The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was once brashly branded by U.S. Senator John McCain as “human cockfighting” and the sport was scorned by many, even banned from television networks.
Fast forward, MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting is now sanctioned in every state with an athletic commission, except New York.
What was once a fledging sport trying to survive when it first appeared at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on the Las Vegas Strip in late September 2001, is a booming multibillion dollar industry.
Las Vegas brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and a street-smart former boxing promoter named Dana White were riding the tide to something big back then– less than eight years later, the UFC staged the biggest, most lucrative event in its history: UFCs 100th contest last night at the Mandalay Bay.
Tickets for Saturday night’s championship were snapped up in minutes, and some ringside seats sold on StubHub this week for $45,000 each. The UFC’s pay-per-view audience surpassed boxing and World Wrestling Entertainment for the first time in 2006.
The pugilistic contest saw heavyweight champion Brock Lesna unmercifully pummel Las Vegas Frank Mir with staccato right hands in the second round and emerge victorious in the octagon, avenging his only prior professional loss, which came against Mir last year.
The sport has worldwide appeal and is experiencing unprecedented growth. The UFC organization has expanded to England and Germany, and is poised to take on France and Australia next. There is even an unquestionable fever for it in Canada, and a palpable sense of momentum for a company that just five years ago was more than $40 million in debt.
“All the things going on right now, whether it’s UFC 100 or going to Germany for the first time, it’s really the way it’s been for us the last nine years,” White told The Associated Press recently. “The great thing about this sport, it transcends all cultural barriers, language barriers, because I don’t care what language you speak, what color you are, what country you’re from, at the end of the day we’re all human beings. Fighting is in our DNA.”
The UFC began in 1993 as a tournament to crown the world’s best fighting style, featuring everything from boxers to a sumo wrestler. There were no weight classes, gloves or rounds. There was no judging and virtually no rules. The only way to win was by knocking out your opponent or making them quit, which is precisely what a scrawny jujitsu expert named Royce Gracie did.
Dozens of states quickly enacted laws banning “no-holds-barred” fighting, abhorred by the thought of humans fighting inside an eight-sided cage. Even though limited rules and gloves were introduced, the organization stood on the brink of bankruptcy.
That’s when White brought the concept to the Fertittas, a pair of casino executives he’d known since high school. They purchased the UFC for $2 million in 2001 and immediately went to work getting the sport sanctioned. Universal rules were put in place, allowing shows to be held for the first time in casinos in Nevada and New Jersey.
“When we bought this company, especially my partners, they had a lot of people working for them and they thought this was probably the dumbest business investment ever,” says White, the UFC president. “We believed in it. We were passionate about the sport.”
But passion only goes so far. By 2004, parent company Zuffa LLC still couldn’t climb out of the red. The Fertittas nearly gave up, and White frantically tried to secure funding to press on.
Everything changed when the trio came up with “The Ultimate Fighter,” couching the sport in a reality TV format. The cable show was an instant hit, and the sport quickly began to slice into boxing’s fan base, which had long grown stagnant.
Stars like Las Vegans Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture were born, and an entire industry sprouted nearly over night. Nearly ever major event is now sold out, and a sport that corporate American once refused to touch has credibility with mainstream sponsors like Harley-Davidson and Budweiser.
The new “UFC: Undisputed” video game sold a 1 million copies its first week.
“Having ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ was the thing that did it for us, live fighting on TV,” says Liddell, who was recently inducted into the UFC’s Hall of Fame. “That’s what we had to do, was get a live fight on TV. It couldn’t have worked out better.”
Each of the Fertittas now own 45 percent of Zuffa LLC, while White owns 10 percent. Before the recession hit, the company was estimated to be worth close to $1 billion.
Business advisory firm Applied Analysis in Las Vegas recently completed an economic impact study of the UFC on Las Vegas, which has been severely affected by the crumbling economy, and found it generated $86.2 million in nongaming revenue for six events held last year and early this year.
White believes it’s his responsibility to safeguard a sport that he has grown and nurtured almost from the beginning, and has given him so much in return: financial security, a 7,500-square-foot home, worldwide attention.
“Is it going to become stale, are people going to become tired of it? Hell no,” he says. “Is there too much football on TV? Is there too much baseball on TV? People want to see great fights, and if we put together the best fights with the best fighters in the world, this is going to continue to grow and grow and grow.”