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How UFC Has Evolved From The Humble Beginning

Image by Andrius Petrucenia via Wikimedia Commons

UFC is the leading force in the modern MMA world and has influenced the sport more than any other company. UFC’s influence can be seen in the rules it sets that all other MMA organizations follow, and sets the standard for quality MMA content across the world. In fact, UFC is the real reason that modern MMA exists as a sport today and has influenced its development since UFC began in 1993.

Almost single-handedly, UFC revolutionized the sport of MMA and made it a viable and exciting modern sport, creating a market for fighters and viewers and making it popular across the world. Without UFC, mixed martial arts would not be as popular, not only in the United States but across the entire world. 

As a result of UFC’s success, MMA is the fastest growing sport worldwide and shows no sign of stopping its incredible growth. 

This article illustrates the journey UFC undertook on the path to its current success. From humble beginnings, UFC transformed itself and the sport of MMA into a global sensation, gaining the admiration of athletes and audiences across the world at the same time. 

Here we will focus on key points in UFC’s history to see how by tenacity, bravery and intelligence the company was able to overcome these obstacles and become one of the leading sports organizations in the world today and earning its rightful place in sports and business history.

The Beginning

The Gracie Challenge was the main concept behind the creation of UFC. Started in 1920s by Gracie family in Brazil to show the effectiveness of the Gracie Jijitsu(Gracie style of Brazilian JiuJitsu:BJJ) in fights,  the Gracie Challenge was an open invitation to anyone willing to test their fighting skills against Gracie Jiujitsu.

In this open invitation fight, Gracie often faced a much larger and stronger fighter with different fighting background such as boxing or wrestling. Gracie Family defeated just about every fighter who accepted the challenge. This challenge became very popular during that time.

Rorion Gracie, a grandmaster in Gracie Jiujitsu, wanted to expand the popularity of BJJ into the United States of America. He also wanted American audiences to witness the superiority of BJJ over other popular martial arts at the time in a real combat fighting very similar to the Gracie Challenge. 

Rorion Gracie worked with John Milius and Art Davie, who is a business executive and entrepreneur, to create what would become the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, partnered with SEG Company for sponsorship. 

As a result of the Gracie influence, the early form of UFC also served as a sort of advert for the Gracie family and their brand of BJJ, following the debut of Royce Gracie in UFC 1. 

Despite this focus on the merits of BJJ, the early UFC gained popularity and success after UFC 1. This popularity was due to the no holds barred style of fighting it presented, with fewer rules than modern UFC has. Tactics such as groin shots, headbutts and hair pulling were allowed that are forbidden and looked down upon today. 

In addition, the early UFC had no weight classes which meant fighters could be matched with much larger and stronger opponents. Having no weight classes made for size mismatches and exciting fights in the style of David and Goliath. 

This style of fighting was not regulated or strictly refereed and appeared closer to a street fight than a professional sports match, with a focus on winning rather than perfect technique and points. 

The only important thing was to win. Like in a real fight there were no strict rules, no gloves and no time limits. This made fights messy and could be extreme. This helped UFC and hurt it in other ways.

The Trouble Started For UFC

The extreme and violent nature of UFC caught the attention of fans, but it also caught the attention of fierce political opposition in particular Senator John McCain (former Republican Senator for Arizona). In 1996, Senator McCain saw a video tape of the early UFC fights and was immediately appalled by the barbarity being shown, finding it abhorrent and unacceptable.

Senator McCain became of the leading voices denouncing UFC, and led a campaign to have UFC banned outright. Senator McCain felt so strongly about banning the “human cockfighting” as he called it. McCain personally wrote to the governor of every fifty US states, urging them to ban UFC. McCain’s campaign and personal efforts paid off for him, and 36 states voted to ban “no-holds-barred” fighting, the style UFC had become popular for. 

New York was one of these 36 states and was due to host UFC 12. This was on the eve of the ban, which meant UFC 12 had to be relocated, this time to Dothan, Alabama, and causing serious financial issues for the company.

UFC Making Rule Changes To Survive

Despite the crushing blow of the ban, UFC continued to operate and broadcast on the air through DirecTV PPV. However, due to being relegated to a small-scale platform it received very few views, much fewer than larger pay-per-view platforms of the time they could not use. 

UFC decided to adapt to the opposition they received and made some changes. UFC began to increase its cooperation with state athletic commissions across the country and also became to reform some of its rules. This was to appeal to a wider audience and to avoid criticism of being too violent and unnecessary that people like Senator McCain objected to. 

More rules and regulations were introduced over time to UFC. such as introduce weight class and to outlaw some elements such as fish hooking, and more changes included making gloves compulsory (beforehand most fights were bare-knuckles which meant more bleeding and bruising for both fighters) as well as outlawing tactics kicks to the head of downed opponents. 

As time went on this movement to more conventional fighting matches continued, and further changes to make the sport less violent were added. UFC saw more limitations of violent measures previously allowed, with the banning of strikes to the back of the neck and the back of the head, the banning of hair pulling and other irregular tactics such as head butting. 

A final key change was made brought in time limit rules that introduced with five-minute rounds. These changes slowly helped UFC rebrand itself into an organized and controlled sport, rather than a bloody spectacle. UFC wanted to retain the excitement of combining martial arts and combat while reducing the parts people found objectionable. 

UFC did this to try to keep true to their idea of the sport of MMA whilst making it accessible to more people and increase the popularity of the sport. UFC made these changes carefully over time to keep with its vision and distinct brand.

UFC Sold To New Owner

Despite making these changes to become more commercially viable, UFC continued to struggle financially and continued to lose money. SEG was struggling and on the verge of bankruptcy, spelling disaster for UFC. 

Due to losing so much money SEG were struggling to pay their fighters and were looking to get rid of the money sink UFC had turned out to be. 

At this time in 2000, SEG was approached by Station Casino executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, and their business partner Dana White with an offer crucial to the survival and future of UFC that changed its fortunes for the better. 

Lorenzo Fertitta, Dana White and Frank Fertitta.

This offer was to purchase UFC, and this came at a critical time for the company. A month later and the deal was done, and in January 2001 the Fertitta’s purchased UFC from SEG for $2 million, and created Zuffa, LLC as the parent entity controlling UFC. This was a real turning point for UFC that allowed its real breakthrough and success.

Reality TV Show To Save UFC From Financial Trouble

Following its purchase and the foundation of Zuffa, UFC began to experience some increase in popularity and success. However, despite this success UFC was still in a vulnerable position, and was still losing considerable amounts of money at this time. 

Faced with the real possibility of folding entirely and stopping operations, UFC made a bold decision and turned to new alternative, stepping away from its usual pay-per-view strategy and making its first foray into television. 

This was prompted by the Fertitta brothers, who had already found success in reality television. The brothers had been featured in the reality television series American Casino, and they used this for inspiration: if reality television could help their business, why not use it to help UFC find a wider audience and popularity? Could UFC be made into a reality television show, and could this help increase the popularity of its fights? 

The Ultimate Fighter TV Show Created

The Fertitta brothers came up with the idea of The Ultimate Fighter, a reality television show featuring up-and-coming fighters from all backgrounds competing against each other for a six-figure UFC contract. Each competitor would fight the others in exhibition-style mixed martial arts matches, knocking each other out of the competition until only one remained and won the prize. 

This idea by the Fertitta’s was a key moment in the history of UFC. Finding the right company to broadcast the show wasn’t easy. The Fertitta brother approached many networks with their idea and pitched the show, but found very little interest, and most rejecting it outright

Finally, the Fertitta brothers approached Spike TV. Spike TV eventually took a liking to the idea and agreed to broadcast The Ultimate Fighter, but not until the brothers offered to pay the entire $10 million production costs themselves. 

Finally, The Ultimate Fighter could go ahead, and a key part of UFC’s history began to unfold. No one could predict how popular The Ultimate Fighter would be, or how important it would be for spreading the popularity of the sport and organization.

The Breakout Moment

Spike TV launched The Ultimate Fighter in January 2005, screening in the time slot directly after WWE Raw. This was a key slot and hoped to appeal to fans of professional wrestling, making them interested in the real combat of MMA. The stage was set and the first episode was broadcast – would it save the company or lose the Fertitta brothers their $10 million investment? Fortunately for the Fertitta’s, the show became an overnight success. 

The Ultimate Fighter was popular from start and grew in popularity over the first season with people enjoying the personal element of the show as well as the brutal exhibition fights each episode. The show culminated in a heated season finale between light heavyweight finalists Forrest Griddin and Stephan Bonnar in the final brawl to determine who earned the life changing prize of a six figure UFC contract.

The final was broadcast live, and received a commendable 1.9 overall rating. The Ultimate Fighter 1 was a real turning point for UFC, with Dana White stating the show was what saved the company and the sport of MMA. 

As a result of the show’s popularity, interest in mixed martial arts exploded across the globe. This translated into a much larger audience of people watching UFC’s pay-per-view events than ever before, which allowed UFC to broadcast more fights. 

The show’s success gave UFC and MMA a much-needed popularity boost and helped the company finally make the profits it dearly needed. Finally, the show saved the money-losing promotion in an underground sport into an international brand that Fertitta brothers and Dana White had envisioned when they purchased the company.

UFC Popularity Helped Legitimize MMA

As well as increasing UFC’s popularity, the success of the show also made a real difference for the sport of MMA as a whole. Following the financial and popular success of The Ultimate Fighter, UFC began to add strength to its executive team, and this was a key decision for the company.

A vital addition was made in March 2006, when UFC announced it had hired Marc Ratner as Vice President of Regulatory Affairs. Ratner was the former Executive Director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, and had, equally importantly, been a key ally and advocate for Senator McCain’s campaign against no-holds-barred fighting.

However, in his new role in UFC, he became a catalyst for the growth in MMA, and became a key figure in legitimizing the sport. Ratner campaigned for the sport relentlessly and lobbied countless United States athletic commissions in favor of authorizing the sport. 

Through his campaigns and efforts, Ratner became a key all for UFC and improved the UFC’s media profile, and made progress towards what UFC really wanted – the legitimization of MMA as a sport inside and outside of the United States of America, giving it global recognition. This was key for guaranteeing UFC’s current and future success as a company.

Years of campaigning and rallying finally paid off in 2016, when on March 22 the New York Assembly voted to lift the long-standing 1997 State ban on MMA, almost a decade later. Further to this, on April 14 2016 Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a critical bill for the sport, finally legalizing and regulating the sport into law. 

This was the final step, as New York was the very last state to legalize the sport, meaning MMA was finally legal in every state in America at last. This was an important part in the history of UFC and MMA in the US and beyond.

UFC Helped Clean Up PED Usage

Having gained legal legitimacy in the United States, UFC took further steps to verify its position and the position of MMA in the world of sport. In July 2015 UFC officially partnered with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and launched a historic and comprehensive anti-doping program for all competitors

This was a world first in combat sports, with UFC authorizing USADA to independently administer random testing for all athletes, both in and out of season, year round to test for PEDs and banned substances, ensuring clean and fair competition. Beyond this, UFC made the decision to take additional steps to ensure the safety of its fighters by implementing one of the strictest PED testing strategies in the world. 

Now, UFC has one of the strictest PED testing in the entire world to ensure safety and fair competition. UFC has become a leader in fair sports conduct and an ambassador for anti-doping across the world.

UFC Creates Women’s Divisions

Women had already been competing in MMA competitions for some time, but UFC did not already have a division for women and focused on male competitors. Finally, in 2012, UFC decided to launch its own women’s division, meaning UFC catered for all MMA fighters in one place, capitalizing on its growing success and giving the opportunity for further growth as female fighting involvement continued to increase. 

UFC’s women’s division was confirmed on the eve of UFC154 on November 16 2012, with St Pierre vs Condit. Dana White confirmed with Jim Rome that UFC would now launch its new women’s division, announcing the signing of Strikeforce bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey as UFC’s first female athlete. 

Ronda Rousey was hugely influential for women in MMA, similar to the role of Royce Gracie in popularizing MMA in the beginning of UFC. Rousey was a popular figurehead for women in MMA and helped UFC’s women’s division to a strong start and growing popularity. Ever since its launch, this division has gone from strength to strength, being tremendously popular and increasing the number of women interested in and competing in MMA. 

As a result of its success, women now have the same opportunities as male fighters, with women often headlining pay-per-view events and often generating more interest than the men’s fights. UFC”s women’s divisions continue to be a great success for UFC and for women in MMA.

UFC Going Global

Following the enormous success of events based in the US, UFC is now making an impact all over the world, hosting and funding international events and reaching fans and athletes everywhere in the world. 

Noticing the growing popularity of MMA in Asia, UFC created a dedicated UFC performance institute in China. This is part of its plans to increase the popularity of MMA in China as well as in other Asian countries to access the vast pool of talented martial artists and interest them in mixed martial arts. 

UFC events can be viewed on television in 170 countries and continues to grow in popularity with its international audience.

UFC Sold To New Owner

In 2016, UFC was sold to a very powerful Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG for $4 billion dollars. Despite the change of owner, UFC President Dana White agreed to remain in his position to run the company. This move was widely expected to make UFC even more global. Read more here.

Big TV Deal With ESPN To Expand Its Presence

Following the conclusion of UFC’s television deal with FOX Sport, UFC entered a new contract with the massive sports channel ESPN. Following negotiations, UFC and ESPN reached a multiyear deal. 

This deal brought exclusive, live UFC Fight Night events to ESPN+, starting from January 2019. In addition to this, ESPN and UFC also reached another separate multiyear agreement to allow ESPN the exclusive right to broadcast its pay-per-view bouts. 

As well as being available on television on ESPN and keeping up with new technologies and viewing preferences, UFC can be streamed online through various streaming devices. This is part of an attempt to reach new audiences and help continue to grow the popularity of the sport.

Going Forward

As we can see, the future is very bright for UFC and MMA as a whole. MMA can be understood, admired, and appreciated by people from all backgrounds, bringing together people from all around the world to enjoy athletes fighting with no language or cultural barriers.

As the clear leader in MMA organization, UFC continues to expand and host events all around the world, from Brazil to Ireland to New Zealand to Singapore. UFC has been a sole driver in growing the sport of MMA, and the sport continues to grow in popularity each year as new people are exposed to UFC events on television, online and in person. 

Thanks to UFC organizing, legitimizing, and hosting the sport, MMA has a very bright future and can look forward to future expansion and new opportunities all over the world.