It would be a vast understatement to say that the UFC has come along way since it first entered the public consciousness in the early 1990s. What was once viewed as a bloody spectacle that eschewed any rules or weight classes in favor of pure devastation, is now a 4 billion dollar fight league with all the due diligence, regulations and procedures in place to ensure that every punch, kick, elbow and knee is delivered as sporting as possible despite the very nature of pugilism.
The upcoming UFC 205 card headlined by Conor McGregor is only further legitimizing the organization as it will be held at legendary Madison Square Garden in New York City – marking the very first sanctioned bout in New York State after Governor Andrew Cuomo raised the long-held ban on MMA in March of this year. This change of heart finds New York joining the other 49 states that already allow and regulate the sport throughout the country.
“The sport has evolved considerably in the last two decades,” Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, the sponsor of the MMA bill, said.
“I do support mixed martial arts because it’s also an economic generator,” Cuomo told reporters after announcing the lift on the ban.
To understand why New York state remained the last state to hold-out is to recall a brutal past for the UFC whose early years forced the hands of two prominent politicians: Senator John McCain who embarked on a personal quest against the league where he would often refer to it as “human cockfighting,” and subsequently New York Governor, George Pataki, who banned the sport in 1997.
The UFC was originally started by Art Davie, an advertising executive – who referred to himself as “a Don Draper type” – and Rorion Gracie, a noted master of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu whose surname has become synonymous with the sound of a fighter helplessly tapping out due to submission. At that time, the Gracie empire was small. The family taught their style of submission grappling out of a family member’s garage in Torrance, California.
Davie eventually became a student of Rorion Gracie. Since he had years as an advertising executive who had endured hundreds of hours of doing market research, Davie couldn’t help but ask himself one question: who’s truly the best fighter in the world and what discipline do they come from? In this imagined scenario, Davie conjured up images of a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter squaring off against a sumo wrestler and a traditional boxer slugging away at a karate master.
“When I was looking for fighters for the first UFC, I called on 38 organizations, boxing gyms in Detroit and Philadelphia, gyms in Holland well known for Muay Thai, sumo organizations in Japan, and people’s first reaction was, ‘are you casting for a film? No, no, I told them, this is a real event,'” Davie recalled.
Their first event, UFC 1, was held at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado, on November 12, 1993 and featured a format where a combatant had to win several matches – tournament style like in the Gracie’s Torrance garage – en route to a chance to take home the $50,000 USD prize.
The card drew fighters from multiple disciplines – a hallmark of what UFC has become today – but had no weight classes, rounds, timeouts or judges. The only two rules; no biting or eye gouging.
According to ESPN, from the very first bout of the night, with [Gerard] Gordeau kicking Teila Tuli square in the face 26 seconds in, combat sports changed forever. Commentator and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown put it best in his analysis by saying, “I think it was totally on the face. Awesome, awesome. Tooth came out.”
Despite boxing being a major part of the sports consciousness for centuries, the major cable companies refused to carry Ultimate Fighting Championship shows, and distributors weren’t even willing to sell videotapes of the events. The way people were fighting – combined with the size difference which in the early years saw some combatants giving up hundreds of pounds – was too much for people.
“At the time, I didn’t have a sense of what it was going to be,” said David Isaacs, who along with Campbell McLaren, ran the UFC in its formative years under the SEG banner. “I thought it would be like pro wrestling, only real. That’s what we thought it would be. That’s how I imagined it. We were trying to build something like a pro wrestling franchise. When wrestling is big, it’s huge. But when wrestling isn’t hot, it’s still a good business. This was our entertainment platform. That’s what I thought it would be. At that point, it was hard to imagine getting fights on cable TV, much less dominating cable TV.”
Senator Roy Goodman of New York state was one of the first politicians who spearheaded the initiative to ban professional MMA in the Empire State after the UFC put on several promotions. He pointed to a specific bout that had occurred at the Expo Center Pavilion in Tulsa, Oklahoma at UFC 4.
Although Royce Gracie technically won that tournament – which at the time still had no weight classes – it will best be remembered for a match between Keith Hackney (a kenpo karate expert) and Joe Son.
While the two men looked to gain the upper hand while splayed out on the mat, Hackney repeatedly struck Son in the groin. Not surprisingly, the strikes were as effective as they were brutal and Son eventually tapped out.
Despite the unwritten rule in most combat sports that you don’t “hit below the belt,” Hackney believed it was well within his rights given the lawless nature of the sport at the time.
“The way I looked at it, when we stepped into that cage, we were fighting within the rules,” Hackney said. “I didn’t bite or eye gouge anybody. They were the only things you weren’t allowed to [do], but if you did it, you’d just lost $1,000. But nobody said anything about groin shots. I’d probably do some different things today.”
At that time, UFC cards were aired live on pay-per-view, and later released on home video – the latter passed around with a similar spirit as a pornographic movie.
Senator Goodman used the brutality of the match to make his case to the New York Senate that the state should have nothing to do with the UFC.
“In the particular film to which I refer, which I will show you gladly in my office, or at least unhappily in my office since it’s quite revolting, there is a deliberate effort to take a fist and to pummel directly the vital parts which are situated between the legs of one contestant,” Goodman said. “It is done repeatedly and viciously. It is done with no other intent than to visit the worst kind of injury upon the opponent.”
“I think extreme fighting is disgusting, it’s horrible,” New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told The New York Times. “I happen to be a boxing fan, have been all my life. And I know there are issues regarding boxing, and they are serious ones. But this is way beyond boxing. This is people brutalizing each other.”
Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader, was on the opposite side of the fence of Giuliani. Although the sport was indeed brutal, Bruno was one of the first people to see how drafting and overseeing a bill to regulate the competitions could solve the UFC’s main problem.
“We ought to regulate it in the same way that we regulate boxing,” he said.
“New York state became the nail in the coffin,” said Isaacs, one of UFC’s early owners.
At UFC 9, political pressures forced the promoters to actually ban fighters from punching their opponents in the head with closed fists. Since fighters were warned that disobeying the rules would result in arrest, a planned rematch between Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock is considered to be one of the worst fights in MMA history for lack of action and contact.
But really, what choice did they have?
“That fight was probably the most boring fight in the UFC history, it was horrible… my whole gameplan was to go ahead, get control of him, get on top and ground and pound on him,” Shamrock recalled.
Adding insult to injury, Canadian cable distributors pulled out of airing any future UFC events. At the time, Canada represented nearly 25 percent of the pay-per-view buys.
UFC 28 marked the first UFC event to be sanctioned by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board – held under the newly formed “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts” – which installed fingerless gloves, weight classes, and restrictions on when and how a fighter could use knees and kicks to the head.
Despite their attempt at legitimizing the sport, the owners of the UFC were losing money and facing increased criticism from politicians.
The organization was sinking fast. It was too violent for the mainstream, but becoming too regulated for fans who had latched on to the savagery.
In 2000, Station Casino executives Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and business associate Dana White entered into a deal with SEG to purchase the UFC for $2 million USD. They finalized the deal in January 2001 and created Zuffa, LLC.
“I ended up finding that out, that they’re in trouble and they’re probably going to go out of business,” White said. “And I’d been to a [UFC] event, and I was looking around and thinking, ‘Imagine if they did this, and imagine if they did that. This thing could actually be really big.’ [So] I called [the Fertittas] and I said, ‘I think the UFC’s in trouble. And I think we can buy it. I think we should do this.’”
UFC 30 served as the first UFC card under their leadership. Although it took place in Atlantic City, Zuffa’s first major coup as a business was securing sanctioning for fights in Nevada – a state ingrained in the mind’s of fight fans.
“We want to make this the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts,” Dana White said at the time. “We want to make it more fan friendly.”
The UFC was attempting to rebrand. But for the original owners, they saw the same product.
“One of the things Zuffa did was present us as the bad guys, but positioned themselves as the new guys which gave them the opportunity to start with a clean slate,” said Isaacs. “Purists will argue which rules were safer and if the current rules were all that different. By being new, they were able to position it that way and we couldn’t.”
UFC 33 was the first mixed martial arts event sanctioned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Although the sport has come to represent punishing finishes by way out knockout or submission, the first Las Vegas event has the dubious distinction of being the first card where all main event fights went to a decision.
Years later, after a perceived boring fight between Georges St-Pierre and Dan Hardy, Dana White remarked, “UFC 33 is the only one I can remember where every fight sucked.”
In 2004, the UFC was still bleeding money. The Fertittas had dumped $44 million USD of their family’s money into the venture in the first three years alone.
“One morning in 2004 I called Dana and said we wanted out,” said Lorenzo Fertitta. “We were spending our family fortune. Dana called back and said he had found a buyer offering $4 million.”
According to Forbes, the Fertittas balked at the offer and instead decided to spend an additional $10 million USD developing a reality series surrounding the UFC after dabbling in the medium with a TV show called American Casino, about life at their Green Valley Ranch hotel outside Vegas.
Several networks passed, but Spike picked it up and was rewarded with a certifiable hit as fans and casual observers latched onto the narrative aspect of what comes before the bell rings. Most notably, the final bout of the first season between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar saw Dana White offering them both a six-figure contract.
Dana White certainly learned from past mistakes as well. After an underwhelming fight between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock at UFC 61 – which many recalled was reminiscent of UFC 33 – it forced him to consider giving away meaningful fights for free. Up until this point, the UFC followed a model like the WWE in which meaningful matches were solely reserved for a pay-per-view audience.
At that time, this was a revolutionary idea and White was rewarded for it. The rematch hit 5.7 million viewers.
UFC 66 on December 30, 2006 – highlighted by a fight between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Lidell – became the first non-boxing pay-per-view event in U.S. history to top 1 million North American buys.
Two years later, the UFC was estimated to be worth $250 million USD. In fact, it was so popular that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson even considered entering the fray.
Speaking with hosts Jim Norton and Matt Serra on the UFC Unfiltered podcast, Johnson said that back in 2006, two years after he had relinquished his world title and left the WWE, he felt he had achieved all he could in wrestling and he was disillusioned with his movie career.
“There was a time there where I thought, ‘man, I achieved everything I wanted to achieve in WWE, my movie career is floundering a little bit, what do I do,” Johnson said. “I was relatively still young, I think I was 34. I thought, ‘oh well maybe UFC. Maybe I should do something like that.’”
The popularity of the UFC was growing. Whereas a few years prior the Fertittas were fielding offers to sell, they now faced an opportunity where people wanted to invest.
In 2010, Abu Dhabi-owned Flash Entertainment- a wholly owned subsidiary of the government – bought 10 percent of UFC’s parent company for an undisclosed sum. However, the Associated Press reported Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta’s 45 percent stakes were reduced to 40.5%, while White’s 10 percent went to 9 percent.
“We’ve had a lot of growth over the last five years in the United States and Canada,” Fertitta told the Review Journal. “One of our initiatives has been to grow this global brand around the world. What they will allow us to do is grow a lot faster in places like the Middle East as well as places like Southeast Asia and China and throughout that region.”
While most people have speculated that the UFC hasn’t entered the New York marketplace because of their long and documented troubles with the politicians there, some believe that it had more to do with food than the brutality of the sport.
According to Newsweek, the Fertittas ownership of the Station Casinos in Las Vegas made them enemy combatants for the Culinary Workers Union there – whose parent organization, Unite Here, was headquartered in New York. Since the Fertittas employed non-union workers, they simply weren’t welcome to expand their empire.
“It has nothing to do with mixed martial arts,” Dana White said. “It has to do with the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union is spending millions of dollars of all these people who pay dues to keep us out of there because my partners, the Fertitta brothers, are the largest non-union gaming company in the country. People work in the Culinary Union pay their money towards dues, this is what all their money’s being spent towards. Fighting the UFC from coming there and bringing money into the state of New York.”
The Culinary Union created a now defunct anti-UFC website called “Unfit For Children” and a since-deleted Twitter account called @FightFairMMA which alleged that the UFC supported misogyny, homophobia and other antisocial behavior from its fighters.
In turn, the UFC launched their own website, explaining, “The Culinary Union represents workers in the hotel, food service and gaming industries. For more than a decade, the Culinary Union has attempted to unionize the employees of Station Casinos, a gaming and entertainment company in Las Vegas, Nevada that is majority-owned by Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo Fertitta, who are also majority owners of the UFC.”
The first major domino to fall to allow the UFC’s entry into New York was the conviction of Sheldon Silver, long the state’s most effective legislative gatekeeper and ally for the Culinary Union, on corruption charges including honest services fraud, extortion and money laundering.
For years, Silver had refused to even hear or allow a vote in the Assembly. But in 2015, Silver faced up to 20 years in jail for six of the seven counts and could no longer keep MMA out after six previous failed attempts by Zuffa.
“We are optimistic that in 2015 New York will join the 49 other states and most countries around the world in legalizing and regulating the fastest growing sport in the world,” a UFC spokesman told Newsweek. “Just as the state Senate has passed this bill for the last five years with overwhelming bipartisan support, we know that there is overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill in the Assembly. We are very hopeful that this is finally the year.”
In July 2016, Talent agency WME-IMG revealed that it was partnering with its owner Silver Lake Partners, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and MSD Capital to purchase the UFC for $4 billion USD – the most expensive transaction for an organization in sports history. The agreed upon price was also seven times its gross revenue.
“We’ve been fortunate over the years to represent UFC and a number of its remarkable athletes,” WME-IMG co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell said in a statement. “It’s been exciting to watch the organization’s incredible growth over the last decade under the leadership of the Fertitta brothers, Dana White and their dedicated team. We’re now committed to pursuing new opportunities for UFC and its talented athletes to ensure the sport’s continued growth and success on a global scale.”
“We knew 21 years ago that this was going to be a worldwide phenomenon,” original UFC owner, Art Davie recalled. “Other than soccer, the martial arts were the world’s most ubiquitous physical activity. They’re practiced around the planet. Years ago, [Hollywood screenwriter and early UFC consultant] John Milius said to me, ‘Art, you’re creating a new Excalibur.’ It’s true. We created the sword that a young man can use to become the king, to become the ultimate warrior, the great white shark, the apex predator. We knew that the potential for this to be worldwide was extraordinary. MMA is everywhere now, and, no, I’m not shocked. I’m pleased. And I can only imagine where it’s going to be in another 20 years.”
When fight fans file through the doors in Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, it fulfills a quest that is almost 20 years in the making. But it is New York City… so expect some boos no matter the outcome.
- Featured/Main Image: Press Association