The History of American Top Team Part 2: Almost UFC owners
When the UFC first burst onto the scene in 1993 it was billed as a no-holds barred competition pitting every style of martial arts together in one massive tournament to ultimately declare the world's greatest fighter. There was a point in the production of the first ever Octagon where designers even discussed putting a moat around the cage like something out of Arthurian legend.
The spectacle of it all exploded on pay-per-view and it didn't take long for the UFC to gain a ton of mainstream attention. Unfortunately over time the brutality of the events and the lack of regulation landed the UFC in the crosshairs of a political witch-hunt exemplified by Arizona Senator John McCain calling the sport nothing more than 'human cockfighting'.
Quickly the UFC lost the ability to put on shows in several states and as the stigma attached to cage fighting just got worse and worse, the promotion was eventually kicked off of pay-per-view as well, which rang out like a death knell for the sport.
SEG, the owners of the UFC at the time, were unable to secure home-video releases for a slew of events and it appeared as if the promotion was doomed to fail with money running out and no one offering the company a reprieve. In the 25th hour, UFC officials were able to convince the state of New Jersey to sanction a UFC card with new rules in place for the event, but the owners of the promotion were out of cash and without an influx of money there was no way the show would go on.
Most people who study the history of the UFC remember it was Zuffa -- a company run by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta as well as childhood friend Dana White -- who were able to swoop in, buy the company and eventually turn it into one of the most successful and profitable sports in the world.
But before Zuffa got involved in purchasing the UFC there was another buyer who was contacted by the original owners in a last-minute bail out.
"I actually got contacted by John Perretti because (Bob) Meyrowitz (UFC co-owner) was out of money and they were going to do that show in New Jersey where Larry Hazzard was going to give them a one-time sanctioning because no one else would and the only way he could get back on pay-per-view was to get sanctioned by some of the larger commissions. Obviously, Nevada being the main one but they weren't willing to do one and New Jersey was willing. The Nevada Commission agreed to come watch and see how it went so there was a crack in the door of getting sanctioned," Dan Lambert, owner of American Top Team explained when speaking to FOX Sports.
"They came to me and ask if I wanted to partner up with them and buy a piece of the company and basically put up the cash so they could do that show. I think (Randy) Couture fought Randleman on that show (UFC 28 in 2000) and I met with Meyrowitz and basically we made a deal -- I was buying 51-percent of the company for $500,000 and I was going to put a million bucks in an escrow account and hopefully that was going to keep them afloat until we could buy ourselves enough time and put on enough shows and get sanctioned."
Lambert was a mixed martial arts enthusiast who had already built a team of grapplers and fighters along with his friend Conan Silveira in Florida and when the UFC came calling to ask him to buy a piece of the company he was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
While Lambert was a very successful executive working with hotels in Florida, he was quietly building an incredible stable of fighters who were traveling all over the country just looking for places to compete. Even in its darkest days, the UFC was still the top promotion in the United States and the thought of that organization going under meant many of Lambert's friends and teammates would no longer have anywhere to fight.
"I didn't want to buy it because I thought it was going to be something that big and popular and successful -- I just didn't want to see it go out of business!" Lambert explained. "I was going to buy the company and put up a slush fund of money to hopefully keep it running and get it back on pay-per-view just because I didn't want it to go out of business. I wanted a place for my guys to fight."
Lambert decided to pull the trigger and put the money up to help purchase a chunk of the UFC to ensure the show would go on without any hiccups. But then something strange happened.
The owners of the UFC stopped answering his phone calls.
"I put a down payment up to get the show done. I think he needed maybe $250,000 out of the down payment, I started doing my due diligence on the company and then that f---er stopped returning my calls. I couldn't get anything out of the guy, he just disappeared," Lambert said.
"The closing was coming up. I had put the million bucks in escrow and an extra $250,000 to close the deal and the f--king guy won't even return my calls."
Lambert continued to hunt for the owners while also trying to track down any information that would clue him into why they suddenly stopped returning his calls.
As it turns out, the previous owners of the UFC had also been talking to Zuffa about buying the entire promotion, which meant Lambert's money to only buy half the company was no longer needed. The UFC owners just failed to tell Lambert about it.
"I heard through the grapevine because I was desperately trying to find out what was going on with the deal and found out he had another buyer," Lambert said. "I found out who they were and they had far deeper pockets than I did and more contacts than I ever would and they were committed to taking the sport to the next level. I was like great! I just wanted the place to stay in business so my guys would have a place to fight. I was happy."
Zuffa purchased the UFC for $2 million and eventually turned it around into the promotion still alive and thriving today. Despite the way the deal went down, Lambert says he has no ill will whatsoever towards Zuffa because he's quite sure they had no clue he was even attempting to buy a portion of the company from SEG just like he was unaware they were bidding for the company as a buyer.
Now the previous UFC owners, that's another story entirely.
"I would have liked to get my $200,000 back from that (expletive) but I think I cost him a lot more than that in legal fees fighting him over the years," Lambert said about SEG. "(Zuffa) bought it and thank goodness they did."
To this day, Lambert maintains a great relationship with the UFC and president Dana White has even gone out of his way to say good things about the American Top Team owner who very nearly because a UFC owner not that long ago.
While he may have ended up fighting to get his money back from the original owners, Lambert remains one of the most loyal people in the sport to the UFC and the opportunities they continue to provide to his fighters.
"I've probably the biggest mark for those guys you will ever find," Lambert said about the current UFC owners. "Maybe it's because what they've done for the business and how they've built something where fighters can make a living and guys teaching at the gyms, everybody can make a living in this sport. You can be a guy who has a karate dojo and now you teach 'MMA' and people come in because of the UFC.
"A lot of people make a living off of this sport and if those guys didn't do what they did, it just wouldn't have happened."
Make sure to follow along in our continuing seven part series documenting the history of American Top Team and the Blackzilians ahead of the April 22 debut of "The Ultimate Fighter" on FOX Sports 1.