At first, it was to be called the War of the Worlds, an eight-man, single-elimination fighting spectacle in which the winner would take home $50,000 and the title of Greatest Fighter on Earth.
Later, after that 1993 debut, it would be called many things: brutal, human cockfighting, a deplorable example of America’s ultraviolent streak — or simply the greatest organized fighting sport known to mankind. But before doors opened to the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, where less than 3,000 people came to see the first mixed martial arts competition that was more circus spectacle than sporting event, the organizers thought better of the name.
Forget War of the Worlds. Call it the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
And with that, a phenomenon was born.
On Saturday, before about 20,000 fans at Denver’s Pepsi Center, fans will spend up to $300 apiece to see UFC 150, another milestone event in this sport’s meteoric rise. The main card is pay-per-view, but the four-bout UFC 150 prelims will be aired by FX starting at 8 p.m. ET.
Since its modest beginnings, the UFC has become a multinational sporting phenomenon, selling more than a million pay-per-views for its biggest fights. After a public-relations nightmare shortly after the sport began, when Sen. John McCain led a charge against it, all but one state with an athletic commission has legalized professional MMA fights. It has officially crossed into the mainstream with a hugely successful reality show, big-time media coverage and fighters who’ve become their own brand.
And Big John McCarthy has been there since the beginning.
McCarthy didn’t become a UFC referee until UFC 2, but he was there for UFC 1: next to the cage, alongside training partner and Brazilian jiujitsu fighter Royce Gracie, still amazed that fighting could be more than just two guys standing up and whaling away on each other.
“If you were able to go in the back, where the fighters were dressing, where everyone was setting up before fight started, no one honestly knew what they were getting themselves into,” McCarthy told FOXSports.com. “Except one. Royce knew. But none of the rest of them had ever been around anything really like it.”
So the fighters were chatting away in the bowels of the arena, kicking the air, punching, warming up. Everyone was pretty loose, as McCarthy recalls. Then they watched the first fight. Straight off the opening bell, Gerard Gordeau, a Dutch kickboxer, knocked over Teila Tuli, a Hawaiian sumo wrestler. In sumo, when a fighter hits the ground, the fight is over. So Tuli relaxed and turned back toward Gordeau — then Gordeau kicked him in the face, Tuli’s tooth flying out of the cage.
“The fans were the same as the fighters,” McCarthy said. “They had no idea what was going on. They didn’t understand what to expect. As the fights hit the ground, they started booing, just had no idea what was going on. No concept of what was good technique and what was bad. They just wanted to see two guys beat the hell out of each other.”
The path from that one-off circus exhibition to today, when Jon Jones goes on “The Tonight Show” and Rashad Evans advertises Corn Nuts and Lyoto Machida scores a knockout during a prime-time fight on FOX, goes through the sport’s biggest moments: Tito Ortiz fighting Ken Shamrock. The rivalry between Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. Couture coming out of retirement to beat Tim Sylvia in UFC 68. Anderson Silva shocking Chael Sonnen in the final round in UFC 117. Jones running through everything that’s been thrown at him for the past two years.
It’s crazy to think how quickly the sport has come in such a short time.
Early on, Jay Glazer, a television commentator for UFC fights, remembers when he brought Chuck Liddell to a party with a bunch of NFL players. People took Glazer aside: “Who’s your friend with the idiot haircut?”
“Within a year,” Glazer said, “people were like, ‘That was Chuck Liddell you brought to my party, right? Can I meet him?’ And I said, ‘You had a chance to meet him that night!’ ”
The way McCarthy describes it, UFC 1 was like the 1.0 version of mixed martial arts. All the fighters were one-dimensional, and Gracie’s Brazilian jiujitsu carried the day. Then came 2.0: Liddell, Couture, the guys who had multiple abilities but were highly skilled in only one area. Georges St. Pierre was the model for 3.0: strong in all the skill sets needed for mixed martial arts, the wrestling, the striking, the footwork.
Today’s fighter of the future is Jon Jones, the 4.0 version who is the most-hyped fighter in the UFC. “Jon Jones has the body structure and body type that’s perfect for fighting,” McCarthy said. “Jon Jones has very long legs, but thin, which is good for MMA. The length of his legs, he can do more. The length of his arms, the things he can wrap up. His arms are so long, he can do things other guys can’t. He’s a phenomenal wrestler, his striking is very, very good, and he does unusual things like spinning elbows. It’s the evolution of the sport.”
Saturday in Denver, the place where this sport started, Frankie Edgar will try to take the lightweight belt back from Benson Henderson, who won it from him by unanimous decision in February in UFC 144.
It ought to be a good card, but just as important is the realization of what UFC 150 means to the sport: where the sport was less than 20 years ago, how far it has come, where it will go from here.
“MMA is going to take a grasp of other countries in the world who are just starting right now,” said McCarthy, who runs Big John McCarthy’s Ultimate Training Academy in Valencia, Calif. “We’re a decade or two beyond in the West. That’s going to change. You’re going to see countries like China coming out, having huge events, a lot of great competitors. It’s going all over the world.”
In fact, China will host its first UFC card in Macau in November.
No one in McNichols Arena in 1993 could have envisioned that.