Every sports figure wants to introduce themselves to a national audience, but some find it easier to break through than others. Some jump into the water too early and find themselves unable to contend with the pressures of mainstream exposure. Others jump in too late and only land a deal with a television network or other media outlet after their sport’s time as “flavor of the month” expires.

On Aug. 11, 2011, the world buzzed about the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s move from Spike TV to Fox. The move would allow more viewers to witness the UFC brand of mixed martial arts, and with fans already familiar with the UFC and mixed martial arts because of Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, the UFC knew it could achieve similar success in bringing forth unforgettable names.

Still, the promotion needed to weigh its options and choose a headliner wisely. The field of champions gave the promotion a variety of scenarios to potentially put into motion. Then-undefeated UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez topped Brock Lesnar months before, UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones had just beaten Quinton “Rampage” Jackson earlier that year, and then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva came off an insane front kick win over Vitor Belfort to avenge a loss to Yushin Okami. Meanwhile, the biggest draw of the field came in the form of UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.

Meanwhile, the merger between World Extreme Cagefighting and the UFC allowed for the WEC’s lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight divisions to cross over to the UFC. This meant that then-lightweight champion Frankie Edgar would get new challengers to his throne and, after months of discussion, fans of the UFC would finally get to see exactly what made Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz so enthralling to watch in the WEC.

Jones would have worked on Fox, but with fights against former teammate Rashad Evans consistently postponed and Lyoto Machida serving as the only other contender to the throne, the UFC decided to keep its youngest champion as part of its strategic plan for pay-per-view success. This also rang true for Silva, and would’ve proven the same for St-Pierre if the UFC acquired Nick Diaz, the Strikeforce welterweight champion at the time, just prior to St-Pierre’s UFC 129 bout with Diaz’s teammate, Jake Shields. Aldo and Cruz brought exciting styles, but as the featherweights and bantamweight still represented the youngest two of the seven, fans who never saw the UFC before the Fox deal likely would not see motivation in watching the smaller divisions take center stage, even though the athletes at under 155 pounds proved as durable, fast and exciting as any touted, athletic, iron-chinned finisher at one of the larger divisions.

Ultimately, few fights made more sense to headline the UFC’s debut on Fox than Velasquez against top contender Junior dos Santos. At the time, dos Santos was coming off a UFC 131 win over Shane Carwin. With Brock Lesnar sidelined with another bout of diverticulitis, the UFC did not enjoy two options when it came to dos Santos’ next challenge. The big x-factor in the bout consisted of cage rust and the potential of lingering injuries that would affect Velasquez’s performance, what with his fight against “Cigano” making for the first defense of his belt.

Ask anyone about the first fight between Velasquez and dos Santos, and expect a variety of opinions about what happened the night that dos Santos made history. He not only defended Velasquez’s early takedown attempts, but also kept the action in the center of the Octagon. Dos Santos then found a home for an overhand right and a series of punches, took the belt home and put a blemish on Velasquez’s record. But as the biggest landmark fight in recent UFC history, the lasting significance of the bout went beyond Velasquez losing his “0” or dos Santos going on to defeat Frank Mir before losing the title to Velasquez in 2012.

On average, 5.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the event, which saw a ratings peak of 8.8 million viewers during the main event. To date, no MMA event on free television can claim that same accolade. Velasquez and dos Santos helped bring a plethora of attention to the sport, but in talking about the year 2011, the year’s best fight flies under the radar, which doesn’t sound shocking until you remember that UFC 139 took place that year and featured Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

After losing his belt to Jones, Rua needed to get back to his winning ways, which he did against Forrest Griffin at UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although he avenged his first UFC loss, he needed something else to cement his case towards a rematch with Jones, and he planned to do so at Henderson’s expense once the two were announced as the headliner of UFC 139.

Henderson, fresh off of wins over Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante and Fedor Emelianenko, wanted to put a different plan into action, but Rua would not go down without a fight. It showed from the first round. Rua, despite getting out-struck through the first three rounds, survived the jackhammer rights of the former Pride two-division champion and final Strikeforce light heavyweight champion.

To his credit, Rua also landed with shots that hurt Henderson, but both made it to the championship rounds. Rua’s face showed a lot of the damage, but Henderson began to show fatigue. Throughout the bout, he intended to press Rua up against the cage and leave him with no way to avoid the onslaught, but Rua gained a second wind. Aside from hurting Henderson and leaving him temporarily wobbly, Rua went on to control the fifth round. When the final bell sounded, it put an end to one of the greatest light heavyweight bouts in this or any other generation of mixed martial arts.

Henderson took the decision and earned himself a shot at Jones, but the bout, which almost nobody thought would happen, easily could’ve marked the end of one of the best years in the MMA world, even though a number of UFC events would still transpire in 2011. Yes, Jones would defeat Machida later that year, but while Jones did become the first to choke Machida unconscious, that UFC 140 title defense does not fly under the radar.

In fact, one cannot speak about Jones in the present day without bringing that title defense up, whereas people forget that Rua fought twice after losing the belt. Still, despite two losses and one win avenged, Rua closed off his year well, as did champions Edgar, St-Pierre, Silva, Jones, Aldo and Cruz.

The company’s new deal with Fox was underway and everything was primed to begin a smooth business partnership that would turn heads to the fastest-growing sport in the world. Unfortunately for the UFC, though, things would get off to a rocky start.

Photo: Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, whose trilogy began at UFC on Fox 1 in November 2011 (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.