UFC Turns 25: How It Got so Big, So Quick

For a sport once described as “human cockfighting” by now deceased U.S. Senator John McCain, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), has come a long, long way, in just 25 years.

“That’s not a sport. That’s a throwback to the Roman Colosseum.”

Senator John McCain, 2015

“No rules! no judges’ scores! No time limits!” bellowed an enthusiastic voice-over for the start of UFC 1, in November 1993. It was set up to answer one of the most inriguing questions in all combat sports, who was the best fighter? Was it a boxer? A wrestler? Who was the ultimate fighter?

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Art Davie, a car salesman, happens to come across an article focusing on the little-known Gracie family, who practiced Brazilian ju-jujitsu in Los Angeles. The Gracies were royalty back in their native Brazil, but completely unknown in the U.S. Slowly but surely their school starts to really take off, thanks to a $100,000 call out for fighters from all over the U.S. to take on Rorion Gracie. Art manages, thanks to the Gracie’s burgeoning reputation to sell his idea for UFC to Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) to put on a pay-per-view (PPV).

UFC 1 was a total success, despite low-ish production values and questionable fights. However, it did generate over 87,000 PPV buys, far beyond the founders’ expectations of 50,000. Soon, it was out on the road with a variety of shows to crowds of between 2,000-5,000 fans.

Yet Senator John McCain’s intervention in 1996 was like a death sentence for the UFC. His dislike of the sport extended so far as to him sending letters to 50 U.S. states asking them to restrict the UFC’s activities. Off the back of this lobbying effort, 36 states sided with McCain and banned the UFC completely.

McCain’s lobbying may not have been misplaced though.

At the first match at UFC 1, fighter Gerard Gordeau kicked the face of his opponent so hard that a number of their teeth went flying across the announcers’ desk.

The Gracies by this stage had jumped from the UFC, but the remaining founders realised a tide was rising and they needed to implement some radical changes.

  • UFC started officially on 12 November 1993
  • It held its first event in Denver,  Colorado
    (see UFC 1 here in its entirety)
  • Robert “Bob” Meyrowitz sold the failing firm in 2001 to the Fertitta brothers
  • UFC 66 saw the company finally achieve over 1 million PPV buys

“No holds barred” was dropped as a tag line to promote the sport, while for the first time, “mixed martial arts” was adopted instead. More critically, formalised rules, called the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts” were introduced that included timed rounds, a points scoring system and a weight classes system. No longer could a sumo wrestler take on a 100 pound jujitsu fighter. In addition, headbutts were banned, and fighters now had to wear finger-less gloves.

Despite this, the UFC was in deep financial trouble, so much so that in 2001,
Robert “Bob” Meyrowitz sold the failing firm to the Fertitta brothers, a bigwig casino executives for an unremarkable $2 million.

With the injection of new blood, the new owners secured a significant PPV deal, but also obtained approval from Nevada to host events in the state, which has become the UFC’s de facto home ever since.

Yet, despite the take over, the UFC was still reported to have recorded a whopping $44 million loss by 2004, despite high-profile and bona fide stars like Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz competing. Something had to give.

The owners, along with rising, charismatic associate Dana White, came up with a reality show, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), which jumped on the reality TV popularity bandwagon of the mid-noughties. TUF pitted wannabe fighters against each other, with the winner taking a UFC contract home as well as prize money. The show helped the UFC to make the mainstream jump and recorded as audiences of up to 5 million viewers and beyond.

The emergence of new stars, notable Brock Lesnar, Conor McGregor and Jon “Bones” Jones has seen the UFC build hugely off TUF’s mainstream appeal and secure significant broadcasting deals with Fox Sports in the U.S. and BT Sport in the UK and Ireland. This all meant that by 2016, the brand was estimated to be worth $2 billion. A far cry from its $2 million buyout in 2001.

By 2017, the Fertittas decided to sell the UFC for $4 billion to sports supergroup WME-IMG. This is a record amount for any sporrts organisation in thee world. While the price paid is estimated to be worth seven times the UFC’s actual revenues (which amounted to roughly $600 million in 2016). More recently, the organisation also tied up a record $1.5 billion TV deal with ESPN.

“We’re now committed to pursuing new opportunities for UFC and its talented athletes to ensure the sport’s continued growth and success on a global scale.”

WME-IMG co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, 2017

UFC’s Five Biggest Moments in 25 Years

  1. UFC 1: The fact that the first show in 1993 actually happened is a total miracle. It was shopped between U.S. TV networks with little to no interest. Despite being quite shambolic as a show, it achieved a stunning 87,000+ PPV buys, way beyond the founders’ expectation of 50,000. Listen to this fantastic podcast from ESPN’s 30 For 30 (the transcript is also available here) to hear the full background story, including interviews with all the main players involved.
  2. The Fertitta brothers take over: Purchasing the UFC for just $2 million in 2001, saw the new owners implement some serious changes that put the organisation into its mainstream position today, including a new PPV deal and approval from Las Vegas to host its events.
  3. TUF starts: TUF has had a massive 27 seasons since 2005 and launched the careers of fighters like Michael Bisping, Nate Diaz and Tony Ferguson. The how initially aired after thee WWE’s Monday Night Raw, a smart move to pull in casual fight fans immediately after the WWE’s flagship weekly show.
  4. Conor McGregor becomes the face of the UFC: A failed plumber from Dublin, struggling on a small but fervent local scene, would hardly seem like the UFC’s star performer. Yet within the space of just five years, McGregor, with his brash pronouncements, often outrageous behaviour (such as allegedly smashing up a bus with other UFC fighters on board) and undoubted fighting skill, has become the organisation’s most bankable star.
  5. UFC is sold for a cool $4 billion: The UFC joins the big leagues. Valued higher than the most popular NFL brands and football team,s it is sold for a gigantic $4 billion in the summer of 2017.

Art Davie and his other co founders can probably not believe their luck. They had a multi-billion dollar sports organisation on their hands, but acceptance was both long and hard, meaning they’ve reaped little of the rewards of their first, hugely innovtive brainwave.

However, maybe a fitting indication of how far the UFC has come, came from its one-time chief nemesis.

“The sport has grown up.”

“The rules have been adopted to give its athletes better protections and to ensure fairer competition.”

Senator John McCain, 2007