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UFC looks to showcase Dominick Cruz with weekend title fight on free TV

Dominant champion out for fourth straight defense against Demetrious Johnson

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Justin M. Bowen

Dominick Cruz flexes after making weight during the weigh in for UFC 132 Friday, July 1, 2011 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz has a simple mindset about fighting.

“I look at it as every time I go out, I’m going out to win something new,” Cruz said.

Cruz (18-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC) will be out for something unique in his championship bout against Demetrious Johnson (10-1 MMA, 2-0 UFC) on Saturday in Washington, D.C. — attention from mixed martial arts fans.

Although Cruz is undoubtedly one of the best fighters in the world, his popularity pales in comparison to the other six champions in the UFC. That’s why the promotion decided to place his meeting with Johnson as the main event at UFC on Versus 6.

It’s the first time in four years the UFC has offered a championship bout on free television instead of traditional pay-per-view.

“I think Cruz is awesome,” UFC President Dana White said last month. “First of all, I think he’s talented. I think he’s got a great personality. He speaks well. He’s got all the tools to be a star, absolutely. It’s our job to get him there.”

The last time White decided to put a title fight on cable came at UFC 75 when Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Dan Henderson met for the light heavyweight belt.

The two were budding American stars who had recently come to the UFC after spending most of their careers in Japan with PRIDE. Jackson won by unanimous decision, but both turned into mainstream draws.

The cable exposure couldn’t have hurt the process.

“Any time you’re building a new guy, it’s not a bad thing to get him on television,” White said. “That’s been our model.”

Cruz already has the laurels in the cage. He beat Brian Bowles in March 2010 to capture the 135-pound title in the WEC before the organization merged with parent company UFC earlier this year.

If Cruz beats Johnson — oddsmakers have installed Cruz as high as a 5-to-1 favorite — he will have defended his belt four times, which is more than all the current champions except for middleweight Anderson Silva and welterweight Georges St. Pierre. Those fighters are widely considered the two best pound-for-pound in the world.

“You’re always one fight away from being forgotten in my opinion,” Cruz said. “The only thing people remember is your last fight.”

If that’s true, Cruz has an opportunity to put an impression on an expanded television audience against Johnson. According to multiple reports, Cruz’s UFC 132 main event bout against Urijah Faber sold about 350,000 pay-per-views.

The last two UFC on Versus events have drawn more than 700,000 viewers, not including replays. Cruz said he had only felt a minimal boost in notoriety following the unanimous decision win over Faber.

“The only thing that’s changed is I’m getting recognized a little bit more because I’m fighting on the biggest stage in the planet in the UFC,” Cruz said.

An illustration of Cruz’s current popularity can be found on Twitter, a tool the UFC heavily encourages its fighters to use and even offers bonuses for effective interaction with fans.

Cruz has 23,168 followers on the social media site. The other six UFC champions have an average of 225,567 followers.

A valid reason for Cruz’s lack of stardom could be that fans care less about the smaller weight classes, but White doesn’t think that should make a difference. He uses B.J. Penn, the former UFC lightweight champion who has 140,000 Twitter followers, as an example of how people can latch on to a lighter fighter.

Cruz has a long way to go before even coming close to receiving the amount of support thrown the way of fighters like Silva and St. Pierre. But the UFC is behind him.

“As long as you’re talented and you go out and do what you do, people are going to want to see you,” White said. “We’ve just got to do our job and get him out there and build him up.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or case.keefer@lasvegassun.com. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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