The UFC in 2020 is such a big company that fans often mistake it for being the name of the sport. “I train UFC” has been a running joke due to this notion. It would be like inviting someone to the park to “play NBA” or “NFL” as opposed to basketball or football. MMA is the sport, but this misconception is simply a reflection of just how dominant the UFC has been in the market and how quickly they have grown to popularity.
With their first event in 1993, the idea was to pit one martial arts style against another in a tournament to see which would come out on top. Karate, Boxing, Sumo, and Kickboxing were all involved, but it was Royce Gracie that came out on top with his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Dana White insists that it was supposed to be a one-off show, but the pay-per-view did so well that there were more, but it is disputed, with Art Davie disagreeing and stating that the plan was always multiple shows. Either way, it was moving.
In those early days, the sport had little to no rules. You could headbutt, pull hair, strike the groin and fish-hook back then, all of which are illegal today. There were so few rules back then that the UFC’s tagline was, in fact, “there are no rules.” Although this was enticing to a lot of the general public, it turned off people in high places, and networks eventually refused to show it on cable unless there was some form of regulation. Over the next couple of dozen events, precautions were taken to diminish this view. Big John McCarthy and Jeff Blatnick were instrumental in changing the perception and provided a new ruleset that was considered the unified rules of MMA. Many of them are used to this day.
In the early 2000s, SEG was on the brink of bankruptcy when they were approached by the Fertitta brothers and Dana White to buy the company. In January 2001, the sale was complete for just $2.1 million. It seems like the bargain of a lifetime in hindsight, but at the time, Lorenzo Fertitta’s attorneys told him he wasn’t buying anything of value. A former member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Lorenzo helped Zuffa (the parent entity) secure sanctioning in Nevada.
From there, the events continued, and the growth was slow but steady. Then came UFC 40, their most significant event to date. It sold 150k PPVs and nearly sold out the MGM Grand Arena with over 13k in attendance to watch Tito Ortiz fight Ken Shamrock. ESPN and USA Today paid attention. Before this, shows were averaging 45k buys, so many consider that it was UFC 40 that saved the UFC from bankruptcy and was the turning point for the future.
A considerable part of the growth that came next was due to The Ultimate Fighter, the company’s reality show that put fighters in a house where the winner would win a UFC contract. Spike TV took it on when many other networks wouldn’t. The season 1 finale was a fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar. The fight did so well (with a 1.9 rating) and was so entertaining that both fighters earned contracts, and Dana credits it with saving the UFC. Over the next few years, it was big, commercially successful fights like those that drew people into the brand, and in 2011, the UFC and Fox signed a seven-year deal.
In late 2012, after years of Dana insisting that women would never fight in the UFC, he finally announced that he had given in and that the company was signing Strikeforce champion Ronda Rousey. She went on to become the company’s biggest star to date, winning fights in a matter of seconds and drawing in a huge viewership every time she did.
The same year she debuted, another fighter by the name of Conor McGregor brought what felt like the whole of Ireland with him when he fought in the UFC for the first time against Diego Brandão, finishing him in the first round. His run at 145lbs was like no other, and along the way, he beat future champion Max Holloway, future champion Dustin Poirier and knocked out then-champion José Aldo in just 13 seconds.
Dana White has insisted that, in an era where both Ronda and Brock Lesnar are essentially retired, and Conor doesn’t fight often, the UFC still does better than ever. Still, there’s no doubt that when those kinds of stars are active, and casual watchers are brought in is when the company feels its biggest and most successful.
In the early 2000s, the UFC was purchased for $2 million by the Fertitta brothers and Dana White, and in 2016, it was sold to WME-IMG for a whopping $4.025 billion.
When the deal with Fox ended, they signed with ESPN, which has already been taking things to another level in terms of the production of content and the public perception. There has also been a deal with Reebok over the last few years, which will end in 2020 and move over to Venum, a less popular brand but one that has already been focused on MMA for years.
The UFC isn’t showing any signs of stopping anytime soon. There’s no better time to be a fan.