Welcome to the octagon: the remarkable rise of UFC to a $7bn brand
How a company once known for extreme violence and novelty fights became a global sports superpower
“You’re about to see something you have never seen before,” promised Bill Wallace, a karate champion turned commentator, introducing the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship event, on November 12, 1993, in Denver, Colorado.
The concept was a simple one – to pitch specialists in different martial arts, such as sumo, jiu jitsu, boxing and taekwondo, against each other to find out which discipline would come out on top.
There were no weight classes, no judges, bare knuckles and barely any rules.
“Just no groin shots, no eye gouges, no biting,” Wallace explained. “Everything else is okay.”
Within minutes, it was clear he had not been exaggerating.
Just no groin shots, no eye gouges, no biting. Everything else is okay
Bill Wallace, speaking at UFC 1 in 1993
The first bout saw Gerard Gordeau, a savate specialist, take on a Hawaiian sumo wrestler, Teila Tuli, almost twice his weight. Within 20 seconds, Tuli’s face was on the receiving end of a savage roundhouse kick, delivered as he sat on the canvas. One tooth flew into the audience, two others were found embedded in his opponent’s foot. Gordeau broke his own hand with a follow-up punch.
Art Jimmerson, a boxer, was so confident of victory that he entered his bare-knuckled fight wearing one glove, an effort to protect his hand for future contests. He lasted two minutes and 18 seconds, the second-longest fight of the night.
It was violent and chaotic – Wallace even got the UFC’s name wrong, calling it the Ultimate Fighting Challenge. But it was also a hit. A pay-per-view provider had been persuaded to screen the event in the United States, an executive attracted to the idea of a “real life Mortal Kombat,” in reference to the popular early '90s beat ‘em up video game.
The 86,000 pay-per-view buys far exceeded expectations and almost 8,000 turned up to watch in person.
Royce Gracie, a Brazilian jiu jitsu fighter who won the eight-man tournament and later became a legendary figure in the sport, said he would spend his $50,000 (Dh184,000) prize money on a trip to Disneyland.
A quarter of a century later, last October’s contest between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor attracted 2.4 million pay per view buys with the fighters making a guaranteed $5m (Dh18.4m) between them. The publicly-disclosed pay cheques do not include a share of pay-per-view revenues and other bonuses, with McGregor, one of the world’s most marketable athletes, claiming he expected to make $50m (Dh184m) from the fight in total.
But UFC’s rise from humble beginnings to global powerhouse was not a smooth one.
While the success of the first event ensured more followed, the brand soon developed a reputation for ultra-violence, leaving it shunned by the mainstream. John McCain, the US senator and future presidential nominee, branded it “human cockfighting” and led a campaign to ban it.
The controversy led to new rules, meaning the end to hair pulling, headbutts and kicks to the head of a downed opponent of the type that cost Tuli his teeth. Weight classes and padded gloves were introduced in 1997. The tournament format was phased out, meaning competitors would only fight once in a night.
But when the company was bought in 2001, for $2m (Dh7.35m), by the newly-formed Zuffa group, few predicted a bright future. Among those to see the potential was Dana White, viewed as the key figure behind UFC’s transformation, who became president, a position he holds to this day.
There was this moment where the business was not growing after years of investing, and nobody saw this light at the end of the tunnel
Lawrence Epstein on UFC's near collapse in the mid-2000s
“It was certainly close,” Lawrence Epstein, who has been involved in the UFC since the 2001 takeover and is now chief operating officer, told The National, reflecting on how close the company had come to going bust in the early to mid-2000s.
“There was this moment where the business was not growing after years of investing, and nobody saw this light at the end of the tunnel.”
Slowly, mainstream attention returned, and the successful UFC 40 show in 2002 is now seen as a major turning point. By 2006, an event attracted more than one million pay per view buys, the brand buoyed by a popular crossover into reality TV, with The Ultimate Fighter, which saw young hopefuls live together while they competed for a UFC contract.
It was that TV show, launched in 2005, that “ultimately changed everything”, Epstein said. “If you look at any chart, whether it’s revenues, social media following, fanbase, or ratings, you’ll see this inflection point, where the sport and the brand really took off. That inflection point was The Ultimate Fighter. Up to that point, there was serious consideration to saying ‘we tried, we did the best we could, but it just didn’t work out’.”
The Ultimate Fighter has run for almost 30 seasons later, and the fans keep coming.
“It was great to see that test of different styles at the beginning,” said fan Hakim Shaheed, originally from New York, who travelled to Abu Dhabi from his home in Bahrain for Saturday’s fight. The long-term UFC fan, 37, was among the hundreds that turned out for the open workouts at Yas Mall on Wednesday.
“But we soon got the answer, we found out that there isn’t one discipline that is completely dominant. What has evolved is the style that mixes them all and it’s really interesting. At the same time, there’s a great cast of characters, there’s hype and you can cheer on your countrymen.”
Philippe Salameh, who has travelled from Beirut, agreed that the fighting style of modern MMA, now seen as a sporting discipline in its own right with an extensive rule book and, potentially, a future as an Olympic sport, had been key to its popularity.
“The UFC has changed a lot, and for the better,” the 27-year-old said. “It’s now about combining all these different martial arts together, from wrestling to boxing.”
The ripped physiques on show from each of the competitors at the Yas workout, in contrast to the rag-tag group assembled in Colorado, was testament to how much the UFC has changed.
In 2016, the UFC was sold again, this time for $4 billion (Dh14.7bn). White, last year, claimed the UFC’s value had risen to $7bn (Dh25.7bn) on the back of a lucrative TV deal with ESPN. The promotion’s eye for making money was illustrated further on Wednesday, with fans queuing up to buy replicas of Nurmagomedov’s trademark papakha hats for Dh550 each.
UFC 242 will become the promotions 492nd event, and millions of eyes across the world will be transfixed the UFC’s now famous Octagon, described as “a little different to a normal boxing ring…more like a pit” in that inaugural broadcast. Although it is now seen as an arena for elite competition, its design had been inspired by a scene from Conan the Barbarian.
Reflecting on those early shows ahead of Saturday’s mega show, which the UFC expects to be one its biggest ever in terms of pay-per-view revenue, Epstein said they can barely be compared to the event that will be beamed across the globe from Abu Dhabi.
“That early product was spectacle, it wasn’t necessarily sport,” Epstein, who has worked full time for the company for 12 years, said. “Over time, the sport has grown and that spectacle part of it has gone away.
“That happened for a variety of reasons. When you go back to 1993, the previous owners had a strategy of running away from regulation. In fact, that’s the reason they did the first event in Denver, Colorado, because at the time Colorado did not have an athletic commission that would have regulated a sport like this.
“When we bought the company in 2001, our strategy was the exact opposite. We ran towards regulation, because we felt that was the key structure we needed to put in place to legitimise the sport and take it to the mainstream.
“The second thing was the athletes. They took all of the martial arts and put them together, and used what are called the unified rules of mixed martial arts, to really create the sport. Those were the two big things that took this from spectacle to sport.”
Updated: September 6, 2019 03:51 AM