Since its inception in 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has paved the way for the unprecedented growth of mixed martial arts in today’s society.
With one of the biggest events in combat sports history right around the corner in UFC 205, it’s important to look back at how the sport of MMA climbed from the brink of obscurity to a record-setting sold-out venue at Madison Square Garden.
It all started with a question: which discipline of martial art would be the most effective in live combat? For years, people wondered if the hand speed and footwork of a well-trained boxer would be able to overcome the relentless, hard-nosed pressure of a suffocating wrestler; if the technique and angles of a karate expert could avoid the grappling of a high-level judoka. It was all just based on speculation though; boxers boxed and wrestlers wrestled, each existing in their own very different worlds.
Enter Art Davie, a businessman with aspirations to unite these worlds and answer the age-old question of which style of unarmed combat was truly the most effective. Davie, having read about the Gracie family and their use of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to thwart all comers from varying martial arts backgrounds in their “Gracie Challenge” invitational competitions, decided to go and meet with one of the members, Rorion Gracie, at his gym in Southern California to share his vision.
After much discussion, the two men were able to conceptualize an eight-man tournament that would act as the basis for what would go on to become the sport of mixed martial arts. This competition, originally labeled “War of the Worlds,” was to be a no rules, no-holds-barred fight-to-the-finish between eight men of different combative backgrounds, including UFC hall-of-famers Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie, two of the pioneers of early MMA. Early blueprints for the tournament included a barb-wired cage surrounded by an alligator-filled moat, but changes needed to be made if the event were to reach the masses.
When it was all said and done, the tournament was renamed to “The Ultimate Fighting Championship” and would be held in Denver, Colorado, on November 12, 1993. Broadcast live over pay-per-view, the world watched as Royce Gracie, a 170-pound BJJ expert, submitted his way to the top, tapping out his opponents with ease while finally providing an answer to the question. Which style of martial art was the most effective? The answer was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Inspired by Royce’s success against much larger opposition, martial artists of all backgrounds began learning BJJ, thus giving birth to mixed martial arts. Simply knowing one discipline was no longer enough. What good would a spinning wheel kick do if you couldn’t stop the takedown or lacked the know-how to fend off submission attempts? The whole idea of what it meant to be a mixed martial artist was changing, and with it, society’s perception as well.
The success of the first Ultimate Fighting Championship was enough to warrant future events. Approximately 86,592 viewers tuned in to the show, turning a one-time affair into the foundation of a franchise. By the late 90’s, each subsequent event saw the talent pool of fighters continue to grow, but so did the detractors and critics that deemed the events too violent. Of these detractors, none were bigger proponents of the banning of MMA than U.S. senator John McCain.
McCain, who deemed the sport “human cockfighting,” fought vigorously to see that the curtain would be closed on the UFC, sending letters to each of the fifty states requesting that they ban future events from taking place within their jurisdictions. Of the fifty states, thirty-six followed suit, effectively putting an end to no-holds-barred unarmed combat in most of the United States. Dark times were upon the sport.
While MMA may have been on its last leg, it refused to go down without a fight. Long-time referee John McCarthy, alongside UFC commissioner Jeff Blatnick, did everything they could to keep the sport alive. Working with state athletic commissions, the duo fought to adapt mixed martial arts to sets of rules and regulations that would allow it to adhere to the guidelines of legality. Slowly but surely, what was once viewed as a bloody and violent spectacle took on the form of professional sport in its infancy. The fighters were becoming athletes, and fans grew to appreciate the technical aspects of unarmed combat. Superstars such as Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Matt Hughes rose to prominence during this time.
The legal battles were taking their toll though. Court costs, alongside the stunted revenue from fewer events and a diminishing fan base, left the vision of Art Davie’s empire crumbling before his eyes. Bankruptcy was nearing. The UFC was losing more money than it was making, and Davie had no choice but to sell the company to a trio of die-hard fans that had a vision of their own.
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A pair of entrepreneurial brothers, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, alongside long-time friend Dana White, who would act as president, purchased the UFC for $2 million in January of 2001. With this purchase came the creation of Zuffa, LLC, the sports promotion group that would oversee the UFC’s operations. The Fertitta brothers owned and operated a host of successful casinos in Las Vegas, using their wealth and knowledge of business to further promote the sport they loved so dearly. With this promotional push came better marketing and larger venues, pulling the sport away from its status as an underground spectacle.
With Zuffa backing its marketing push, UFC 40 brought MMA to the center of attention in the world of sports. Headlined by a grudge match between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock, the event received mainstream media coverage from outlets such as ESPN. For the first time, all eyes were on the UFC.
While the event itself was extremely successful, pulling over 150,000 pay-per-view buys, Zuffa was still dealing with financial deficit, having lost over $30 million since purchasing the UFC. While the popularity of the sport may have risen, it still needed a push to achieve the next level, a push that would cause it to reach even more viewers than ever before.
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In a last-ditch effort to save the company from folding, the Fertitta brothers tried to pitch a reality TV show centered on the UFC to several networks; however, none of them were willing to take a chance on the idea. With one last Hail Mary, the Fertitta brothers offered Spike T.V. $10 million to cover the production costs for their show, a risky decision that proved to be one that would cause the popularity of MMA to skyrocket.
The first episode of The Ultimate Fighter aired on January 17, 2005. Featuring an in-depth look at the lives of 16 aspiring mixed martial artists, the show became an instant success with fans. People were able to see that fighters were not blood-thirsty barbarians, but regular people with vastly different goals and aspirations as to why they wanted to fight.
Fans rallied behind the humor of Forrest Griffin and the unique work ethic of Diego Sanchez while making villains of the polarizing Josh Koscheck and the troubled Chris Leben. For the first time, the main stream media humanized fighters, adding a layer of complexity to a sport that was once thought of as human cockfighting.
After a successful first season, the live finale of The Ultimate Fighter aired on April 9 of 2005. This event featured a bout between season finalists Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar that would change the course of MMA forever. Over the course of three rounds, the two men waged a war of legendary proportions. The back-and-forth affair brought in thousands and thousands of new fans who were viewing it live, cementing the sport as a mainstay in the world of televised entertainment. It was this fight that many, including Dana White himself, credit as saving MMA from fading into obscurity.
With the success of The Ultimate Fighter, a new era of superstars had come to fruition. The cast of the show became fan-favorites as viewers followed them through their careers. Guys like Forrest Griffin, Kenny Florian, Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck, Chris Leben, and Diego Sanchez all became divisional staples, anchoring pay-per-views and headlining various fight night cards.
By the middle of the 2000s, stars were also rising on a global level. Fighters such as Brazilian Anderson Silva, Canadian Georges St. Pierre, British Michael Bisping, and Hawaiian BJ Penn helped marketing efforts expand to other parts of the world, further increasing the sport’s popularity while the UFC continued to grow. Many notable events happened during this time, including UFC 66, an event featuring a rematch between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz that sold over one million pay-per-view buys.
No longer financially crippled, the UFC began increasing its executive team to continue to fight the bans that existed in several states. It also began expanding its roster, purchasing other organizations. First was the WEC, with which came the addition of lighter weight classes and a plethora of name value, including Urijah Faber, Dominick Cruz, and Jose Aldo. Next was the WFA, which brought in superstars Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Lyoto Machida. Perhaps the most important purchase was Japan-based Pride FC, bringing with it legendary combatants such as Shogun Rua, Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, and the Nogueira brothers. The UFC was no longer just the largest MMA promotion in America; it became the largest promotion in the world.
By the late 2000s, the UFC was an unstoppable powerhouse, riding off the momentum of hugely successful events. UFC 100, which featured WWE superstar Brock Lesnar, proved to be one of the most successful events ever, with over 1.7 million purchases. UFC 129, an event headlined by Georges St. Pierre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, would set the record for the biggest gate in MMA history, clocking in at over $12 million in revenue and an astonishing 55,724 fans in attendance. At this point, it was clear that the sport was here to stay.
By 2011, the surge in popularity caused the UFC to end their partnership with Spike and sign a deal with FOX. The deal, which featured the airing of live events, would go on to include both pre and post-fight coverage, along with weekly news shows covering UFC-related content. MMA was now a staple in the entertainment world, and the UFC became a household name.
Zuffa wasn’t content with settling though, and the company took steps to further their growth and expansion. In November of 2012, Dana White announced that women’s MMA would become a part of the UFC, something he had previously said would never happen. This decision came with the success and rise of Ronda Rousey, the inaugural women’s bantamweight champion.
As the face of women’s MMA, the polarizing figure of Rousey brought in droves of fans, some who supported her and others who couldn’t wait to see her fail. As the first women to headline a UFC pay-per-view, Ronda defended her belt against Liz Carmouche on February 23, 2013, a landmark event for the sport.
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By this time, the UFC began focusing its efforts on global expansion. Events outside of the U.S. were more and more common, and the number of fight cards increased greatly. The UFC began holding events on almost a weekly basis, bringing with it more and more fighters from around the world. Amongst these fighters was Conor McGregor, an Irish-born martial artist that would explode into super-stardom, becoming the face of both the UFC and MMA itself.
As it stands present-day, the UFC is a global powerhouse. 2016 saw the Fertitta brothers sell the company to WME-IMG for $4 billion, nearly two-thousand times their initial investment. The dizzying levels of popularity it has achieved resulted in New York, the last state in which MMA was illegal, finally lifting the ban.
As one of the biggest cards in the history of the sport nears, it’s important to remember that UFC 205 is a celebration of this success; a culmination of one man’s vision that, with painstaking effort and a little bit of luck, grew to become an empire.