Joe Frazier’s death last week did not mark the demise of boxing. That awaits the passing of his legendary adversary Muhammad Ali. Outside of Manny Pacquiao, who won a controversial decision here Saturday night, the sweet science now leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths.
If the sport experienced a hinge moment in its long history, it probably occurred Saturday night. Even as Pacquiao escaped with a narrow victory over Juan Marquez at the MGM Grand, Fox TV was debuting its first United States network telecast of Ultimate Fighting Championship. Where the televised Friday Night Fights once created a generation of boxing fans, today there is virtually no live boxing on network TV. Outside of pay per view, the sport – and its few remaining assets such as Pacquiao – have missed on the possibilities of multi-platform universe.
Not so UFC and its ubiquitous boss/huckster Dana White. Aiming for the wired generation, White married the spectacle of World Wrestling Entertainment with the graphic violence of video games. Voila: the octagon, buckets of blood, martial arts, the thrill of the gladiator. White’s media strategy began modestly enough with fight cards on cable networks such as Spike, The Score and Sportsnet. Unlike boxing, he didn’t hide his top tier of fighters, such as Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva, out of reach on pay per view. Their exploits were easily accessible.
The gradual inroads White made on TV had the added effect of winning approval from regulatory bodies in squeamish places such as Ontario. The children of Boomers adopted the sport as their own. For helicopter parents, it was important that they understand and bond with their kids on a sport they mostly regard as barbarous.
Saturday night was the end-game made real for White as Fox, never a network to let questionable taste get in the way of a good time, brought mixed martial arts out of the fringes and into the network spotlight. Still, Fox Sports president Eric Shanks was taking no chances on making the sport too cool for the room when he told USA Today that “We have to make sure it’s being produced for Martians.”
There are no Nielsen overnight ratings from Mars as yet to gauge interest in the galaxy, but for those confined to earth, the Fox presentation was pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the TV template we’ve seen before from UFC. Lots of shouting, selling and grotesque cauliflower ears. Plus, Fox NFL anchor Curt Menefee.
Rarely sticklers for journalistic purity, Fox used White himself as an analyst (Imagine Gary Bettman as the star of Coach’s Corner). Even as the main card tanked with headliner Cain Velasquez succumbing in just 64 seconds to challenger Junior Dos Santos, White and co-analyst Brock Lesnar kept pitching the gospel. White savaged Velasquez’s passivity. “I don’t understand why Cain wouldn’t go in for the shot, pressure him and not stay in his range. But what the hell am I? I’m not anybody’s coach or trainer.”
Right. Resistance is futile. UFC is here to stay. Or, as our mother used to say, until somebody loses an eye.
Film Bank: When NHL COO John Collins came to the league from NFL Films, the goal was clear. Create a production arm for hockey that would emulate the myth-making that NFL Films had done since its creation in the 1960s. So it came as no surprise this week when the NHL announced NHL Original Productions, an initiative to create long-form documentaries in conjunction with executive producer Ross Greenburg, the man responsible for HBO’s 24/7 and Broad Street Bullies.
“We think this will let us to do more story-telling,” Collins tells Usual Suspects. “And we hope it brings our fans further inside the game by delivering intimate portraits of our stars through Player Diaries. Ross has shown in 24/7 and Broad Street Bullies that he can do that better than anyone.”
Greeenburg is anxious to get going, with a series on the 1972 Summit Series going in January and a 10-part series of Player Diaries that will follow stars everywhere for a 24-hour period. “We all got a taste last year of what great material we have with 24/7,” Greenburg explained. “The NHL has the right attitude about granting access behind the scenes to create these films.”
Greenburg hopes that the ’72 Summit Series doc will defuse some of the Canadian complaints that the NHL’s production wing is aimed is aimed only at the American, not Canadian, fan. “We’ll also be looking at stories on both sides of the border for our Diaries series,” he says.
Greenburg also produced the famed When It Was A Game baseball documentaries, using private film thought lost for generations. He’s hoping to do the same for hockey history, going into the public’s attics and basements to create a personal history of the times in hockey. “We’d love to build a vault of great footage the way NFL Films has done in football, to describe the history of the sport. We know the material is out there. We just have to find it.”