The UFC's rise to being one of the most popular sports on the planet has been nothing short of spectacular!
Founded in 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was designed to answer some age-old questions. Could a wrestler beat a boxer? Could a karate fighter beat a jiu jitsu expert? And how would a sumo wrestler fare in the world of combat sports?
Those questions were answered in brutal - and sometimes bloody - fashion as mixed martial arts became an outlawed sport across much of the United States, with senator John McCain famously branding it “human cock-fighting”. Media outlets made the most of the fact there were “no rules” – which wasn’t actually true – and an increasing number of pay-per-view carriers dropped the UFC due to pressure.
UFC 12 had to be moved from Buffalo to Dothan, Alabama after MMA was effectively banned by the state, and the company continue to haemorrhage cash as each event went by. In an attempt to stem the tide against mixed martial arts UFC bosses introduced weight classes, rounds and five minute time limits – as well as a number of other rules – but the promotion continued to lose money and in January 2001 parent company Semaphore Entertainment Group – on the brink of bankruptcy – sold up.
Step forward, Dana White and the Fertitta brothers. White persuaded the Las Vegas casino chiefs to spend $2million to buy the promotion in 2001 – although Lorenzo Fertitta later admitted all he wanted from the deal were the letters U, F and C.
“I had my attorneys tell me that I was crazy because I wasn't buying anything,” Fertitta told Fighter’s Only magazine. “I was paying $2million and they were saying 'What are you getting? And I said 'What you don't understand is I'm getting the most valuable thing that I could possibly have, which is those three letters: UFC. That is what's going to make this thing work. Everybody knows that brand, whether they like it or they don't like it, they react to it.'”
The UFC shifted its operations to Las Vegas – considered the fight capital of the world – and the trio of Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture began to lay the foundations for the success that has come since. Ortiz’s brash and outspoken antics earned him the attention of the mainstream media while Liddell’s devastating knockout power made him a fighter that could not be missed. Ken Shamrock – a star in the early days – returned to the company to reignite his rivalry with Ortiz and their UFC 40 bout reportedly kept the company afloat.
However, during their three-year ownership the Ferittas had lost in excess of $34million trying to kick-start the franchise and they were considering whether or not to part with the UFC when the opportunity for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality television series came around. TUF had a simple formula – a bunch of fighters move into a house together and compete for a six-figure contract with the UFC. The catch was, the UFC would have to pay $10million to produce the show.
The Fertitta’s decided to take the gamble and a deal was signed with the Spike TV station in the United States, but would the final roll of the dice be successful? The answer was a resounding ‘Yes’. TUF was an instant success and the epic final fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar has been hailed by UFC president White as the fight that saved the UFC. In fact, it was so important the two men were later inducted into the Hall of Fame in respect of what they did that night.
"This was our last $10 million," White told Yahoo Sport. "People say, 'Oh, TUF, it's just a reality show.' No. This was more than a reality show. Everything was on the line. The way Lorenzo puts it, it's like you're out gambling and you've gotten your ass kicked all night and then you get everything you saved and everything you have and you put it up on the table and you tell them to cut the cards. That's what it was!"
The Ultimate Fighter became a permanent fixture on Spike TV and the season three success of Michael Bisping – who would become the first British fighter to hold a UFC title – helped catapult the sport into the public eye in the United Kingdom. Events in the UK would become regular occurrences and as the years went on the UFC would host events across the United States and the glove – a makeshift stadium was built in Abu Dhabi for one card.
In 2011 the UFC inked a seven-year deal with broadcasting giants FOX Sports and the first ever fight on the network made history as it became the most watched combat sports event since Lennox Lewis defended the world heavyweight boxing championship against Vitali Klitschko in 2003.
The UFC was on a roll, buying up other promotions to sign the best talent available and in the likes of Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar they had fighters that would smash all sorts of records – from gate receipts to television ratings to pay-per-view buy rates.
And in March 2016 the company finally made the breakthrough it had been fighting for ever since UFC 12. New York became the 50th US state to legalise mixed martial arts and it was soon announced that the first ever MMA card at Madison Square Garden would be held on November 12. The hottest ticket in town offered the most spectacular card in UFC history and represented the moment the UFC was truly a mainstream sport that could go where it wanted when it wanted.
But before that epic night, the Fertitta brothers called time on their reign over the sport. In July of 2016 parent company ZUFFA announced it had sold the company to talent agency WME-IMG for a staggering $4billion - not a bad profit on a $2million purchase, even with those losses in the early days. White would stick around as president and the question was what was next for the UFC?
More growth we expect, and as the UFC and the sport of MMA continues to reach more and more people the bookmakers are offering more and more to its punters. At one time you could only find a handful of markets to bet on for the big fights, but now the bookies are queuing up with a whole hosts of betting markets and special promotions - even for the undercard!
Bettingpro.com has it all covered, offering exclusive UFC tips and giving you a rundown of key bookmaker promotions. And if you want our expert UFC tips & betting advice sent directly to your inbox, sign up for the Bettingpro.com newsletter below!