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The Fox Broadcasting Company is just about eight months older than I am. Even when I was 4 or 5 years old, I grasped the idea that Fox was the “other” one of the networks in the big four, even if I didn’t appreciate the historical and business underpinnings of why. I saw my mother’s begrudging acceptance of my preschool love for “The Simpsons,” and I remember how weirdly dismissive she was and how quick she changed the channel when she found me watching an episode of “Married with Children.”
The UFC on Fox card this Saturday in Sacramento, California, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 22nd card on Fox, is taking me back to my youth.
When it was “the other network,” Fox relied on sensational programming to try to forge ahead. It hitched its early wagon to a Joan Rivers late night show. Even when the 1990s rolled on and brought the channel respectability, especially after it nabbed the game-changing National Football League deal, the network’s penchant for raunch seemed dyed in the wool. Never mind longstanding shows like “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted,” the mid-90s brought the hiring of Mike Darnell, Fox’s eventual President of Alternative Programming, who only doubled down on Fox’s salacious predisposition.
Yes, this is the man who gave the world “American Idol,” revolutionizing the talent show concept by having a mean, posh man say mean, posh things to would-be singers. Darnell is also the lurid mind that blessed us with “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?” “When Animals Attack,” “Man vs. Beast,” “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” and perhaps my all-time favorite Fox exploit-a-thon, “The Swan,” where women competed in a elimination-style pageant to “win” a battery of plastic surgeries, with the winner incrementally cutting up her entire body before transforming into a ghoulish lake bird in the finale.
Today, we may all accept Fox as just another one of the big four American television networks, but it’ll always be the “other” network. Even if the deal was predicated on the Fox conglomerate wanting strong programming for the launch of Fox Sports 1, maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised when the UFC wound up with the company, with shows on network Fox. When you consider it was the network that brought us “Celebrity Boxing,” it’s almost surprising Fox didn’t put the UFC on television in the late hours 20 years ago.
Now, you can point to a questionable fight to make a televised Fox main card here or there, but this Saturday’s card at the new Golden 1 Center smacks of both a surrealism and sensationalism that hearkens back to Fox’s nascent days.
First of all, a historically noteworthy fighter in Urijah Faber is retiring in his own backyard, but it’s the sub-story to our main event, where “Dancing with the Stars” darling Paige VanZant takes on Michelle Waterson. I have no fundamental gripes with the UFC leveraging the appeal of two attractive women fighting each other, especially when it’s a totally sensible, competitive matchup. On top of that, this is truly the best platform to leverage Paige VanZant’s mainstream celebrity; the kind of folks who caught wind of her through DWTS aren’t going to buy a $60 pay-per-view because she’s appearing on the main card. Watching more network TV, on the other hand? Far more palatable. If Holly Holm can peak at 4.7 million viewers, outside of the NFL season, while fighting Valentina Shevchenko, VanZant may be able to turn in an even more impressive number.
VanZant is already a legitimate UFC roster fighter at 115 pounds; she’s got tons of untapped potential; and she’s fun to watch. If being the spark for network broadcasts is the best use of her right now, so be it. It doesn’t make it any less strange-in-that-MMA-way that she, a top 20-25 fighter at best at strawweight, is headlining this card in Sactown while the guy who founded and owns the gym at which she trains has his retirement relegated to a deep subplot; and naturally, if Fox writers had scripted this event, this is what it would look like.
Some things almost seem standard, but still not quite. By the third UFC on Fox card, Zuffa had figured out that regardless of if it had to be two garbage heavyweights, the way to kick off a network Fox broadcast was with raw, unhinged violence. This dynamic is still intact for UFC on Fox 22, with a welterweight bout between Alan Jouban and Mike Perry kicking off the main card. Again, this is damn good matchmaking: It makes perfect sense with where both fighters are at in their careers, and it’s a delightfully exciting style matchup.
Regardless of its competitive value, this fight still pits a fashion model with a penchant for bleeding everywhere against a guy who, even if he’s a totally legit prospect (9-0 with nine splattering knockouts is no joke at 170 pounds), has needed just two UFC bouts and a few lamentable, quasi-racist social media posts to become one of the most disliked human beings on the entire UFC roster. Perry on a Fox main card -- more specifically, Perry winning by first-round knockout and then saying something horrible and antisocial on the mic -- is how Darnell would’ve wanted a UFC broadcast to play out.
However, if we want to talk about the true sensational and surreal dimensions of the UFC on Fox 22, well, you know what fight I’m talking about.
Earlier this week, my Sherdog compatriot and all-around sage scribe Todd Martin described Mickey Gall-Sage Northcutt as an “inapt” co-main event. I agree, but on a limited basis. Yes, if we are supposed to interpret any UFC main card, let alone a network TV effort, as a venue to expose the best, most relevant, competitive MMA talent, Gall-Northcutt is an inane non-sequitur. The fight, as Martin rightly points out, has infinitely more in common with the Japanese MMA tradition of exotic, celebrity-laden freakshow fights; you can almost imagine the Japanese-style promos with Northcutt crushing apples in his hand, followed a voiceover announcer yelling “See-ji Norusu-kutto!”
There is no escaping this particular reality. I’ve come to realize I appraise the embryonic Gall’s skills much higher than most. Maybe it’s the John Danaher Death Squad association, but Gall is a big, strapping, athletic welterweight with a seriously nifty, technical ground game. Sure, he only has three amateur bouts and three pro bouts to his name, but his grappling skills are more advanced than a lot of folks who are competitive at 170 pounds in the Octagon. Nonetheless, there is no denying that he earned his way into the UFC off of a Dana White-oriented reality show; and his two UFC victories came over a journalist -- it was consensual and in a cage, unlike Vitor Belfort’s fantasies of attacking MMA writers -- and Phil “CM Punk” Brooks, who everybody knew couldn’t fight worth a damn. While I may hold his athleticism and grappling in high esteem, there’s no getting around the bizarre laughability of his Octagon resume.
Meanwhile, Northcutt is a true MMA freakshow at this point, and no one has yet been able to fully make heads or tails of the 20-year-old. He is clearly a physical specimen with a unique karate background. Yet from everyone I’ve talked to in the industry, his overbearing helicopter father threatens to stunt any legitimate development he could have in the game, like the anti-Ray Thompson. He appears to have been born from a Stepford Wife, yet he garners headlines on Cosmpolitan’s website like “This Hot UFC Fighter Crushed an Apple for Chrissy Teigen’s Birthday and Now Everyone is Doing It.”. He is like a Jack Chick tract for a slightly more vulgar time. Speaking to him face to face, it’s even harder to believe he’s real; I’ve never seen more awkward laughter out of an MMA media contingent than Northcutt’s scrum last year after beating Cody Pfister in Las Vegas. On top of all that, no one can even make a decent projection as to how good the kid might be because of his largely insular training -- though he has spent time at various Californian gyms for this bout -- and his pageant-style father, who, if he was going to be compared to any MMA coach ever, would probably be compared to Marv Marinovich, who was scarcely even an MMA coach.
Now, I cover MMA for a living, and more importantly, I love it. I obviously have a healthy interest in and am motivated by the question of “Who is the best?” I want to see the best versus the best, generally speaking. However, I also love MMA because it’s inherently strange, esoteric and fun, because it is the misfits toy box of sports. In terms of honest, meritorious competition, Gall-Northcutt isn’t even a UFC Fight Pass main event. Still, there’s a glimmer of hope that one if not both of these athletes might be good two years from now; and in the interim, the idea of them fighting one another profoundly amuses me in a morbid way.
Is that an affront to the literally hundreds of other folks on the UFC roster who are far more deserving of network TV exposure? Maybe, but through 21 editions of the UFC on Fox series, Zuffa carefully tried to engineer these four-fight main cards that balanced action fighters in your opener, prospects and contenders through the middle and then truly elite fighters -- maybe even champions -- in the main event who just weren’t quite ready for pay-per-view. That format may not be entirely dead, but it’s no longer the reflexive template.
The UFC on Fox 23 lineup for Jan. 28 in Denver is already coming together. A de facto title eliminator at 135 pounds with Julianna Pena and Valentina Shevchenko? A hardcore fan’s wet dream with Donald Cerrone-Jorge Masvidal? Francis Ngannou-Andrei Arlovski? Raphael Assuncao-Aljamain Sterling, to boot? Yes, this is the way people imagine Fox cards, and other UFC on Fox cards will continue to look like this in the future. However, this Saturday’s card is a heads up that the UFC will do anything to do a big number, whether its gate revenue, pay-per-view buyrate or a TV rating, and the modern era of MMA has created a number of notable, bankable faces that simply don’t fit into the idea of the UFC as a dedicated meritocracy. If you’re an MMA purist, now might be the time to think about watching some Bob Sapp highlights and embracing some of the sillier aspects of this sport.
Me? I grew up on sensationalist TV, and I grew up on exploitative MMA. This is by any measure the least competitively substantial UFC on Fox show to date. As I’ve said, it’s sensational, it’s surreal. With that said, UFC 206 just happened and UFC 207 is just a few weeks away; I can wait for a real, top-to-bottom heat rock MMA card. I am charmed and enthused that we somehow ended up with a UFC card that hearkens back to the more perverse roots of its broadcasting partner.
It ain’t great MMA, especially by the UFC’s standards, but I’ll love every minute of a truly bizarre UFC on Fox 22 card. I just hope my mom doesn’t make me change the channel.