UFC fights its way to the top

UFC fights its way to the top
August 16, 2013, 3:30 pm
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Some Mixed Martial Arts fans might say the biggest upset in Ultimate Fighting Championship history is Matt Serra’s 1st round TKO of welterweight champion George St. Pierre.  Others might think its East Bridgewater’s own Joe Lauzon’s ambush of former lightweight Champion Jens Pulver. It could be Gabriel Gonzaga head kicking Mirko CroCop into oblivion or a number of fights during Randy Couture’s UFC career.    

In my opinion, those fights are all battling for second place. When Lauzon, Dana White and the Ultimate Fighting Championship return to Boston on Saturday night, I think it might represent the leader in MMA’s most monumental upset of all.  

The Fight Night event at TD Garden will mark the culmination of a long, tumultuous, almost twenty year journey for the Mixed Martial Arts promotion. From a renegade tournament based upon stylistic showdowns, it has been painstakingly built into not only the premier combat sports promotion in the world, but one of the most successful and desirable products in all of sports.    

What is now an international sensation started out as an infomercial for Gracie Jujitsu. In November of 1993 the first Ultimate Fighting Championship was broadcast on pay per view. In what I described to friends at the time as a “real life version of Bloodsport’s Kumate”, martial arts fighters of all styles faced off, vying for their discipline’s supremacy. When the physically unimposing Royce Gracie submitted all comers, my mind was blown. How did this normal looking guy in baggy pajamas, casually take out a boxer (Who famously sported a single, ultimately unused, glove), a shoot-fighter with a physique like Ken Shamrock and an insanely dangerous looking Savate fighter, Gerard Gordeau.  Gordeau kicked Sumo wrestler Teila Tuli in the face so hard, that by the end of the match, there were probably more teeth left in Gordeu’s foot than Tuli’s mouth. But the unflappable Gracie made all of them, and their chosen disciplines, look very vulnerable.

In doing so, Gracie and the fledgling Ultimate Fighting Championship created a sensation. It spawned more PPV shows which featured more spectacular fights and more uniquely engaging personalities. The humble Gracie, the brash brawler Tank Abbott and the cerebral Dan Severn, just to name a few, drove eyes to the UFC’s product just as much as the promise of no rules combat.  

But with added exposure came added scrutiny. US Senator John McCain famously called the UFC “Human Cockfighting” and his crusade to remove them from US TV began. What was once a profitable semi-regular athletic exhibition, became a combat sports fugitive that was bleeding cash, seeking refuge where local regulations were the most favorable and picking up and leaving when the morality posse came a calling.

The UFC couldn’t run forever however. It went through numerous changes. Rules, weight classes, time limits and gloves were added. These concessions were not enough to stem the tide of public opinion however. The misguided public perception of the UFC was all it took to force the company into a dark age with little PPV exposure and little to no home video (remember those?) sales. Not only was the UFC slowly dying, its demise was coming when the UFC was entering its major transformative phase.

Figthers like Pat Militech, Frank Shamrock, Randy Couture and Pedro Rizzo ushered in the age of mixed martial arts. These fighters cross-trained in multiple disciplines, becoming proficient in striking, wrestling and submissions. Jens Pulver, Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz would also emerge at this time, giving the UFC an engaging product that, unfortunately, fewer and fewer people were seeing.  The then owners of the UFC, Semaphore Entertainment Group, seeing no profitability in site, sold the company in 2001 for two million dollars.

Enter Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White. The Fertitta brothers, owners of the Station Casinos in Las Vegas, used their financial clout to keep the floundering company afloat and secure vital approval from the Nevada State Athletic Commission. With cash to keep the company running and Las Vegas as a home base to run events from, Dana White went to work.

With White at the helm, a former promoter, the UFC was finally thrust into the mainstream. A potential event location’s athletic commission wanted the UFC regulated? Dana welcomed it.  A PPV wasn’t generating enough buzz? White pushed it in any medium he could. The opportunity to get the UFC on cable TV presented itself? Dana created an event for it. Slowly but surely White’s efforts were being rewarded with higher and higher PPV buys, culminating with the first Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock showdown, UFC 40.  

Finally, when the opportunity presented itself in 2005, White pushed 10 million on double zeros and paid for Spike TV to air the UFC’s “The Ultimate Fighter” reality TV show. The show itself was a ratings success on its own merits. What 18-34 males didn’t want to watch a reality show where instead of a sham tribal council, contestants fought to see who got sent home?  However, it was during the first season’s finale, when Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonner, furiously slugged their way through the most important 15 minutes in the company’s history. Rich Franklin and Ken Shamrock, that night’s main event, hadn’t even touched gloves yet, but the buzz from the Bonner and Griffin fight was already carrying the company on a tidal wave of mainstream momentum.  

Once again, White worked his magic. Capitalizing on The Ultimate Fighter’s popularity, stars from the TV show soon faced off with established veterans, such as Anderson Silva’s UFC debut vs. TUF 1’s Chris Leben. The reality show success continued as it churned out more viable UFC talent and indoctrinated new fans to UFC regulars.

After finally achieving the exposure it deserved, the recipe for the UFC’s success has been a simple one. Give fans the best possible product and don’t settle for less. Cards were stacked top to bottom with exciting compelling fights.  PPVs would show as many matches as time would allow. And when an early stoppage marred the much hyped PPV rematch of Ortiz and Shamrock, White told fans he’d make up for it and, true to his word, put the rubber match on free TV. What other league/promotion would do that? The NHL goes on a crippling lock out and all Bruins fans got from Gary Bettman and the owners was a “Jumbo Home Cooked Meatball.” If I could clone White and put him in charge of the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and MLB, I’d have done it yesterday.  

Thanks to White, Zuffa and the most talented athletes in the world, UFC fans get to see the best fighters face off  regularly. George St. Pierre, Silva, Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez and Demetrious Johnson, just to name a few, not only fight routinely but also, often do it for free. Guys that fight at the start of an event, like Cole Miller, are just as likely to put on a great fight as those getting top billing.  

Just a decade ago, the UFC was begging to get any form of television exposure. Now a UFC event is being used as the launch programming for a new national sports television network. With more events, added weight classes, female competitors and further global expansion, the popularity of the UFC is only matched by its growth. It’s an amazing turnaround, and as a fan that’s been there the whole way, it’s satisfying to see.

What started as a fight promotion with no rules is now a legitimate sport with no limits.