Last month was the 20 year anniversary of UFC 2; the UFC’s second-ever event. There were no weight classes, time limits, or rounds. Above all, there were no judges.
Mixed martial arts legend Royce Gracie defeated four opponents, including Patrick Smith and Jason DeLucia, and won the $60,000 grand prize. The show’s 300,000 household buy rate wouldn’t be equaled until UFC 8 in March 1996; idle highlights in the fiscally turbulent 90s that nearly bankrupt the UFC.
Today, the combat sport doesn’t resemble what it was in March 1994. Dana White along with Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta invested $2 million into the fledgling promotion and revolutionized MMA in the process. Let’s take a look at how a company near obscurity turned into a $200 million a year goliath.
One would be hard pressed to find a UFC greatest fight’s list that excludes Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar’s The Ultimate Fighter Finale showdown. It, along with the reality show, careened the promotion into its current success and paved the way for mixed martial artists to gain commercial notoriety.
Also, White and the Fertitta brothers reportedly offered to pay $10 million of the production costs. They couldn’t afford such a luxury in its early years. In the beginning, the UFC had the Gracie brothers’ name to work with, and even then it only carried the promotion so far.
White is adamant about his fighters marketing themselves on social media. He is aware of its reach and awards fighters based on their presence on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. It’s an approach not seen in major sports, but one that sells the product and personalizes the athlete-fan experience.
Weight classes implemented
Imagine Cain Velasquez standing toe-to-toe with Jose Aldo. Unlikely as it is, the UFC’s format in the 90s could have made this possible. MMA teaches that size can be used as an advantage regardless of an opponent’s size, but the mindset at the time was to give viewers unbalanced matchups with a grab-bag of fighters.
That approach, however, doesn’t help in deciding the best pound-for-pound fighter in certain weight classes. The 10 divisions that exist in the UFC are organized suit an ever-growing roster.
Every match in the 90s ended with blood imprinted into the Octagon mat. The bare-knuckle brawlers weren’t limited by the rules that most MMA organizations adhere to today. They could pull hair, bite, gouge an opponent’s eyes, and even kick them in the crotch. It caught America’s attention. Unfortunately, the gained fame for the wrong reason.
The decline in the UFC’s buy rates coincided with what Arizona Senator John McCain called “human cockfighting.” They responded with strict rules that made gloves mandatory and separated fighters by weight. It was not enough to sooth concerns states had, and few sanctioned UFC events.
As MMA has evolved to quell worries about a fighter’s safety so have fears that these measures aren’t protective enough. The dangers of stepping into a ring are well known, and they always have been, but fighters are treated moments after competing so a diagnosis can be given in a timely manner. The “shake it off” mentality will always exists in combat sports, only now step can be taken to avert much more serious injuries.
The UFC has come a long way from its struggles to compete in states like Iowa and Wyoming. There was a time when Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn headlined a show in front of 2,700 attendees. Today, there are few countries Zuffa hasn’t touched.
Nineteen international are scheduled in 2014, including the promotion’s first-ever tips to Turkey. In addition, there are multiple The Ultimate Fighter spin-offs that range from Brazil to China. It’s not just that they want to reach untapped markets; the UFC wants their competition to know of their intentions.
Women in MMA
There was a time when White adamantly opposed women in his Octagon. One name changed his train of thought: Ronda Rousey.
With Georges St.-Pierre retiring, and injuries to Anderson Silva and Cain Velasquez, the biggest draw in the UFC is the women’s bantamweight champion. Have a woman compete in the blood-soaked fights of the 90s is inconceivable, but the fact that woman like Rousey can headline a million dollar event only goes to show how far equality in sports has come.
Sure, sex appeal play a role in their success, but their skillset is undeniable. Rousey and Sara McMann are former Olympian, Gina Carano was ranked on of the most influential women Yahoo’s 2008 list, and Julianna Pena recently became the first female to win The Ultimate Fighter competition.
This wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. The UFC has and will continue to change MMA.