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The UFC: Rags to Riches

From human cockfighting to the next major sports organization, the road to prosperity for the Ultimate Fighting Championship was one filled with many bumps and curves.

ufc pic 3The story of the UFC is one of an underdog. It was an organization that no one took seriously for much of its existence. An organization that nearly went out of business on more than one occasion, but kept bouncing back. An organization that prided its beginning on the slogan “There are no rules!”, to one who had to create rules to stay alive.

The UFC has had its fair share of changes, and it successfully transformed itself into a multi-billion dollar promotion.

The origins of the UFC can be traced back to the early 1990’s. Rorion Gracie wanted to find a way to promote his family’s martial arts academy. The Gracie Academy was founded by Rorion’s father Helio and his uncle Carlos in 1925, and was a showcase for a new style of the martial art Jiu Jitsu that came from Japan to Brazil. The Gracie Academy produced a series of videos called Gracies in Action, which showed Gracie family members showcasing their Jiu Jitsu skills. Below is a small portion of the videos.

Art Davie, a business executive and entrepreneur, saw the videos and pitched the idea of a martial arts tournament to Rorion and to screenwriter and Gracie student John Milius. The goal of the tournament was to discover which martial art style was the best. With their approval, Davie started WOW Promotions with the intent to turn the tournament into a TV series.

In 1993, WOW Promotions began to look for a TV partner. They went to pay-per-view producers HBO, Showtime, and Campbell McLaren at the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). HBO and Showtime both declined, but McLaren liked the idea, leading to SEG and WOW Promotions becoming partners in May. SEG came up with the name for the show as The Ultimate Fighting Championship.

UFC 1 (as it was later called) took place at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver on November 12, 1993. The event was produced together by WOW Promotions and SEG. The winner of the tournament was Royce Gracie, younger brother of Rorion. He had handpicked Royce to represent the academy and the Gracie family at the tournament. Royce’s submission skills proved to be too much for the competition, as he submitted boxer Art Jimmerson, muay thai fighter Ken Shamrock, and kickboxer Gerard Gordeau all in a row. He ended up winning three of the first four UFC events (he won his first fight at UFC 3 but couldn’t continue due to fatigue).

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Royce Gracie showcased submission skills that no one had seen before, leading to his UFC 1 tournament victory

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The early UFC events had very few rules. There were no weight classes, as UFC 3 saw Keith “The Giant Killer” Hackney face off against Emmanuel Yarborough at a 9 inch height and 400 pound weight disadvantage.

Royce Gracie showcased submission skills that no one had seen before, leading to his UFC 1 tournament victory.
The show turned out to be very successful with over 86,000 TV subscribers on pay-per-view. Current UFC president Dana White states that the show was never intended to become a series.

“The show was only supposed to be a one-off,” he said. “It did so well on pay-per-view they decided to do another, and another. Never in a million years did these guys think they were creating a sport.”

Emmanuel Yarborough towered over Keith Hackney when they faced off at UFC 3
The only two rules that governed the UFC early on were no biting and no eye gouging, which would seem like things you wouldn’t have to put as rules. But fighters would try anything to win, as fighters faced absolute uncertainty with a loss in the early UFC.

Eventually, having very few rules, along with an extreme amount of violence caught up with the UFC. Arizona senator John McCain called it “human cockfighting” and sent letters to all 50 state governors asking them to ban it. Due to the senator’s efforts, 36 states created laws that banned “no-hold-barred” fighting. The state of New York banned the UFC on the eve of UFC 12, forcing the event to be relocated to Alabama.

Due to the pushback from authorities, the UFC began to slowly add more rules. Weight classes were introduced, and strikes to the groin area, fish hooking, head butting, and hair pulling were all banned. UFC commissioner Jeff Blatnick, referee “Big” John McCarthy, and matchmaker Joe Silva began to create a manual of policies and procedures.

Blatnick and McCarthy also began to travel around the country to try and change the perception of the UFC. With this, they started the process of creating a sport, rather than a mere spectacle.

It turned out to be very successful. In April 2000, California was set to become the first state to sign off on a set of unified rules that would now govern MMA. New Jersey signed off on the same rules soon after. On November 17th of that year, the UFC would have their first sanctioned event in Atlantic City, a step in the right direction for the company.

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UFC 28 was the first event sanctioned under MMA’s new rules

What was a big victory for the UFC was not same feeling for the Semaphore Entertainment Group.

Following UFC 5 in April of 1995, Rorion Gracie and Art Davie sold their interest in the company to SEG. Due to the struggle to sanction in the mid to late 90’s, SEG was near bankruptcy.

Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the CEO’s of Station Casinos in Las Vegas, and their business partner Dana White saw an opportunity and seized it. They approached SEG in 2000 with an offer to buy the UFC.

In January 2001, the Fertittas bought the UFC for $2 million and created Zuffa, LLC as the parent company that would control the UFC. Shortly after the purchase, Nevada sanctioned the UFC due to Lorenzo Fertitta’s ties to the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Things started off quite nicely for the new owners.

Under the direction of Zuffa, the UFC slowly but steadily grew in popularity. This was partly due to increased advertising and the addition of corporate sponsorship. Events started to take place at casino venues, leading to the first TV deal with Fox Sports Net. The first mixed martial arts match aired on American cable TV in June 2002 on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, as welterweight Robbie Lawler scored a TKO victory over Steve Berger at UFC 37.5. This no doubt turned out to huge for the UFC.

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Robbie Lawler celebrated his victory over Steve Berger at UFC 37.5

UFC 40 turned out to be absolutely enormous for the UFC and Zuffa. The event sold out the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and had 150,000 pay-per-view buys. This was more than three times higher than any previous events under Zuffa.

The event had a highly anticipated card, featuring then light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz vs former UFC superfight champion Ken Shamrock. The event received mainstream media attention from ESPN and USA Today, which was unheard of at the time. It has been said by many people, including longtime referee John McCarthy, that UFC 40 saved the UFC from bankruptcy (it was very costly to get the UFC mainstream, despite its growing popularity).

Despite the major success of UFC 40, Zuffa was still dealing with financial troubles. By 2004, Zuffa had lost $34 million since purchasing the UFC 4 years earlier. The Fertitta brothers knew they had to go out of the box to save the UFC from folding, and that is just what they did.

The brothers came up with the idea to create a reality TV show in which up and coming MMA fighters competed for a six figure UFC contract. The fighters would be eliminated via a round of exhibition matches. The show would be called The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). The Fertittas pitched the idea to several networks, all of which said no except for Spike TV.

The first season of TUF aired in January 2005, and it was exactly what Zuffa had hoped for. The first season finale, a fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, became what UFC President Dana White calls the fight that saved the UFC. Three more seasons of the show would be taped over the next year.

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A promotional poster for the first season of TUF

With Zuffa making the leap to TV, many more brand growing opportunities were sought by the UFC. Spike picked up a show titled UFC Unleashed, an hour long show with selected fights from past UFC events.

Spike also signed on to broadcast UFC Fight Night, a series of fight events, and UFC Countdown to promote upcoming Fight Night events and pay-per-views.

The UFC’s success was now soaring to new heights, with the Fertitta brothers in the cockpit. Zuffa made the decision to purchase their Japanese rival, Pride Fighting Championships in March of 2007.

The initial intention was for the organizations to be run separately but promote and feed off of each other. After a few months,  UFC President Dana White believed that this model of business wasn’t sustainable with many of Pride’s fighters lining up under the UFC banner. Pride shut down operations in October of 2007. The UFC absorbed many major Pride fighters, including champion Wanderlei Silva and Olympian Dan Henderson.

Another major surge in popularity took place in 2009 with UFC 100. This event generated 1.7 million pay-per-view buys. The card had two championship fights, and one fight between coaches on The Ultimate Fighter. UFC 100 drew attention from ESPN, who provided coverage leading up to and after the event. It helped the UFC pick up a lot of momentum into the next few years.

The next year, it was announced that World Extreme Cagefighting, a promotion Zuffa purchased back at the end of 2007, would be merging with the UFC. With this, the UFC added two weight classes: bantamweight and featherweight, and made the last champions of those weight classes the new champions of those divisions in the UFC. They also added fighters from WEC’s lightweight division, continuing the brand growth and success under Zuffa.

Perhaps the biggest contribution to the most recent success of the UFC, and one of the biggest announcements in UFC history came on August 18, 2011. On that day, a seven year deal was announced with Fox (through the subsidiary of Fox Sports), ending the UFC’s deal with Spike.

The deal included four events on FOX, 32 live Friday night fight per year on FX (which has since moved to Fox Sports One), 24 events following The Ultimate Fighter, and 6 separate Fight Night events.

The first event on Fox was a heavyweight championship fight between Cain Velasquez and challenger Junior Dos Santos. The fight ended after just 1:04 in the first round, with Dos Santos knocking out the then undefeated Velasquez. The event peaked at 8.8 million viewers, and averaged 5.7 million, making it the most watched MMA event of all time.

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Junior Dos Santos (right) defeated Cain Velasquez for the heavyweight title on UFC on Fox 1

Along with expanding popularity in the United States, Zuffa has grown the UFC brand outside of the states as well. The UFC has been to Canada 17 times, beginning with UFC 83 in 2008. Canada was home to the biggest crowd from any UFC event, when over 55,000 people packed the Rogers Centre in Toronto for UFC 129.
The United Kingdom has been visited 15 times by the UFC, the first being UFC 38 in London in 2002. Germany and Sweden have hosted the UFC 3 times, most recently in 2014 for both countries.

Brazil has hosted numerous events as well. The UFC returned to Brazil in 2011 after 13 years and have held 18 events there since then. Many UFC fighters are from Brazil, so when an event is held there, the card is stacked with Brazilian fighters.

There have been six events in Australia, and New Zealand recently hosted its first UFC event in 2014. Asia has also been visited by the UFC. Japan hosted UFC 144 in 2012. Macau, China has been the host to three UFC events, and even the United Arab Emirates has hosted 2 events.

The Ultimate Fighter has also experienced international expansion. An edition of the show now takes place in Brazil, and has since 2012. Also in 2012, The Ultimate Fighter visited the land down under, as a team from Australia faced off against a team from the UK. The Ultimate Fighter also held one edition of its series in China in 2013, in Canada (vs Australia) in 2014, and Latin America in 2014.

It has been an incredible journey for the UFC. A promotion that nearly fell through a few times, but survived behind smart and driven business men. I encourage anyone who has never watched the UFC before to definitely give it a try. In my opinion, MMA is the most exciting sport to watch on TV, and I’m glad to see it’s finally getting the recognition it deserves.

P.S. In order to perhaps sway your opinion on watching the UFC, I’ve left you all a compilation video of the best knockouts.

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