- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The slowest sports week of the year could be fertile ground for mixed martial arts as events from two rival promoters go head-to-head Saturday night.

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will hold a live, prime-time event featuring Anderson Silva, widely considered the sport’s best pound-for-pound fighter, moving up in weight class to face James Irvin. Meanwhile, the fledgling Affliction promotion will air a pay-per-view event with heavyweights Fedor Emelianenko and Tim Sylvia, who parted ways with UFC last month after criticizing the league’s treatment of its fighters.

Both events air at 9 p.m., setting up an intriguing showdown between rival MMA promotions.

“If I’m a mixed martial arts fan, I’m excited,” said Irvin, who is considered a heavy underdog against Silva.

It is rare, if not unprecedented, for two MMA events to be scheduled opposite one another, and this may be the first time that fans of the sport saw UFC officials acknowledge a competitor. Affliction supporters and other industry sources said UFC put together its event quickly as a response to Affliction announcing it would hold an event with Sylvia.

“It shows that they’re taking us very seriously,” business magnate Donald Trump, Affliction’s chief financier, said in a conference call. “Obviously, they consider this a threat. We’re a group of people with a lot of money who like this particular sport.”

UFC likely will come out ahead in the total viewers department Saturday, if for no other reason than its event will air live on Spike TV, a basic cable network. Spike and UFC officials said the event could approach record-setting viewership numbers. The UFC 75 event on Spike, the most-watched MMA event in history, attracted nearly 6 million viewers.

“This is a solid card from top to bottom, and Anderson Silva is arguable the best pound-for-pound fighter,” UFC vice president Marc Ratner said. “It’ll do substantial numbers.”

For Spike, the UFC event is another chance to establish itself as the marquee channel for MMA events. The network has landed great ratings for UFC events and episodes of the “Ultimate Fighter” reality series, particularly in the coveted young male demographic. And though this particular UFC event faces direct competition from Affliction, there is little else in sports attracting people’s attention.

“There’s some low-hanging fruit here, so it’s definitely an opportunity,” said Brian Diamond, Spike’s senior vice president for sports and specials. “But on the other hand, the folks who are into mixed martial arts are on a one-track mind, and it’s on their radar all the time.”

The success of either or both of these events could be a bellwether for another high-profile MMA promotion on July 26.

EliteXC will hold its second “Saturday Night Fights Event” on CBS, a follow-up to May’s debut event featuring Kimbo Slice, which drew a 4.7 rating at its peak. The event will feature a rematch of the fight between middleweights Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith but will not have a fighter with a profile as high as Slice’s.

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