— Hoping to make an immediate impact in the sports landscape in its first foray on network television, the UFC announced on Friday that its Nov. 12 debut on FOX would feature a heavyweight championship match with current titleholder Cain Velasquez taking on No. 1 contender Junior dos Santos.
UFC president Dana White said the promotion considered several other potential headliners before ultimately shifting his sights on Velasquez-dos Santos. The fight had originally been planned for an event one week later in Velasquez's hometown of San Jose, Calif. Instead, he'll fight about 350 miles south, in Anaheim, in front of what is expected to be the largest American television audience ever to watch MMA.
"This is like us getting Ali vs. Foreman," said FOX Sports chairman David Hill.
The fight came together in short order within the last two days, according to White, who said both Velasquez and dos Santos immediately and excitedly accepted the change in plans.
"It was the easiest conversation ever with guys we were yanking off pay-per-view to put on free TV," White said. "They couldn't be more excited. They know how big it is personally, and it's going to be a great fight.
For the UFC, the stakes have never been higher. While the promotion derives a major portion of its revenue from pay-per-view sales, company executives fully understand that the deal represents an opportunity to maximize viewers and add new fans.
"Every time people tell me that we're mainstream, we're not mainstream," White said. "You go to any city, anywhere, and ask them if they know what basketball is. That's mainstream. We're getting the opportunity from FOX to become mainstream. We're not sitting, patting ourselves on the back. Now is the time to work."
White said it wasn't simply the prestige of a UFC heavyweight championship fight which convinced him to air it on free TV, but also the reputations of the fighters involved. The UFC is pinning its hopes on the two men largely considered the top two heavyweights in the world.
Velasquez turned professional in 2006 and was in the UFC by his third pro fight. Considered a top-flight talent from the beginning, the former collegiate wrestling standout was slow-tracked by the promotion early, fighting a series of journeymen and winning convincingly until being moved into the upper tier when he faced Cheick Kongo in June 2009. That turned out to be Velasquez's biggest test to date. Though he won by decision, Kongo remains the only man to go the distance with Velasquez.
His upward rise continued, and in February 2010, Velasquez knocked out Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to become the division’s No. 1 contender, and months later in October, he vanquished Brock Lesnar in a first-round TKO to earn the championship.
Dos Santos came into the UFC with decidedly more modest expectations, but rose above them from the beginning by knocking out the well-regarded Fabricio Werdum in his UFC debut. Dos Santos' crisp striking game has made him one of the division's most feared punchers, and he's soundly out-struck everyone put in front of him.
Overall, Velasquez is 9-0 with eight stoppage wins, while Dos Santos is 13-1 with 11 stoppage wins. Their histories of fighting exciting bouts was crucial in White selecting them for the headline spot in the company’s most important show to date.
"This could be a Klitschko fight, and then people tune in for the first time and everybody falls asleep," he said. "We're going with a heavyweight fight that's going to be a barnburner. These guys are going to go at it. It's going to be exciting. It's more than just a heavyweight title. It's two heavyweights that I know are going to perform and put on a great fight."
White said the FOX broadcast would only feature that single bout live, but that depending on the length of the fight, other bouts or event highlights could be shown.
Anaheim’s Honda Center will serve as the host venue.