There was legitimate tension the last time we saw Alexander Gustafsson in the UFC Octagon. A single question lingered in the air.
Had the young Swede—blond beard glistening with sweat, piercing blue eyes radiating hope—won the UFC light heavyweight title from the great Jon Jones?
The fact we were even asking said volumes about Gustafsson's performance that night. No one else had come close to testing Jones, not even former champions like Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans or Quinton Jackson.
Gustafsson had made him work for it.
Normally a fight like that is a star maker. At the very least, it should have earned Gustafsson a regular spot in the lucrative co-main event position, adding his name and drawing power to fight cards that needed a little boost.
Instead, he's relegated to an Internet stream.
His next fight, live in London Saturday against unheralded British slugger Jimi Manuwa, will appear in North America exclusively on UFC Fight Pass, a $9.99-a-month subscription service that features both live events from across the globe and a bevy of the UFC's best historical content.
A subset of UFC fans, to be blunt, are in open revolt over the decision. Already paying more than $600 a year for the UFC's monthly pay-per-view programming, they are not amused by what they consider reckless gauging, being forced to pay a premium for content that used to be free.
Likewise, Gustafsson doesn't appear too enthused by the decision. He told The MMA Hour host Ariel Helwani that he was shocked by his placement on an internet card after flying so high in a pay-per-view main event.
"Well, that sucks a little bit," Gustafsson said. "I didn't know about that until just a few weeks ago, but a fight is a fight."
The UFC's Chief Content Officer Marshall Zelaznik told Bleacher Report that he sees the choice another way, of course.
“To me, and I know (UFC President) Dana (White) agrees, the fight between Gus and Jimi Manuwa is one of the best fights we’ve made this year, period, not just for Fight Pass but for any event so far in 2014," Zelaznik said. "The number one ranked 205-pound challenger—who some people believe should have the UFC belt right now after the near-thing with Jon Jones—taking on probably the hardest-punching fighter in the division…I think this could be a Fight of the Year.
“So, yes, there’s no question this is a fantastic fight to deliver to our Fight Pass subscribers. But the service is about more than live events," Zelaznik continued, building up steam. "We gain thousands of new subscribers every time we have live Fight Pass prelims, because the kind of fan who wants Fight Pass knows enough about the sport to understand some of the best fights of the night are on the prelims."
Fight Pass, he told Bleacher Report, gives fans across the globe the opportunity to enjoy fights like Gustafsson vs. Manuwa at their leisure. The fights can start at an organic time in the venue, creating a better experience for the local crowd instead of starting the show too early or too late to fit in an American television window. The choice of when to watch, he says, is completely in a fan's hands.
"It depends where in the world the fight is taking place and where the subscriber is. Almost all Australian and New Zealand subscribers watched the first two Fight Pass events live, as they are on a similar timezone," Zelaznik said. "If we are talking about our subscribers in North America, we have a large corps of ultra diehard fans who, like myself, were up in the small hours last Saturday with a very strong cup of coffee watching the entire card from start to finish in real time.
"The majority of fans from North America, though, seemed to wake up, avoid the spoilers and then watch at a more civilized time of the morning. And then, finally, there were people hearing about the crazy KO in the main event later in the day and logging on many hours later to see what they’d missed. That’s the great thing here. Fight Pass allows fans to check out the action from around the world in their own time.
"And it is going to be different each event, depending on people’s own schedules and where the fights are taking place. We expect a lot more North American subscribers to watch the London card live than watched the first two events live. The card starts around lunchtime for east coasters and late breakfast for the west coast and is a little more humane time of the day, so we think everyone will watch this one as it happens."
While the UFC, a private company, wouldn't divulge the actual number of Fight Pass users or tell Bleacher Report how many UFC fans it expected to see Gustafsson in action via the power of the internet, Zelaznik says the subscriber base exceeds even the company's most robust projections—three times higher in fact.
"We are very, very encouraged," Zelaznik said, a sentiment that will make some fans, no doubt, very, very discouraged.
But there is no going backwards. Streaming a la carte-style content is likely the wave of the future. The UFC and the WWE are on the cutting edge of an ongoing collision between television and the internet.
I expect we'll see more UFC stars exclusively on the internet as Fight Pass continues to find an audience. Gustafsson is Fight Pass' first killer app. More are coming.
The UFC's aggressive international expansion continues this year, as stops in Stockholm, Berlin and Istanbul were announced yesterday with more international dates imminent. Railing against Fight Pass, in short, is a bit like howling at the moon. It's a steam engine, and it's only picking up speed.
“UFC Fight Pass is going to continue have a great mix of cards which feature emerging and developing talent from around the world and cards which have these must-see fights like we have Saturday and next month with Big Nog vs. Big Country," Zelaznik said. "We knew the live fights, the exclusive events and Fight Pass prelims, and our brand new 'behind the scenes' features would be very popular, obviously, but our subscribers are eating up our curated content.
"UFC Fight Pass is really giving the rich history of the sport a second lease of life. For example, we’ve been showcasing the 'greatest feuds' on a curated list and showcased fights like the Frye vs Shamrock fight from 2002. That was probably the best fight and best buildup for that entire year. But imagine there are UFC fans, people who may have become huge fans for the last decade, who’ve never seen that fight. Now, they log in to UFC Fight Pass, and there’s Dan Hardy or Chuck Liddell saying, 'check this out!' and now this classic fight is seen all over again."
When you put it like that, it's a pretty compelling proposition. For me, Fight Pass is a literal dream come true.
Less than 10 dollars a month to see Alexander Gustafsson punch someone in the face? To see legends like Don Frye again? I'm in. The UFC is counting on you being in, too.