Until the sport of mixed martial arts became a thing, there really wasn’t any real world showcases of martial arts for the mainstream public to care about. We watch fight choreography in action movies, knowing full well that the context of those fight situations are about as realistic as the times when people break into spontaneous dance in musicals. We know there’s people in real life trained in effective fighting, whether it’s people in the military or the police or other professions involving the risk of physical combat. Some of us might even have trained or are training in martial arts as part of our own lives. But the fact of the matter is, martial arts was not part of our mainstream, and despite all the influence of movie stars like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris and a handful of others, martial arts remained a small niche of our culture.
The UFC was the first organization in the world to really bring martial arts to the world through athletic competition and sports entertainment. Many people — and I’m guessing we can count Meryl Streep among them… — find MMA to be a repulsive sport, and these sentiments have certainly been around since the very beginning. Back in the 90s when the UFC first began, John McCain (yes, the John McCain) fought tenaciously to ban the sport altogether in the United States, and he succeeded to a large extent and forced many of the earlier UFC events to be held in Brazil.
In this first decade of its existence, the UFC was admittedly a bit of a disaster. There were far less rules, far less regulations to how people fought, and aesthetically it actually did look a bit like bloodsport. Matches were untimed and there were no weight classes. The only ways a match would end would either be a knockout, a tapout (which is when a fighter surrenders, almost invariably due being positioned in an inescapable submission), or a stoppage by either the referee or by the fighter’s corner throwing in a white towel. There was no defined uniform for fighters either. Some fought wearing shoes, some didn’t wear gloves, there were no rules that prevented fighters from stomping fallen opponents on the head. To add to it all, the fights were organized as tournaments, which meant that winners would keep fighting in the same event at a later matchup. It actually was brutal to an extent where I could see where the objections could be justified
When Dana White and the Fertittas bought the UFC in 2001 for what in hindsight was a mere $2 million, it was called at the time the most ridiculously overpriced purchase in the history of American sports. The UFC had no infrastructure. It owned no stadiums, no teams, no fighters, no contracts, no regular staff on payroll, nothing. The UFC up to that point was literally just a group of event professionals producing one-off martial arts matches. So, as off his rocker as Dana White comes across in interviews these days, you really gotta give him credit for his business acumen and his abilities to promote. He bought a company when it quite literally had nothing, and worked 15 years to turn it into a $4 billion brand.
The UFC is one of those promotions that have historically never had seasons. Even now, it doesn’t work the way leagues like the NBA or the NFL does, where there’s a season of matches and then it’s off the rest of the year. The UFC has always had matches yearround, about once a month for the numbered pay-per-view events, and once a week for the lesser events like Fight Nights that can be watched for free on FOX or FX. But keeping this in mind, the first year of buying the UFC back in 2001, the Fertittas and Dana White produced financial disaster after financial disaster in terms of matches for the first whole year, sinking in more money than the $2 million that they bought this entire brand for just a year earlier. With the strings the Fertittas were able to pull in Las Vegas as casino owners, the UFC was kept alive and broadcasting, but nothing really came of the brand for that first year. Nothing, until the one event that was UFC 40.
The UFC names its events chronologically. The first matchup ever back in 1993 was UFC 1, then UFC 2, UFC 3, and so on up to now UFC 209. With that, you get the context that UFC 40 was forty failed attempts later at producing a successful event, the UFC finally created a hit. It was November 22nd, 2002. The venue, MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Two championships titles were on the line. The main event of the evening, a Light Heavyweight Title Bout, brought back an early UFC legend who’s been in retirement for a good 7 years prior to this event. It was promoted to the point of being the most anticipated fight in UFC history by all the original fans of the UFC, and the buzz even caught on for the very first time in mixed martial arts, to be featured on ESPN. The fight sold out the MGM, a feat previously unheard of for the UFC in any arena much less such a premier one. Over 100,000 people watched the fight on PPV, triple the usual buyrate of any UFC event up to this point (today, a successful fight gets more along the lines of 1.5m PPV buys) The fights themselves by the way, made UFC 40 still to this day, one of the greatest UFC events in the league’s history. Every single fight ending in a knockout or a submission; not a single fight went to the judges.
To this day, Dana White still attributes UFC 40 to being the most important moment in all of UFC history. If this event didn’t succeed, he says that himself and the Fertittas would probably have cut their losses and quit the venture altogether. The event gave a glitter of hope to a sport that had failed 39 times in 8 years, and put the UFC on the trajectory of incredible growth it has been on for the past decade. With its recent purchase by entertainment giant WME and its recent stars like Conor McGregor and the undeniable legacy of Ronda Rousey, the UFC and mixed martial arts has already overtaken boxing as the most watched combat sport in America. It has brought martial arts to the world in a way nobody ever has in the thousands of years martial arts has existed in human society, and it has created a new league of professional athletes who represent all corners of the globe.
See you at the next exploration!