The UFC returns to the Versus network for the fourth time this Sunday with a main event between Nate Marquardt and Rick Story headlining the card. UFC on Versus 4, which will be held in the Consul Energy Center, also marks the promotion's first time in Pittsburgh.
The UFC Live on Versus series marks a big departure for the UFC, which rose to fame and fortune on the Spike TV cable network. Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, aired 25 World Extreme Cagefighting events on the network from 2006 to 2010. A modification in the UFC's deal with Spike TV allowed Zuffa to begin airing true UFC events on Versus in early 2010.
With the UFC's Spike TV contract set to expire at the end of the year, the Versus relationship looms large. Versus is expected to become the sports flagship of the new Comcast-owned NBC and is thought to be one of the prime suitors for the UFC.
So the UFC wants to make a good impression on Versus. How have they done so far? Here's a quick run through of the best and worst of the UFC on Versus.
- Jon Jones' Reign of Terror
The UFC featured fast-rising light heavyweight Jon Jones as the marquee attraction on the first two Versus cards. This was a bit of a gamble as the young wrestler was anything but a known quantity to casual fans when the series started. Jones quieted the doubters with two utterly dominant performances against Brandon Vera and Vladymir Matyushenko. Jones was a beast unleashed in his two Versus performances, shattering Vera's orbital bone with some otherworldly elbows and trapping Matyushenko in the dreaded crucifix position where he quickly pounded him out.
- Diego Sanchez and Martin Kampmann Go to War
The third installment of UFC Live on Versus featured perennial fan favorite Diego Sanchez and skilled Danish fighter Martin Kampmann in an epic brawl. The two savaged each other like two rabid baboons fighting desperately for access to the last mudhole on the serengeti. The fight pushed both men to the limit and left them bruised, bloodied and battered. Fans and broadcast execs can't ask for anything more from MMA than this brutal classic.
- Lots of First Round Knock Outs Courtesy Junior dos Santos, Takanori Gomi and Others
From the very first fight on Versus, a first round technical knock out of James Irvin by Alessio Sakara, the series has been blessed by the fight gods with a number of dramatic endings. That same card saw rising star Junior dos Santos put an ass-whipping on former title challenger Gabriel Gonzaga in a fight that convinced many dos Santos was for real. The second edition began with a gob-smacking Takanori Gomi KO punch that made Tyson Griffin face-plant like Ric Flair. Number three featured Mark Munoz cracking C.B. Dollaway hard and leaving him out cold in 54 seconds.
- Declining Ratings
Each UFC outing on Versus has underperformed the last in the ratings. The first installment drew a very respectable 1.24 million viewers but failed to break the WEC's record of 1.54 million viewers for Urijah Faber vs. Jens Pulver at WEC 34 in 2008. Unfortunately the second UFC Live on Versus only did 991,000 viewers and the third, lacking Jon Jones, did even worse with an average of 681,000 viewers. With Spike TV aggressively counter-programming this Sunday's event, UFC execs have to be a little nervous.
- Yushin Okami Edging Mark Munoz in a Snoozer
Japanese middleweight Yushin Okami has a vocal hardcore fan base who appreciate his grinding, dominant style, but it hardly makes for the kind of fight you want to showcase for Versus viewers (think older dudes who love fishing shows and hockey) checking out their first MMA event. Okami sprawled a lot and brawled a little in a bout that moved him up the middleweight ladder but didn't move the fans at home en route to a split decision over Munoz.
Now that Jon Jones is a UFC champion and a pay-per-view headliner, the UFC doesn't have any more fast-rising phenoms to feature on cable TV. Instead they're pushing old Spike TV Fight Night staples like Diego Sanchez and Nate Marquardt. Unfortunately, the fourth Versus card has been plagued with injured fighters pulling off the card. Martin Kampmann had been scheduled to follow up the Sanchez brawl with a scrap against hard-hitting John Howard but had to pull out. The Ultimate Fighter veteran Matt Brown takes his place. Worse, headliner Anthony Johnson had to drop out of the headliner against Marquardt. Late substitute Rick Story is probably the more dangerous foe, but he doesn't have the same profile as Johnson, who's headlined several Spike fight nights and is known for his big KO wins.