With the UFC skyrocketing in popularity worldwide and millions of new fans coming into the sport, many people wonder, when and how did UFC start? How the UFC managed to rise so quickly?
The UFC emerged in 1993 and it hosted its initial combat sports event called “UFC 1” on November 12. The main idea was to organize style vs. style matchups without even basic rules to find out which martial art is the most effective one. Quite brutal and barbaric compared with what UFC is now, right?
Over the years, the UFC and its owners went through many ups and downs until the sport reached the mainstream levels. And in this article, we will bring you a chronological journey of its history, and how the company became the leader in the industry.
When Did UFC Start and How? (1993–1997)
The concept of legal freestyle combat existed long before the UFC. In fact, the initial UFC model was based on concepts such as Vale Tudo in Brazil established in the 1920s. The other one was Japanese MMA promotion such as “Shooto” in the mid-1980s. This is crucial to know as many fans think the UFC was the pioneer of the sport itself.
The story of the UFC and its concept of freestyle combat come from various concepts. But the main one was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, developed by the Gracie family in the 1920s, and their famous “Gracie Challenge”. In short, the challenge featured Gracie students competing against fighters from other styles such as wrestling, boxing, or Muay Thai in no holds barred matches. Their goal was to prove their system was the most effective one, which they did most of the time.
Later on, the Gracie family would focus on spreading the art of BJJ and their famous challenge in the US. One of the key figures at the time was Rorion Gracie who got in touch with business executive Art Davie and screenwriter John Millius.
The three had an idea of organizing the first-ever televised no-holds-barred elimination tournament. They would invite fighters from different martial arts, and let them compete against each other. The main goal: find out which martial art is the most practical.
The trio found 28 investors to support their idea with $250,000. The first major move came when they launched a “WOW” promotion and started searching for a TV deal. Then, they partnered with “SEG”, one of the pioneers of a pay-per-view format, to televise their show. And they also got an extra $450,000 in financial support to organize and promote the event.
As a creative director, Rorion Gracie and his team needed to come up with a unique fighting area. They needed a fighting area that would differ from other sports, and make the brand recognizable. Instead of using a boxing ring or wrestling pit, they needed something that won’t favor any style.
The final result was a raised platform with eight corners surrounded by chain-linked fences or walls called an “octagon”.
UFC history: The First UFC Event
The initial UFC 1 event was organized on November 12, 1993, in Denver, Colorado. This marks the beginning of the UFC, and MMA as a mainstream sport. The event was promoted as a real-life version of popular “street fighter” and “mortal combat” video games. Any fighter, trained in any martial art style, could come in and compete in an elimination tournament.
As in the game, there were no rules. Fighters fought without any gear, and there were no weight classes, time limits, illegal strikes, nothing. They fought until one of the fighters gets knocked out, submitted, or decides to give up. The referee didn’t even have the right to stop the match; it was the fighters’ corner responsible for doing so.
Royce Gracie, who represented BJJ and his family, shocked the world by winning the tournament and the $50,000 prize. Bear in mind Royce was around 178lbs at the time, and he faced and beat fighters like Gerard Gordeau and Ken Shamrock who were around 220 pounds.
The event was an instant success as it had 86,592 buys PPV buys, but it was clear as day this concept wasn’t going to last for long. It didn’t take long before governing bodies started raising questions about the safety of these events. In fact, 36 US states instantly banned this type of no holds barred fighting.
UFC History: Establishment of the Initial Rules (1996-2000)
Early UFC events were brutal and considered barbaric slugfests. It all reached the breaking point when Senator John McCain described the sport as “human cockfighting”. In fact, McCain went on to send a letter to all 50 UFC states with a request to ban the UFC events.
In order to be suitable for a broad audience and get legal acceptance, UFC needed to adopt serious changes. They needed to come up with rules and make the sport regulated as the interest began to decline.
The first major change came when Davie and Gracie sold their interest in the company. In response to the lack of interest and public backlash, the new UFC establishment decided to focus on coming up with a unique set of rules, and they made drastic changes. The following are some of the most important ones.
The UFC 12 marks the birth of the official weight classes. The initial concept had only two, lightweight (below 200 pounds) and heavyweight (above 200) pounds. Also, brutal techniques such as fish hooking were no longer legal, and the referees were given more rights.
Just two events later at UFC 14, open-fingered gloves became mandatory. This on its own boosted the fighters’ safety and the overall image of the sport. But what really made the sport safer was when they got rid of the kicks to the head of grounded opponents. Techniques such as soccer kicks or head stomps were no longer legal.
At the next, UFC 15, the promotion got rid of hair-pulling moves and strikes to the back of the head known as “rabbit punches”, headbutts, and the majority of other dirty tactics. And finally, one of the most important changes came at UFC 21 when the promotion adopted the concept of five-minute rounds.
Bear in mind the sport still had a notorious reputation. But at least it was moving in the right direction of making the UFC and MMA a legitimate sport.
However, what happened with the start of the new Millennium will change the world of combat sports forever.
Rise of the Sport and Major Breakthroughs
In the late 90s, the UFC continued to work on making the sport legal in the US. People like Big John McCarthy and Jeff Blatnick were among the key figures. They would travel across the country to educate the members of Athletic Commissions about the sport. Together, they worked on creating the rules, and this had a huge impact on the acceptance of MMA in the US.
But at the same time, the UFC hit the financial collapse, and this is where new investors spot the opportunity to come in.
UFC History: Zuffa Era and Unified Rules of MMA (2000–2005)
Arguably the biggest moment in UFC history came when the Fertitta brothers partnered with their close friend, Dana White, and decided to buy the UFC Company for $2 million through “Zuffa LLC”. On one side, the Fertitta’s had strong connections with Athletic Commissions. On the other, Dana White was doing a great job with being the face of the company and managing fighters’ contracts.
However, the sport itself needed to go through more drastic changes. Thus, the trio had made a crucial decision to invest all of their resources in making the sport legal and regulated first. In short, they were making long-term decisions and thinking three steps in advance. They wanted to improve the image of the sport, strengthen their brand, and in the long run, help it expand globally.
In the initial phase, Lorenzo Fertitta was the one who played a key role. He was a former member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. And he used all of the connections to make UFC events legal in Nevada and later in California.
The company also worked alongside the commission on codifying the rules, which led to the birth of the “Unified Rules of MMA”. The first one to accept these rules was the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board in September 2000, and other states would follow in the near future. Some of the key changes that came with the Unified rules were:
- Establishment of six weight classes for men
- Every round is 5 minutes long with a 1-minute break in between. Championship fights last 5 rounds.
- All fighters must wear competitive shorts, hand wraps, standardized gloves, mouthguards, and groin cup
- The matches could end via knockout, submission, decision, doctor’s stoppage, or disqualification
- The sport adopted the 10-point must scoring system from boxing
- Each match includes three judges sitting beside the cage and scoring the match utilizing strict criteria.
- Introduction of illegal strikes such as knees and kicks to the head of the grounded opponent, throat strikes, etc.
All of these changes had a positive impact on the raise of MMA in the US. The UFC was back in the pay-per-view format at the famous UFC 33 event which included three title fights.
But although things started to move in the right direction, the UFC still needed more visibility and a bigger audience to be able to financially survive. Just as Zuffa owners started thinking about selling the business, one brilliant idea would save it all.
UFC History: The Ultimate Fighter
During the early and mid-2000s, reality shows of all types were on the rise worldwide. This format was attracting massive audiences and viewership, and the UFC spotted this as a big opportunity. The creative directors came up with the idea to create a reality show called “The Ultimate Fighter”.
The show would feature young talents living in the same house and competing against each other for a six-figure contract. The main goal of the show was to bring the sport closer to the younger generation. Through showing fighters’ lives and how they train and prepare, the viewer’s got the chance to connect with their personalities, and learn more about the sport and what it takes to be an MMA athlete. Instead of seeing them as cavemen fighting inside the cage, they realized these are legitimate athletes. And the show was an instant success.
The ultimate moment was a wild brawl between Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonar in the season finale. To this day stands for one of the most exciting fights in MMA history that drew massive viewership. So much so that Dana White often says that the concept of the reality show was what saved the UFC in the long run.
UFC History: Acquisitions, New Divisions, and Women’s MMA (2005–2013)
During the mid-2000s, the UFC started expanding at a high rate and more and more money was coming in from various sources. This was also a time when their PPV sales started to skyrocket. For example, UFC 60 generated 620,000 buys while the next one, UFC 61, sold 775,000 buys.
This enabled the company to rise above the competition and establish a monopoly in the western market.
The acquisition of PRIDE FC
The UFC management wisely analyzed the Asian market. They focused on expanding further in the east where the competition was much tougher. They set their eyes on Japan and their leading promotion, PRIDE FC, which dominated the MMA industry for over a decade.
But with PRIDE hitting a financial storm in 2007, the UFC decided to invest a lot of resources into buying out Pride and all of its contracts and deals. Initially, they tried to negotiate a new TV deal for PRIDE with “Fuji TV”. But the reputation of Pride was destroyed to the point no TV network wanted to work with them anymore.
The only thing they could do was to buy the fighters out of their contracts. However, they also “bought” the entire Asian market which was crazy for the sport of MMA.
The acquisition of WEC and WFA
With so much money, the company started protecting its interests by buying smaller promotions. Instead of allowing them to rise, the UFC would buy them out and get plenty of talented fighters. Between 2010 and 2013, they acquired two major promotions:
- World Fighting Alliance
- World Extreme Cagefighting
Some of the fighters that came through these acquisitions were Jose Aldo, Demetrius Johnson, and Dominic Cruz. All of these fighters went on to become UFC champions and have successful careers.
This also led to UFC opening up a new, flyweight weight (2012) class in 2012. The division would be dominated by Demetrious Johnson who went on to win the inaugural title and defend it an amazing 11 times in a row.
Acquisition of Strikeforce
During those years they would buy and merge with Strikeforce in 2011, the second-best promotion at the time. Initially, they decided to operate two promotions separately. But since this didn’t play out well, they merged them into one. What the UFC also got from this deal was a roster of female MMA fighters.
Strikeforce was the first promotion to include women’s weight classes. In UFC’s eyes, Strikeforce roster included potential superstars like the Olympic Judo Bronze Medalist, Ronda Rousey. Upon acquisition, the UFC opened up a bantamweight division where Ronda instantly became a champion. In the same year (2013) they would add a strawweight division (115 lbs) while the flyweight and featherweight divisions came three years later in 2017.
All of a sudden, the UFC became the strongest MMA promotion in the world and the most recognizable brand in the industry.
By 2011–2013, the UFC already created a monopoly by buying out smaller promotions. They were leading the market and operating in their own league. However, the best was yet to come and the promotion was finally ready to hit the mainstream rise. They would land deals with the largest sports networks and invest heavily in promoting the fighters and each event.
UFC History: USADA and Fight Pass(2013–2020)
Up until 2013, the UFC was already raising at a high rate. They had solid TV deals with Fox Sports and aired events in two different formats. “Fight Nights” were reserved for low-mid level fighters while the biggest shows were aired in a PPV format.
However, the sport itself was still not recognized as a mainstream one, like NBA, or NFL. And in order to further improve its image, the company first made a partnership deal with the USADA anti-doping agency. Both sides have invested massive resources in testing the fighters, and keeping the sport clean which adds to the credibility of competition, and portrays fighters as real athletes, and MMA as a legitimate sport.
Apart from having big sponsors and TV deals, the company launched an online streaming platform called “UFC Fight Pass”. The platform serves both as a library where fans could watch all the previous fights and events on demand, and a streaming platform airing live events such as “Fight Night”.
UFC History: The Rise of Global Superstars
The UFC was operating smoothly. But they still needed that one athlete to make a huge mainstream breakthrough. An athlete that would rise above the sport itself like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Tom Brady did.
As a result, the UFC started investing a lot in promoting individual athletes with captivating personalities and exciting fighting styles that could contribute to the rise of the brand. In some way, they adopted WWE tactics in promoting stories, and rivalries, and creating a small reality show behind each major event. This is where the world witnessed a once-in-lifetime rise of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, which both elevated the entire sport to another, mainstream level.
These two fighters alone are responsible for bringing dozens of millions of new fans into the sport, and overall, changing the image of MMA. All of a sudden the UFC fighters are invited to the largest late-night talk shows and they got more space to express their personalities.
All of this ultimately led to UFC signing a deal with the biggest sports networks, which set the stage for something bigger that would come afterward.
UFC History: Sell-Out and Mainstream Rise
On July 9, 2016, UFC came out with the statement that the company would be sold to a WME-IMG group for $4 billion. At the time, this marked the biggest acquisition in sports history. Dana White decided to keep his 9% share in the company and remain president. Fertitta, on the other side, received a new role as the chairman and CEO. A year later, WME-IMG would be renamed Endeavor, and the revenue exploded in the following years.
The biggest moment came in May 2018, when the UFC signed a five-year deal with the largest sports network, ESPN. The contract was worth $300 million per year for digital and linear rights. This was almost double what UFC used to get from Fox Sports. ESPN got the full rights to air the biggest PPV events, as well as “Fight Nights” which changed the name to “UFC on ESPN+”. The collaboration was a huge success. Just a year later in 2019, they extended the existing contract for additional two years.
The ESPN deal has brought a lot of positive changes to the brand itself. The quality of production of each event has significantly improved for example. From utilizing 8k cameras, and various live graphics, to pre-fight and post-fight shows, the production became like in other mainstream sports such as NFL or NBA. Instead of focusing on sheer violence, they have taken a methodical, analytical, and scientific approach to portray the sport and athletes in the best way possible.
UFC history: Fight Island
In 2020, the world got hit by the Covid 19 pandemic, and the entire world stopped spinning for almost two years. All the events, regardless of the sport, including the Olympics, had to be stopped or postponed.
However, the world of MMA kept running. The UFC came up with an innovative solution how to keep the show running, and it was brilliant. For months, UFC events were the only sports show you can watch, not just in the US, but the entire world, and this has significantly boosted the rise of the revenue and brand.
When the pandemic hit the world, the UFC moved its business to Abu Dhabi. Their project “Fight Island” was actually located on an island called “Yas Marina” in Abu Dhabi. The island itself is isolated from the mainland, which was crucial in terms of preventing the disease from catching the fighters, their coaches, UFC personnel, and others involved in the project. Despite all the struggles, obstacles, and even criticism, the company managed to pull it off and it was a massive success.
UFC fighters and other employees were the only ones making money in the combat sports world for almost two years.
The UFC is the absolute leader in the MMA industry in every aspect of the business. They are the pioneers of modern MMA in the western world, and a brand synonymous with the sport, which is the ultimate point a company can reach from the marketing perspective. No one from their competitors can come even close to matching their PPV sales, revenue, the strength of the roster, and the brand itself. This gives the company a high negotiating power over its athletes. They have the freedom to dictate all of the terms and conditions, with the most going in their favor.
Although UFC is a well-established and successful company, the sport and the market demands are continuously changing and evolving. But if you look at the UFC’s history, what always enabled the company to rise above the rest was its ability to adapt to changes and evolve.