10 Seminal Moments In UFC History
written by D. W. Antler
With UFC 100 on the immediate horizon, here is a look back at ten moments in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship that defined the organization and to a large degree, the sport of MMA.
1. Skill Over Size: UFC 1 was the brain child of the Gracie family, specifically Rorion, as a showcase for Gracie Jiu Jitsu. The idea was simple: assemble a collection of martial artists from various disciplines and have a tournament to determine which was the best. Rorion pitched his ideas with producer and jiu jitsu student Art Davies to investors and Semaphore Entertainment Group agreed to back the production. On November 12, 1993, in Denver, Co. an eight man tournament was set up with a roster of combatants representing a variety of fighting styles: boxing, sumo, karate, kung fu, catch wrestling, kickboxing and of course Gracie jiu jitsu. That night those tuning in were forced to rethink everything they thought they knew about fighting. The Gracie representative, a scrawny, physically unassuming member of the family, Royce mowed his way through the field by using superior technique and skill to render the weight advantage and physical gifts of the other competitors moot. By the end of that first night of fights it was clear that the idea of what makes a great fighter had changed for the long term and Gracie/Brazilian jiu jitsu emerged as the dominant fighting style over the next decade and an essential element of any MMA combatant's arsenal to this day.
2. Superfight: The UFC was still a single night tournament at UFC 5. However, for the first time in the company's history there was a fight scheduled outside of the tournament. The innaugural UFC Superfight was contested between 3 time UFC tournament champion, Royce Gracie and international catch wrestling sensation, Ken Shamrock, whom Gracie had bested at UFC 1. This fight was important, as it was brought on by customer demand. Shamrock had hoped to avenge his loss to Gracie at UFC 3, but Gracie withdrew from competition after winning a hard fought opening match against Kimo Leopoldo; Shamrock also had to withdraw after his semi-final match. It was hoped that their paths would cross at UFC 4, but Shamrock had prior commitments to the Pancrase organization. Rather than take their chances on the superstars meeting in the tournament at UFC 5, the first prizefight in UFC history was scheduled between two emerging stars. The fight itself was a disappointment. After 35 minutes of muted combat, the fight was called and declared a draw since there were no judges at the time. Shamrock used his top control and submission defense to neutralize Gracie while landing enough shots to leave Gracie a bloody and exhausted mess at the end. Despite the lackluster nature of the fight, it signified the growing interest and popularity in mixed martial arts and the star potential of its athletes.
3. Politics: Detroit, Michigan was the venue for UFC 9, but it almost didn't happen. In the months leading up to the event, US Senator John McCain launched a campaign against the UFC, which he saw as "human cockfighting." McCain's efforts, along with the assistance of others, led to the UFC having to go to court in order to defend their right to put on the show. The court allowed the UFC to go ahead with the event, but with modified rules, including no close - fisted punches under penalty of arrest. After the conclusion of UFC 9, McCain was successful in petitioning many cable carriers to remove UFC events from their pay per view platforms. McCain's efforts put a serious damper on the growing popularity of MMA in the US and made life difficult for UFC promoters.
4. Lucky 13: UFC 13 was perhaps one of the most important events in UFC history. The event was held in Augusta, Georgia at a time when the company was struggling to sell their product on television as a result of Senator McCain's efforts against the sport. The show featured two tournaments: a lightweight tournament (under 200 lbs) and heavyweight. Although the event itself was one of the better events to date from a combat standpoint, its significance was not in the fights, but in the fighters. Two UFC legends made their Octagon debuts that night. Tito Ortiz was an alternate fighter who ended up being pressed into action in the lightweight tournament finals, losing to Guy Metzger. Also stepping into the Octagon that night was Randy Couture, who won the heavyweight tournament. These two names would end up being top draws for the UFC in the years to come, selling out countless arenas and drawing huge pay per view numbers.
5. Unified Rules: In the wake of John McCain's heretofore successful attempts to effectively ruin the UFC, a movement began to clean up the sport of MMA and make it more palatable to the masses and politicians. California was the first state to implement what are now known as the Unified Rules of MMA, but the New Jersey State Athletic Commission produced the first codified version of the regulations. UFC 28 was the first UFC event to be contested under the new rule set in Atlantic City. This was the beginning of modern MMA, which has allowed the incredible success that we see today. Unfortunately this development came too late for Semaphore Entertainment Group - the owners of the UFC at the time.
6. Zuffa: After the campaign to shut down MMA in the US, Semaphore Entertainment Group was reduced to a financial mess. The company was hemorraging money as a result of being relegated to community halls and rec centers in southern states and being cut off from the pay per view market. The top stars of the UFC had also begun to migrate to Japan for more lucrative offers in Pride and other organizations. Despite the guarded optimism that came as a result of the new regulations adopted for the sport and the hope that pay per view carriers would again jump on board with the UFC, SEG had no choice but to sell the promotion that they had built - enter two casino magnates and a fighter manager. Dana White, who had managed Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, got together with childhood friends and owners of Station Casinos, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and they decided that MMA was the sport of the future and that the UFC was a wise investment. Zuffa, LLC. was created in January, 2001 and they purchased the Ultimate Fighting Championship for a retrospectively paltry sum of $2 million and the rest, as they say, is history.
7. Back On The Air: UFC 33 was aptly subtitled Victory in Vegas. This was the fourth event under Zuffa's reign, but the first to be broadcast nationally on pay per view. Unfortunately, the good cheer ended abruptly that night. The main event of the card was a light heavyweight title bout between champion Tito Ortiz and Vladmir Matyushenko. The undercard also had a middleweight and a lightweight title fight scheduled, both of which went the full time duration of twenty five minutes. Fans at home who were tuning in to see the first live UFC broadcast in many years were irate when in the middle of the Ortiz vs. Matyushenko bout, the allotted time for the event ran out and the PPV carriers terminated the signal. This was ultimately a bittersweet return to PPV, but Zuffa learned their lesson and since that event, no other UFC card has featured three title bouts in one night.
8. Reality: Since the Zuffa purchase of UFC, the organization had made significant inroads in reviving the brand, breaking internal PPV records and generating a level of interest in the sport not seen since the early days of the promotion. However, Zuffa was still losing significant money and were looking for a way to expose the sport to new viewers. In 2004, reality TV was at its apex in popularity and the Zuffa powers that be decided that they should take a shot at their own reality TV show. They made an agreement with Spike TV, which had been re-branded from The Nashville Network as a television network for men. Zuffa agreed to pick up all production costs for that first season themselves, while Spike would have distribution rights.
On January 18, 2005, The Ultimate Fighter premiered, featuring sixteen unknown mixed martial artists in both the heavyweight and middleweight divisions competing for a six figure contract with the UFC under the watchful eyes of coaches Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, who would face off for the light heavyweight title later in the year. The show served two functions: first as an opportunity to generate brand awareness and exposure for new fighters, secondly as a months long promotional tool for the Liddell vs. Couture title fight. The ratings for the first season were strong throughout, culminating in the first Ultimate Finale. The light heavyweight main event that evening between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin ended up being perhaps the most critical moment in the UFC. That night an estimated four million people tuned in to witness an incredible back and forth, fifteen minute war between the finalists. Ultimately Griffin won the fight and the contract, but more importantly both Bonnar and Griffin's efforts that night made many people instant UFC fans.
9. Pride: For the first half of the decade, the UFC was second banana when it came to MMA promotions. Pride Fighting Championships had been built in Japan out of professional wrestling organizations that employed stiff worked shoots. Pride maintained much of the pageantry of the Japanese pro wrestling scene, but featured legitimate shoot fights. It was not uncommon for Pride shows to sell out the 55,000 seat Tokyo Dome or draw huge national broadcast television ratings in Japan. As a result, Pride's financial strength allowed them to pilfer the best fighters from the UFC and around the world. Many a legend made their name in Pride. Unfortunately, along with the best fighters in the world, Pride also had ties to the Japanese Mafia, or Yakuza, and this would be their downfall. By 2006 a series of criminal scandals rocked the organization and it was in a state of disrepair. In March 2007, Zuffa swooped in and reached an agreement with Pride's owners, Dream Stage Entertainment Group, to purchase Pride's assets. At the time it was thought that these assets included the fighters as well, but due to contractual differences in the Japanese legal system, most Pride fighters were deemed free agents. The UFC did a good job of signing many of Pride's stars, including Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria, but the biggest fish in the sea, Fedor Emelianenko, remained on the open market. Although the Pride purchase did not go as planned from Zuffa's point of view, and legal action related to the sale is ongoing to this day, the purchase did cement the UFC's position as the premier MMA promotion in the world.
10. Mainstream: As the UFC built its name through The Ultimate Fighter reality series and monthly pay per views, the mainstream sports media began to take notice. In 2007, publications such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN: the Magazine featured mixed martial artists on their covers for the first time (Roger Huerta and Chuck Liddell, respectively). ESPN television covered their first UFC event in detail - UFC 71 - including coverage of the weigh-ins, interviews with the principles (Quinton Jackson and Chuck Liddell) and featured highlights from the event on SportsCenter. Since UFC 71, the organization has achieved ever growing mainstream popularity. Big name sponsors such as Bud Light and Harley Davidson jumped on board, UFC programming continued on Spike TV, evolving to include best of shows, pre-fight countdowns and fighter spotlights. Mainstream media companies developed full-time MMA content, including columns, fight news, and television programming.
MMA fighters have crossed over into Hollywood making appearances on television shows such as Entourage and in films, many of them becoming household names. The UFC can sell out any arena, anywhere in both the US and abroad. And perhaps most impressively, the UFC has supplanted both WWE and boxing as the number one pay per view production in the world. And now the UFC is on the precipice of its biggest show and potentially biggest pay per view generator in its history with nothing but increased growth and popularity on the horizon.