I'm knocking on wood in the hopes that Cruz actually makes it to the cage without suffering another knee injury.
But part of me also wonders if this is enough. For a regular monthly pay-per-view event? Sure. It's not going to approach a high buy rate, because none of the four men involved are superstars, and superstars are what sells events. But these two fights, coupled with the heavyweight clash between Alistair Overeem and Frank Mir, would be enough to satiate any fight fan on just about any other weekend.
On Super Bowl weekend? That might be a different story.
Let's take a look back at the top three fights for each of the last three UFC Super Bowl weekend events, dating back to 2011:
2011: UFC 156
- Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar (featherweight title)
- Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Rashad Evans
- Antonio Silva vs. Alistair Overeem
2012: UFC 143
- Nick Diaz vs. Carlos Condit (welterweight title)
- Fabricio Werdum vs. Roy Nelson
- Josh Koscheck vs. Mike Pierce
2013: UFC 126
- Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort (middleweight title)
- Forrest Griffin vs. Rich Franklin
- Jon Jones vs. Ryan Bader
Each of these events has one thing in common: a title fight. UFC 169 has two title fights, so we're covered on that front.
But look at the immediate undercard for each of these events: They're stacked with names familiar to UFC fans. UFC 156 featured a featherweight title fight, and Aldo isn't a big pay-per-view draw for the company. But he was facing Frankie Edgar, a popular fighter despite (at that point) losing two consecutive title fights at lightweight. And Rashad Evans and Alistair Overeem, both popular fighters who entice fans to buy events, were featured on the undercard.
UFC 143 featured Nick Diaz in the main event. Popular cult hero Roy Nelson was on the undercard along with enduring heel Josh Koscheck.
UFC 126 had Anderson Silva facing Vitor Belfort. That alone is a draw, but the event also featured Forrest Griffin taking on Rich Franklin. And who can forget Jon Jones, then in the midst of his meteoric rise to light heavyweight champion?
By the time the card actually airs—and provided there are no injuries to the key participants—I suspect UFC 169 will be a loaded show. It's doing it in Newark because the Super Bowl—which airs on broadcast partner Fox—is taking place in New Jersey. There will be all kinds of synergistic efforts taking place, and the UFC will want to do everything in its power to ensure it puts on the kind of event that pleases Fox.
And again: Two title fights on the same show is something all fans of the sport should look forward to, and especially these two fights. All four are excellent competitors, and it's a sublime bit of matchmaking putting training partners Aldo and Barao on the same event.
At the same time, none of the four are big names. That isn't their fault, nor is it the fault of the UFC. For the most part, the divisions below lightweight just haven't sparked the imagination of fans in the same way that welterweights and above have. And I'm not saying that Aldo, Barao, Cruz or Lamas are doomed to a lifetime of being secondary draws, because you never know what might catch on with fans.
Will I watch UFC 169? Of course. Even if I didn't make my living covering this sport, I'd be enticed enough by those two title fights to lay down some scratch and watch. And the chances are pretty good that, if you're reading this, you'll be watching as well.
But you and I aren't the UFC's target demographic. It already has us. We're a captive audience, and we'll buy almost anything it puts on the airwaves because we can't get enough. We look forward to these title fights almost as much as we look forward to seeing Cain Velasquez or Chris Weidman or Jon Jones stepping in the cage.
You and I will buy the event. That's a certainty. But without much star power in the main or co-main events, I'm not sure many others will do the same.
And that's a shame, because these two fights—and the four fighters involved—deserve some recognition. They deserve for people to watch them, because they are the very best at what they do.