Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author.
MMA, or mixed martial arts, has seen a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) leading the charge as the world’s premier promotion. The UFC’s return to live events during the pandemic, which was met with great fanfare, only served to further increase its popularity among mainstream audiences. But the UFC’s journey to the top wasn’t always smooth sailing.
In this article, we delve into the history of the UFC and examine the factors that led to its initial success and eventual establishment as a dominant force in the world of sports.
How the UFC struggled in the beginning
The UFC faced many challenges when it was first founded in 1993. At the time, MMA was largely seen as a taboo and extreme sport, with no venues or television networks willing to host or broadcast it. This was due to the fact that MMA included techniques such as chokes and kicks, which were not typically allowed in boxing, and fighters were able to use techniques such as “ground and pound” to attack an opponent who was down and not defending themselves.
Former US Senator John McCain famously referred to the sport as “human cockfighting” in 1996 and advocated for it to be banned across the country. In response, the American Medical Association recommended a ban on the sport, and New York and several other states eventually passed laws to outlaw it.
Even the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which is now a major partner of the UFC, initially refused to sanction events and barred the UFC from hosting fights in casinos.
How Dana White and the Fertitta Brothers Changed the UFC
However, a number of factors eventually contributed to the sport’s mainstream acceptance, including the involvement of current UFC President Dana White. In 2001, the Las Vegas casino moguls Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC and installed White as president, and he has played a key role in promoting and growing the sport.
One of the major things White did was improve the sport’s image by implementing stricter rules and regulations, such as drug testing, unified rules, and improved medical protocols. This was to ensure that there was an even playing field as well as making the sport safer.
This eventually led to MMA getting legalized not only across the United States, but in numerous countries around the world. Additionally, White promoted the UFC through various marketing and public relations efforts, including producing documentaries and reality TV shows.
LEARN MORE: How UFC Has Evolved From The Humble Beginning
The key events that made the UFC popular
The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality played a key role that turned UFC around. The finale of the inaugural season in 2005 saw Forrest Griffin fight Stephan Bonnar in a closely contested, back-and-forth brawl that captivated the audience as well as the estimated three million viewers on Spike TV.
The show was renewed for a second season, but most of all, it brought new eyeballs to the sport and turned the tide on the UFC becoming an accepted and mainstream sport.
Another key factor was former US president Donald Trump. While nobody at the time was hosting UFC events, Trump hosted a UFC event at the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City in 2001. It was the first time the UFC held an event at a casino and Trump’s involvement helped to legitimize the UFC and helped it to gain a larger audience. White has publicly expressed his gratitude towards Trump for this opportunity, and even spoke in support of him at the 2016 Republican national convention.
In more recent times, Conor McGregor helped further boost the sport thanks to his enigmatic personality and exciting style of fighting, drawing many casuals in and converting them into hardcore fans as a result of his mega drawing power.
Additionally, UFC President Dana White worked to bring live events back during the COVID-19 pandemic, hosting them at the UFC Apex facility and Yas Island (aka UFC Fight Island) in Abu Dhabi. As a result, the UFC became the first sports league to return to live events, and it was the only sport that was available on television, which helped it reach a wider audience. All of these factors contributed to the UFC’s current popularity as we know it today.
Who is most responsible for the UFC’s success?
As stated above, there were many factors contributing to the rise of the UFC, but there were also many key individuals who played a role. Among them is Dana White, who is credited the most for the UFC’s success and popularity today.
Lorenzo Fertitta, CEO of the UFC from 2001 to 2016, also deserves big credit. He not only brought White in but also played a key role in growing the organization, negotiating major television deals, and investing in the marketing and promotion of the UFC. The former president Donald Trump’s decision to host UFC events also legitimized the sport and gave it a platform to grow further.
Fighters like Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Chuck Liddell, Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, and Conor McGregor can also take credit for the UFC’s rise.
However, the Gracie family played a particularly influential role in the sport’s popularity. Rorion Gracie, co-founder of the UFC and head of the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu academy, helped promote and popularize the martial art. His brother Royce Gracie’s victories in the early UFC events, using jiu-jitsu to defeat larger opponents, further added to the intrigue and appeal of mixed martial arts.
Overall, these individuals among others have all played a crucial role in making the UFC famous and establishing it as a mainstream sport.
What made the UFC the most popular MMA organization?
There are many reasons why the UFC holds the position as the most popular MMA organization. Among them include:
Early exposure: The UFC was one of the first major organizations to promote and host MMA events. Essentially, it had a head start in the industry compared to its future competitors, gaining it a devoted fanbase and establishing itself as a leader in the sport in the process.
Marketing and promotion: The UFC has excelled when it comes to marketing and promoting its events and fighters. It has used a variety of strategies, including social media campaigns, partnerships with major brands, and cross-promotion with other sports organizations.
Additionally, the UFC has worked hard to promote the sport in countries around the world. Australia and New Zealand have had a number of UFC champions in recent years, the UFC built a performance center in China with plans for another one in Mexico, and the promotion is planning on an inaugural event in Africa.
Buying out competition and expanding: The UFC prides itself on featuring the best fighters in the world, and it only stayed true to that notion by acquiring World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) in 2006 and rival promotion PRIDE FC in 2007. These acquisitions brought many top-level fighters into the UFC, solidifying its position as an elite organization in the world of mixed martial arts.
High-quality events and fighters: The UFC consistently puts on high-quality events featuring top-tier fighters from around the world. While in boxing, the top fighters don’t fight each other or only do so when it’s too late due to their promoters, the UFC takes pride in showcasing the best against the best.
Strong financial backing: Any organization with strong financial backing will likely do better than its competitors, and that’s the case with the UFC. Having always had strong backing, the UFC invested in talent, performance centers, production, and marketing throughout the world; all of which has contributed to it maintaining its place as the premier MMA organization.
How fast is UFC popularity growing compared to other sports?
The UFC is one of the fastest growing sports leagues in the world. While it’s hard to compare its popularity with other sports due to various factors, the UFC’s continued growth and success are undeniable. Dana White most notably said this back in 2009:
“I know people think I’m a (expletive) lunatic when I say this, but it’s going to be the biggest sport in the world. Bigger than the NFL, bigger than soccer, bigger than anything out there”
“The crazy thing about this sport is we haven’t even scratched the surface on how big this thing is going to be.”Las Vegas Sun
“Fighting – I don’t care what color you are, or what language you speak, or what country you live it, we’re all human beings and fighting’s in our DNA. We get it and we like it,” he stated.MMAweekly.com
While MMA is yet to reach the popularity and viewership of soccer as things stand, it can still take pride in its growth. The organization generates millions of dollars in revenue each year through the sale of tickets, pay-per-view events, and sponsorships. The UFC also has a lucrative television deal with ESPN, which further contributes to its financial success.
As per Nielsen, the UFC had an average of 759,000 viewers per event in 2020. Many of its pay-per-view events regularly exceed the 500,000 buy mark; an impressive feat considering the record was 280,000 buys back in 2005. Most of all, every year has been superior to the previous year as per White which is also impressive considering the promotion’s cash cow in Conor McGregor has only competed four times since 2017.
As far as boxing is concerned, both sports likely have a similar level of popularity, with the UFC perhaps having a slightly younger and more diverse fan base. However, with the politics involved in boxing, it’s fair to say that most combat sports fans today prefer MMA and the UFC over boxing, in particular, where the best fighters face each other regularly.
The overall viewership of the UFC is also slightly higher, but that’s also due to the fact that boxing has a smaller number of events that are not as widely available on television..
Does the UFC have the best MMA fighters?
While it’s subjective, it’s still pretty much unanimous that the UFC has the most talented and successful fighters in the world. That being said, there are definitely top-level fighters in other promotions, such as Bellator, PFL, and ONE Championship, who have the skillsets to defeat UFC fighters.
But as a whole, the UFC is vastly superior in featuring the best fighters and having stronger divisions. Not to mention, the end goal for just about every fighter is to ultimately appear in the UFC as it is the premier organization. This means higher pay, stronger competition to prove they’re the best in the world, and more exposure.
The Final Say: Is MMA considered a mainstream sport now?
It’s fair to say that MMA, at least when it’s a UFC event, is a mainstream sport that catches the eye of casuals and celebrities alike. Live events during the pandemic certainly helped, but so has the work that has been put in over the course of the UFC’s lifespan ever since it was founded in 1993, when it was considered a fringe activity. The profile of the sport has increased tremendously, and just about everyone knows who Conor McGregor is at the very least.
Overall, MMA is now widely considered a mainstream sport, and it has a large and devoted fan base around the world; a big reason why is the UFC.