Last year marked the 25th Anniversary of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
What once started as a no-holds barred cage fighting tournament, has grown and evolved into one of the largest sporting promotions in the world.
What’s more, the mainstream popularity of the UFC has provided increased interest in mixed martial arts (MMA), with more and more fans around the world looking to take up the sport.
Today, we’re going to take a look at exactly how the UFC went from a $2,000,000 investment, into a company worth over $4 Billion in the space of 25 years.
What is the UFC?
But first, what exactly is the UFC?
The UFC is a mixed martial arts promotion, hosting a roster of the worlds most elite fighters.
Both men and women are signed by the UFC across a number of weight classes, ranging from Strawweight (106lbs) to Heavyweight (265lbs).
Fighters compete to make their way up the UFC official rankings. Once high enough to be deemed worthy of a title shot, a fighter can compete against the current Champion in an attempt to become Champion themselves.
Below is a timeline of some of the most noteworthy milestones and events that have taken place over the UFC’s 25-year history.
12th November 1993 – First UFC Event is Held.
The first ever UFC event was held by Rorion Gracie and Art Davie. Rorion Gracie was a renowned BJJ practitioner and member of the Gracie family; the founders of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
The Gracie’s had become famous in Brazil for their Gracie challenge. They would accept fights against anyone from any discipline, with the aim of demonstrating BJJ’s abilities against different martial arts.
His partner, Art Davie was an advertising executive and producer. The two of them decided to create the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where martial artists of different sizes and disciplines would fight inside a cage. The event took place on the 12th of November 1993, and was broadcast live and also released on home video.
UFC 1 was extremely different to the UFC we see today, with no weight classes, no rounds and no judges. Rules were also scarce, with biting and eye gouging being the only moves made illegal.
You can watch UFC 1’s final fight below.
17th November 2000 – Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts Implemented
Over time, the UFC was coming under public backlash for its’ extremity, with US politician John McCain dubbing it ‘human cockfighting’.
In order to overcome the ‘brutish’ image that the UFC was becoming associated with, they decided to implement the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.
These rules put in place weight classes and forced the fighters to wear gloves. No groin strikes and certain knee strikes on the ground were also banned in order to help curb the pressure on the UFC.
Due to these changes, UFC events became tame in the eyes of fans, who were used to paying for violence, which had been massively dulled down.
1st January 2001 – Zuffa LLC Buys UFC for $2,000,000
On the 1st January 2001, two brothers, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, formed Zuffa LLC and bought the UFC for $2,000,000. They appointed their high school friend, Dana White as president of the company.
This marks an important turning point for the UFC, as the new owners aimed to change the promotion’s image from spectacle to sport.
23rd February 2001 – UFC 30 (First Event Under Zuffa LLC)
UFC 30 took place on the 23rd of February 2001, which was the first event to take place under the new ownership.
Not much had changed at this point, as the new owners and president were settling in to their roles.
Shortly after the event, the Fertitta brothers and Dana White began the process of being sanction in Nevada to host an event. For many years, Las Vegas had been the home to live combat sports of the highest level.
Their aim was to introduce the UFC into this arena, which would then associate MMA with the likes of boxing, which at the time, was very much the mainstream combat sport.
28th September 2001 – First UFC Event in Las Vegas
These days, Vegas is home to the UFC. Their headquarters are located there, they film their ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ show there and the most star-packed events take place there.
This all stemmed from UFC 33, which was the first event to take place in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, this was one of the worst events the UFC had seen.
All 5 fights on the main card were won by decision, without a single finish taking place. Fans had become accustomed to seeing fast paced, quick knock outs, which was most definitely not the case.
To this day, Dana White deems UFC 33 as one of the worst events to have taken place.
2004 – Fertitta Brothers Accumulated $44million investment over 3 years
Understandably, the new owners of the UFC were concerned about their hefty investment. $44million had been spent attempting to re-brand and push the UFC into the main stream.
While it did succeed to a certain extent, it was nowhere near enough to break even on their investment.
It’s worth noting that at this point, stars were starting to break out such as Chuck Liddell, a current UFC Hall of Famer and one of the first big names to be born out of the UFC.
Dana White, the companies’ president found someone willing to buy out the Fertitta brothers for $4million, meaning they would have lost around $40million over a 3-year period.
Instead of facing this loss, the brothers doubled down and invested a further $10million in the form of the wildly popular “The Ultimate Fighter” (TUF) series, which would go on to run for 28 seasons.
17th January 2005 – The Ultimate Fighter Airs on Spike
The Ultimate Fighter was a reality show that followed the lives of mixed martial artists, as they live, train and compete with one another to obtain a highly coveted 6-figure contract with the UFC.
The contestants were split into two teams, with well known UFC fighters taking up the role of coaches. In the case of season 1, it was Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture (two of the biggest names on the roster), that were named as coaches.
The first episode aired on the 17th January 2005 on Spike.
16th April 2005 – UFC 52
5 days after the TUF Finale, UFC 52 rolled around.
This marked a new turning point for the UFC. Fans of the Ultimate Fighter saw the coaches, Liddell and Couture, go head to head for the Light Heavy Weight Championship.
The epic main event, paired with the popularity of the “Ultimate Fighter” show made this the highest grossing UFC event to have taken place. 280,000 people bought the event on Pay-Per-View (PPV) and it generated a record setting $2,575,450 in ticket sales.
Thanks to the Ultimate Fighter, the UFC was starting to see some serious returns on its investment.
11th December 2006 – Zuffa LLC Buys World Extreme Cage fighting (WEC)
11th December 2006 also marks an important date for the UFC. This was the day that they announced that the UFC’s parent company (Zuffa LLC) was to acquire the World Extreme Cage Fighting (WEC).
While WEC ran independently for a number of years, the UFC was absent of lighter weight classes such as featherweight and bantam weight. In 2011, they announced that they were to merge with WEC, and incorporate their lighter weight classes into the UFC.
With this merger came José Aldo, a Brazilian Featherweight Champion who had been undefeated for a number of years. Aldo brought with him a huge Brazilian fan base and continued his undefeated run until 2015.
30th December 2006 – UFC 66
As time passed, the UFC continued to gain traction, with UFC 66 being the first ever non-boxing event to sell more than 1million PPV buys. The main card featured a clash between two of the biggest name’s in the sport – Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.
This was also partly due to the rivalry between the two famous fighters, who had previously fought 2-years earlier, with Liddell again being the victor.
27th March 2007 – UFC Purchases Pride Fighting Championship
After the success of purchasing the WEC, the UFC then sort to buy out another competitor. On the 27th March 2007, it was announced that Zuffa LLC was to purchase Pride Fighting Championship.
This was the second time in which Zuffa LLC had bought out a competitor, and this would definitely not be the last.
12th March 2011 – UFC Purchases Strike Force
Strike Force was an American MMA and Kickboxing league, similar to that of the UFC (but on a smaller scale). On the 12th of March 2011, Dana White (UFC President) announced that Zuffa LLC had purchased Strike Force.
Originally, plans were made for Strike Force to continue running independently, however as of January 2013, the company was dissolved.
This allowed the UFC to sign world class fighters who had previously being contracted to Strike Force, such as Nick Diaz, Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson (all of which brought with them a large fan base to the UFC).
It’s worth noting that UFC have since come under some criticism for this approach. Many people have a distaste of the UFC for using their wealth and market share to buyout smaller competitors and merge them with their brand.
18th August 2011 – UFC Make Broadcasting Deal with Fox
Having broadcasted their shows with Spike since the birth of the Ultimate Fighter, the UFC signed a 7-year broadcast deal with Fox Sports.
This allowed the UFC to be exposed to a far larger audience, and allowed their events to be more easily watched and reach the mainstream.
1st July 2015 – UFC Announces United States Anti-Doping Agency Programme
Up until July 2015, very little in terms of drug testing and anti-doping had been done. It was somewhat excepted that most fighters on the roster were using performance enhancing drugs.
In fact, some of these same fighters are still in the UFC today, but with greatly different physiques.
In order to further legitimise MMA as a sport, and the UFC as it’s main promoter, they announced they would be working with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
This meant that the fighters would be subject to random drug tests and face fines as well as bans, if they are to be found with performance enhancing drugs in their system.
11th July 2016 – Zuffa LLC Sells UFC for $4.2 Billion
On the 11th July 2016, it was announced that Zuffa LLC was to sell its majority share in the UFC for $4.2billion to Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG. This is the most expensive ever sale of an organisation in sporting history.
Dana White was to stay on as president of the company and continues his roll to date.
26th August 2017 – UFC Cross Promote Boxing Fight – McGregor Vs Mayweather
For the first time ever, the UFC announced it would cross promote a boxing fight between their biggest star, Conor McGregor and world famous boxer, Floyd Mayweather.
This became known as the ‘Money Fight’ and went on to sell over 4 million PPV buys, the second largest in sporting history (second to Mayweather vs Pacquiao, which did 4.7million).
8th May 2018 – UFC Signs Broadcasting Deal with ESPN
On the 8th May 2018, the UFC announced that they were signing a $750million, 5-year broadcasting deal with ESPN.
This has allowed the UFC to be easily watched by casual sporting fans, who prior to this, would not have been exposed to the UFC’s marketing efforts.
19th January 2019 – First UFC Show on ESPN
The first UFC event took place on ESPN on the 19th January 2019. On the Friday and Saturday leading up the event, ESPN saw 568,000 new subscribers to their ESPN+ platform.
This shows how mutually beneficial a move this deal was. The UFC get exposure to more sports fans, whilst ESPN is able to capitalise on the existing fan base the UFC has to offer.
Highest Grossing UFC PPV Events
At the end of the day, the UFC’s a business, and with that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at some of their highest Pay-Per-View (PPV) events.
- UFC 229 – Conor McGregor Vs Khabib Nurmagomedov – 2,400,000 PPV buys
- UFC 202 – Conor McGregor Vs Nate Diaz 2 – 1,650,000 PPV buys
- UFC 100 – Brock Lesnar Vs Frank Mir – 1,600,000 PPV buys
- UFC 196 – Conor McGregor Vs Nate Diaz – 1,500,000 PPV buys
- UFC 205 – Conor McGregor Vs Eddie Alvarez – 1,300,000 PPV Buys
It’s interesting to see that 4 out of the 5 highest earning UFC events feature Conor McGregor, who has clearly become the UFC’s cash cow over recent years.
Note, this is not including the cross-promotion boxing event that took place between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather in 2017, which generated 4,300,000 PPV buys.
While it’s definitely been a turbulent ride for the UFC, there’s no denying that they’ve succeeded in their goal of becoming one of, if not the largest combat sports corporation in the world.
It will be interesting to see if they are able to continue this upward trend going forward, especially considering the recent $4billion purchase that took place just a few years ago.