I was asked recently whether I believed UFC 129: St. Pierre vs. Shields was the "biggest" UFC event ever. The question was not asking me to measure attendance or live gate, which would place UFC 129 above them all. Rather, I was being asked if this was the most significant UFC event to date.
While I would grade the fight card an A-/B+, I would not characterize UFC 129 as the biggest or most important or more significant UFC event ever. I firmly believe while the event is excellent, overwhelming Canadian fan enthusiasm is elevating its profile.
The UFC 129 fight card offers two title fights, although neither hugely anticipated in terms of casual fan interest. Were this card to be held in any of the Las Vegas casino venues, though, a sellout would be likely.
The notion of the card's mobility as evidence of its strength is somewhat incoherent. The match-ups have been tailored to meet local market needs by having Canadians in nearly all of the twelve fights. Were the event to be held anywhere else, it's highly unlikely it would the UFC 129 fight card as we understand it. That it would arguably sell out other venues outside of Canada speaks to its strength and Canadian MMA more generally.
Still, there is a clear disparity in how this event is perceived generally split along U.S. and Canadian media lines. U.S. sports media in nearly every market is preoccupied with all-consuming NFL draft coverage. For select markets, NHL and NBA playoff runs eat into the media coverage equivalent of disposable income.
Canadian media, by contrast, may be dealing with NHL playoff treatment, but isn't as challenged to meet gigantic fan demand for NFL coverage - neither lockout nor draft. With a finite amount of available daily coverage which must be tailored to balance viewer/listener/reader demand, some content is going to be pushed out or not featured heavily.
Jake Shields is largely unknown to the casual MMA fan base. To the hardcore base that knows him, he's not perceived as a huge challenge for GSP. Jose Aldo is even less well-known than Shields, making Hominick a challenger from something approximating nowhere. The heat on this card is being generated by Randy Couture's and GSP's star power along with the magnitude of the live event itself.
UFC 129 should very much be considered a product of its environment. It is carefully designed for a Canadian market to meet Canadian market needs. While this mirrors UFC efforts in the U.K. (cards filled with British fighters, trying to grow British MMA), it's actually in contrast to cards held in other international territories such as Australia (so few Australian MMA fighters) or Abu Dhabi (no natural market at all).
Casual and hardcore fans alike often groan about the lack of depth in UFC cards held in the UK. UK UFC fans, aware of this disparity in card quality, also complain about the lack of title fights held abroad. Part of this is a function of no British MMA fighters with UFC titles, a problem Canadian MMA does not share. The reality is this: U.S. fans may not view Canada as so distinct and Canadian markets as the "other" given geographical proximity. But any time the UFC travels beyond U.S. territory - especially on weekends where there are competing U.S.-based sporting events - U.S. sports fans lose focus on the MMA event.
UFC 129 will still do well on pay-per-view and should be considered a success. However, the impact in the U.S. media and casual MMA fan base (some of whom learn about large-scale UFC events from larger sporting media outlets) will be rather minimal relative to their Canadian counterparts. It sounds strange to say it, but UFC 129 isn't being thought of as primarily an international UFC card. But that's exactly what it is. The fact that it's setting records speaks to Canadian enthusiasm for the sport and product, but don't expect nearly the same level from casual U.S. fans or the media where they get their information.