There’s no doubt that the centerpiece of the UFC’s multi-year deal with Fox was the chance to put live fights in front of the vast audience that still can be best reached by network television. That arrangement has the potential to benefit both sides, but the broadcaster has other goals, one of which is to establish an identity for Fuel TV. Fox wants the 9-year-old cable channel to increase its market penetration by branding it as the go-to destination for MMA fans, and much of the UFC programming that used to air on Spike TV has been moved to Fuel to aid in that effort.
Already successful, that push will get an even bigger boost on Wednesday with the first UFC on Fuel TV show taking place in Omaha, Nebraska. The five-bout main card features quite a few fighters known for putting on exciting fights and pulling off satisfying finishes, which could provide exactly the kind of buzz that makes viewers without Fuel TV call their cable companies to demand it.
Main event opponents Diego Sanchez (23-4, 12-4 in the UFC) and Jake Ellenberger (26-5, 5-1 UFC) bring both of the aforementioned qualities to the table for their welterweight bout. Sanchez is a UFC mainstay, making a name for himself by winning the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and staying within range of the title picture most of the time since then despite bouncing around in weight more than once. His lack of success in finishing recent opponents has been the fans’ gain, as his last three victories all won Fight of the Night accolades.
Yet Sanchez will enter the cage in a somewhat unfamiliar position as underdog thanks to the roll that Ellenberger is on. The powerful, heavy-handed 26-year-old has lived up to his “Juggernaut” nickname by racking up four stoppages in his current five-match winning streak. Jake Shields was the victim of his most recent and most impressive work, getting blasted by a knee and pounded out in less than a minute last September.
Sanchez has several tools to help him avoid disaster, including a sturdy chin and a well-rounded grappling game. The effectiveness of his striking will be something to watch since a hand injury has kept him out of the octagon for almost a year. Coming off that kind of layoff and facing someone with Ellenberger’s strength will be a tall task.
A decisive victory for Ellenberger would continue his momentum and almost certainly leave him lurking near a shot at Georges St. Pierre or Carlos Condit. Sanchez might be able to make the same sort of claim if he pulls off the upset, especially since he’s had prior world title bout experience (albeit at lightweight, and in a losing effort).
Whether it turns out to be another sudden ending by Ellenberger or a trademark Sanchez nail-biter, the fight should be intriguing, and that’s just what Fuel TV is counting on.
Also on tap for Wednesday’s main card:
Stefan Struve (22-5, 6-3 UFC) vs. Dave Herman (21-2, 1-0 UFC) – Heavyweight
There aren’t too many fighters in the UFC, or anywhere else for that matter, like the 6-foot-11 Struve. Though he has kickboxing skills that are (obviously) enhanced by his height and reach, his long limbs also make him a dangerous submission threat. Struve has earned Submission of the Night honors twice, most recently by choking out Pat Barry four months ago.
Getting to Struve’s chin is always tricky, but Herman has the ability to threaten it if he does. He should be raring to go following a suspension for marijuana, and he took home a Fight of the Night bonus in his lone UFC appearance so far.
Both men have shown a willingness to get after their opponents, making this a likely candidate to turn into a toe-to-toe war.
Aaron Simpson (11-2, 6-2 UFC) vs. Ronny Markes (12-1, 1-0 UFC) – Middleweight
At first glance this looks like a classic experience versus youth battle between the 37-year-old Simpson and the 23-year-old Markes. But that’s a little deceptive due to Simpson’s late entry into MMA, and in truth, his younger opponent has virtually the same amount of pro rounds under his belt.
Not many of them have come in the UFC, so the book on Markes is far from complete. He appears to have explosive athleticism and solid takedown defense, both of which will be important to avoid Simpson’s wrestling-based attack.
Markes figures to be the bigger man on fight night, though Simpson has faced size disparities before. Oddsmakers have made Simpson a narrow favorite, but this ranks as the card’s most unpredictable bout.
Stipe Miocic (7-0, 1-0 UFC) vs. Philip De Fries (8-0, 1 NC, 1-0 UFC) – Heavyweight
One of these big men will continue on with an unblemished UFC record while the other drops to .500. Miocic has a collegiate wrestling background but has mostly showcased his striking skills as an MMA fighter, knocking out his first five opponents as a pro and making a sixth submit to repeated leg kicks.
He’ll face a challenge on the ground from De Fries if the British fighter can take the fight there. All of the 25-year-old’s victories before entering the UFC came be way of submission.
Each man had to go the distance in his UFC debut, but don’t count on that happening here. Miocic is the favorite based on the assumption that he’ll prevail in keeping the clash of styles in his territy.
T.J. Dillashaw (4-1, 0-1 UFC) vs. Walel Watson (9-3, 1-1 UFC) – Bantamweight
Dillashaw enjoys a higher profile than some of the other fighters on the main card due to his appearance on Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter. The Team Alpha Male product made it to the final of the show’s bantamweight tournament before losing by TKO to John Dodson.
Watson is a tall bantamweight, and Dillashaw has already told UFC.com that his opponent’s build may pose a problem. Watson also has got a lot more pro experience under his belt, having competed in Baja Cage Fighting and the Ultimate Warrior Challenge before getting signed by the UFC.
Still, it’s hard to imagine he’ll come up with something that Dillashaw hasn’t seen while training with Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez and company. Unless he just can’t cope with the height disadvantage, Dillashaw’s speed and athletic ability are good bets to control this fight.
Fans on hand in Omaha will also get to see five preliminary bouts that will stream on Facebook before the Fuel TV telecast. Several fighters will be making their UFC debuts, including lightweights Tim Means and Justin Salas.