On a packed pay-per-view weekend, the Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to the east coast for tonight’s UFC 288 event, the company’s latest offering, which will be held at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. As we know, the recently announced merger of the UFC and WWE brands under the Endeavor banner more or less makes the financial side of Backlash held on the same night moot. Not only is the PPV money guaranteed through the Peacock and ESPN deals respectively, but the cash is also all for the same organization anyway. That being said, as far as the MMA side of the coin, the fact that former gold medalist and two-division UFC champion, Henry Cejudo can make a comeback after a three-year absence to jump into the main event spot for a title shot suggests a lack of star power within the organization.
Don’t get me wrong, I can’t blame Endeavor for taking the massive amount of guaranteed money that was offered with the ESPN contract, but I still think that the marketing strategy or lack thereof that puts the vast majority of UFC content behind the streaming paywall of ESPN+ has a negative domino effect in terms of the company’s ability to make new stars. Keep in mind, the current UFC business model is more or less the opposite of the approach that was taken during the surge in popularity in the early-2000s. For years the organization floundered because of a lack of proper distribution until it found a home on Spike TV, the network that originally brought the MMA brand to the main stream. The fighters and their backgrounds finally had exposure to the general public. It’s important to note that the causal fan isn’t going to pay for access to ESPN+ to watch the Fight Night cards that are often booked with lesser known fights, simply because there are so many cards that are scheduled for the terms of the previously mentioned ESPN contract. There are more fighters on the roster, but less overall exposure so that equation doesn’t yield new stars.
Aside from the fact that Backlash is either free or $4.99, there’s also more premium competition for PPV dollars this weekend when Saul “Canelo” Alvarez returns to the ring to defend his Super Middleweight belts against John Ryder. While fighting Cinco De Mayo weekend is somewhat of a tradition for the Mexican superstar, the last time he competed was the conclusion of the trilogy with Gennady Golovkin last September on the weekend of Mexican independence day, another Canelo tradition. Alvarez won two of the three bouts, with the second contest scored a draw, but the series was very close, including the score cards for their third bout so many wondered if prehaps a fourth fight between the two stellar athletes was possible. However, the 41-year-old Golovkin has since vacated a few of the alphabet soup belts, and retirement seems like its more of a possibility than another Canelo fight.
Last May, Canelo suffered only his second professional defeat when Dmitry Bivol won via unanimous decision on the score cards. The undefeated Russian had significantly less experience than his opponent, but many pundits cited that he won the fight definitively, prompting questions about Canelo’s status as the top draw in the sport. A rematch was expected, but Alvarez inked the trilogy fight with Triple G instead, while Bivol had a successful title defense last November. Assuming that Alvarez gets the win this weekend, that could theoretically allow for the anticipated Canelo/Bivol rematch for the traditional Mexican independence day spot. Ryder is a contender, but this should be a win for Canelo and more than anything, a strong showing would be an early promotional push for the Bivol rematch.
In many ways, the Ryder fight is to prove that Canelo is still sharp, as even the win in the third fight against Triple G might be chalked up to a victory against an aging champion instead of prime competition. The selling point of the Alvarez/Ryder bout, aside from the chance to see the Mexican star compete, is to see if Canelo, who has 62 pro fights, is still in his prime and thus create intrigue for the Bivol rematch.
I’m not sure if Henry Cejudo, who wasn’t necessarily one of the major stars for the UFC before his retirement, will generate pay-per-view buys, especially after he wasn’t in the conversation for the past three years. It’s not as though the fans were clamoring for a Cejudo return to the octagon.
The former Olympic gold medalist will step back into the Octagon to challenge Aljamain Sterling for the UFC Bantamweight championship, the belt that Cejudo vacated when he retired after he defeated Dominick Cruz via TKO in the second round at UFC 249. All things considered, I think the result of this championship bout will depend on if ring rust affects Cejudo. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great athlete, but hasn’t competed in three years. At 36, Cejudo is still in his prime, but Sterling is younger and has competed against tough competition in recent fights, including a pair of contests against the gritty Petr Yan, and TJ Dillashaw, who he beat via TKO in the second round last October.
With the amateur wrestling background, Henry Cejudo will look to use the clinch and takedowns to try to grind out a decision. However, nearly half of Sterling’s career fights have went to the score cards so he will be prepared to go into the later rounds. This is where ring rust might be the determine factor because Sterling might be more prepared from a conditioning perspective for the championship rounds and that might allow him to win those rounds on the score cards to be able to secure the decision victory.
In some ways, at least from a marketing perspective, this is more or less a one-fight pay-per-view. The Belal Muhammad vs. Gilbert Burns contest should be a quality fight that the diehard fans can appreciate, but it was scheduled just a few weeks ago so there’s not much of a selling point for the casual audience. Either way, it should be interesting to see what numbers the event draws, especially with the competition of the Canelo fight on pay-per-view.
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Until next week
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