UFC 249: Preliminary card the secret weapon to help capture a nation yearning for sports

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

In his last UFC fight, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone was a headliner against Conor McGregor. That was in January. Last August, Anthony Pettis was in the co-main event against Nate Diaz.

Fabricio Werdum is a former UFC heavyweight champion. Aleksei Oleinik has won Performance of the Night bonuses in five of his last 10 bouts.

Michelle Waterson, who dubs herself “the Karate Hottie,” is a ferocious competitor who, as her nickname suggests, brings additional appeal. Carla Esparza is also a former UFC champion who is coming off a Fight of the Night effort last fall. Then there are reliable veterans Ronaldo Souza and Uriah Hall, both generally eager to deliver action.

They all fight Saturday at UFC 249, the promotion’s return from a brief coronavirus hiatus that marks the restoration of mainstream live sports and programming in America

This is a nice little fight card. 

“We are hitting the ground running,” UFC president Dana White said.

Except, none of those fights is on the actual main card, a pay-per-view that starts at 10 p.m. ET. That one is headlined by two title bouts, including the much-anticipated Tony Ferguson-Justin Gaethje scrap for the interim lightweight championship. It’s an absolutely stacked lineup.

So, too, however, are the preliminaries — the four fights that will run from 8-10 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. (There are an additional three bouts before that on UFC Fight Pass.)

It’s pretty clear that White is going to make the most of being the only show on television this weekend.

And he’s doing it, in part, by loading up the prelims with some of the bigger names in the promotion. No, they aren’t putting McGregor or someone like that out there for free. But as preliminary cards go, this is probably the best ever assembled. 

Tony Ferguson (L) and Justin Gaethje face off during the UFC 249 official weigh-in Friday in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

White is adamant that he saw returning the sport to life during a pandemic was more about obligation than opportunity, but he didn’t build a multi-billion empire by accident.

The theory goes, even if you aren’t interested in shelling out $64.99 for the main card (plus an ESPN+ subscription), you might tune in for the prelims on ESPN because, well, there aren’t any other sports to watch. 

The closest thing we’ve had to live sports since mid-March are overnight broadcasts of The Korea Baseball Organization and some horse racing. It’s the reason the UFC is projecting a monster PPV buy even as unemployment figures surge.

“Tremendous pacing for buys,” White told Yahoo Sports.

MMA isn’t for everyone, but it might be more palatable to some because there is nothing else on. Hence, a bold step forward for the part of the card that will reach the largest possible audience of casual, and potential, fans.

Some of this is a longstanding policy. Unlike boxing, which routinely stuffs its preliminary card with lopsided affairs or with dull, no-name fighters, the UFC has always tried to provide a full night of entertainment rather than just one quality fight. 

The five-fight main card is a staple of UFC pay-per-views. The best fight from the prelims is generally shown as well. That way, if the main event doesn’t live up to its billing or ends quickly, fans don’t feel ripped off because one or more of the other fights was terrific.

You pay a bunch for a show, but you get two and a half hours of entertainment.

In this case, the prelims aren’t just there to remind the public that it’s fight night, or offer a last-minute chance to promote the main card. The prelim card is a chance to introduce, or even re-introduce, the sport to the general fan. 

For ESPN, this is a bonanza, with its MMA partner coming in big for a network that has been thrown a near impossible hand by the pandemic. 

Cerrone, Pettis and Watterson, among others, have established followings and are routinely part of main fight cards. These aren’t up-and-comers or never-will-bes. They got there for legitimate reasons: ability, talent, athleticism, courage, charisma, delivering exciting fights and so on. If they do what they’ve done in the past, there is no reason some new or casual viewers won’t become fans as well.

White didn’t want to return with a dud of a card, and with a month of down time freeing up fighters, on paper at least, he didn’t. This is more than just a great PPV though.

It’s a big-time chance for the UFC to make another big-time splash.

More UFC 249 coverage from Yahoo Sports: