A short time ago, though, the UFC was barely wanted in its own home country, and even its Zuffa ownership group had looked into possibly unloading the underperforming asset.
It was a company in crisis, until one match changed everything. On April 9, 2005 -- five years ago today -- Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin altered the fortunes of an entire sport.
Going into the debut season of The Ultimate Fighter, the competing fighters and people who worked on it were all of varying opinions. Some of them thought the show would be a hit, some wondered if it would ever air at all, and others had no clue what its fate would be.
When the fighters walked into the house for the first time, the format wasn't even yet complete. They'd ask questions but wouldn't always get straight answers. Would there be a fight every episode? Would rounds be five minutes as usual, or three minutes because they were considered exhibitions? Would they be paid for the fights? Decisions were being made on the fly.
Prior to production, the UFC had shopped the show around for a while until finding a broadcast home on Spike. The decision, however, was helped along by the promotion's offer to pay production costs to the tune of around $10 million.
When it debuted in January, the ratings were strong, with 1.7 million viewers tuning into the first episode despite an 11PM ET airtime.
Season one coach Chuck Liddell recently told me that he felt the effects of the show right out of the gate. In the past, he said he'd always been able to recognize his fans by what they were wearing -- maybe a TapouT shirt or a hat with a UFC logo. But all of the sudden, he was having people from different demographics come up to request a photo, an autograph, or just talk about the most recent episode.
As usual though, the mainstream media was slow to jump on board. But they weren't the only ones; even the UFC's broadcast partner was hesitant about the future potential of the show. Because of a management shakeup at Spike, the cable company would not commit to anything past that first season despite the strong ratings.
In an effort to broker an extension, UFC President Dana White had been traveling back and forth to Spike's New York office, but due to the chaos in the office at the time, he was suddenly persona non grata.
"They went radio silent," White said in a 2008 interview. "People were hiding in their f---ing cubicles because everyone thought they were going to get fired over there. I'm flying out there, sitting in the lobby for hours. They didn't want to see me. They wouldn't even meet with me."
By the time the finale rolled around in early April, Bonnar and Griffin were the last two men standing in the light-heavyweight class. Both had interesting back stories. Griffin was a police officer who was debating the possibility of attending law school when he quit his job to move to Las Vegas and take part in the show. Bonnar was in graduate school when he did the same. But no one cared about their histories at fight time.
For 15 minutes, the two went toe to toe in a slugfest with a frantic pace. Every time one would score with a well-placed strike, the other would answer back. There was rarely a moment without action where the two could recover and the audience could catch its collective breath. There was a six-figure contract on the line, but the two fought almost as if their lives were at stake. Throughout the bout, the audience continually took to their feet to offer encouragement and a series of standing ovations.
In the midst of the struggle, the fighters were mostly oblivious to what was so obvious to the rest of us: they were staging a classic. Bonnar was so focused on the task at hand that when the third round ended and Griffin moved forward to congratulate him for the effort, Bonnar tried to push him away, aware that a draw on the judges' scorecards would necessitate a fourth and decisive round.
In fact, it was over, and the crowd exploded in appreciation of the effort that showcased MMA's blue-collar work ethic and working-class grit. At its end, Bonnar was cut on the left eyebrow while Griffin was bleeding on the bridge of the nose and under his left eye. They were both worn out and beat up, and the audience was breathless in its exhilaration.
When the score was read, announcing Griffin the winner, a devastated Bonnar fell to the mat. Moments later, White would make things right, promising both Griffin and Bonnar UFC contracts.
Among the 2,950 audience members at the Cox Pavilion that night were members of the new executive team from Spike, and so enthralled were they with the action of the fight and the reaction of the crowd that immediately afterward, they walked with White into a back alley behind the arena to hammer out the basic parameters of a new, two-year deal.
The rest of the media industry took notice when ratings information was released that indicated an average of 2.6 million viewers watched the event, with 3.3 million tuning in live to the Bonnar-Griffin bout. The figures represented a huge number for a cable sports event. USA Today ran a lengthy feature on the company the next day, and the UFC was off to the races.
So highly regarded is the fight and its place in MMA lore that most people do not recall that it was not even the night's main event. Those honors went to Rich Franklin and Ken Shamrock. Bonnar-Griffin overshadowed the entire event, then for the visceral reaction it caused, and now for its historical importance. In many ways, much of the success of today's UFC and the future growth of MMA is directly attributable to that match. Five years ago, the day began with a fledgling sport fighting for its very existence, and due to the efforts of two men, it ended with MMA as one of the hottest properties not only in TV, but in American pop culture.
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