The UFC’s history can be broken into four epochs that are all as different from one another as Jens Pulvers eyes: The Spectacle, The Dark Ages, The Reimagining and -- finally, after many millions of dollars and blind lunatic faith -- The Sport.
The earliest ideas were right in spirit but brutal in everything else. It was conjured from shrewd minds that decided to act on the eternal fight game question: What happens when a boxer fights a karate expert? What happens when a sambo player takes on a judoka. What happens when Bruce Lee crosses Dan Gable, or Mike Tyson faces Chuck Norris? Can Mortal Kombat be a thing of creative nonfiction, if done correctly?
Finally, right before things like "The Internet" began to harvest us, somebody decided to find out. Or, somebodies. It was the curious collective of Rorion Gracie, Bob Meyrowitz, producer Campbell McLaren and Art Davie who imagined the first fight game hotpot. Violence? Violence! They discussed moats and electric fences and barbed wire but settled on simple chain links in which to confine participants.
Naturally Colorado -- my native state -- was the first to house the UFC back in 1993. The reason being: the Centennial State had a loophole that allowed for bare-knuckle combat without all the red tape. It was the old West. Leadville still had whisky on its breath. The Manassa Mauler (Jack Dempsey) came from the mines, and Sonny Liston -- who said he’d "rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia" -- cast a big shadow throughout the city. The Sabaki Challenge was an underground effort that for years prepared the Mile High City for the "Octagon," a name chosen for its ominous ring (and its ominous associations to a 1980 Chuck Norris movie of the same name). Well before then, though, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, late-night television was littered with commercials that showed the crude, insane footage of Sabaki.
We never flinched. "Vale Tudo" felt more like an uppity red wine than anything to balk at.
The first UFC was a combat medley dreamed up in April of 1993 as most likely a one-off, something that should never have had legs to reach 1994, much less something as ridiculous as a 20-year mark. It was a spectacle, ran courageously as a spectacle, in which flirtations of death were the entire romance. It was 10 notches to the extreme of the grim trade of boxing -- two men enter, and one man leaves. (This, of course, was always a baloney. The game was never without a referee, even in the gruesome beginning. Always three men left).
But it went on and it went on. The skinny Royce Gracie emerged as a soothing presence in the land of mustached beef and muscle. Through its crudest smoke Gracie’s poise and refinement rearranged our perception of what works in fighting. Already, perceptions were being changed.
Yet right before the turn of the century, the UFC was literally being tamped out into extinction. The old promos that proudly got behind its bloodsport were now only appealing to a basement niche with single naked light bulbs. Politicians, led by senator John McCain, were scrubbing it with sanitizer. Cable providers, which houses the pay-per-views, shut the UFC out. New York, which is liberal in everything other than hybrid fighting (liberal even in piecemeal fighting), all but booted the UFC from Niagara Falls (and from everywhere) back in 1997.
That was a bad moment. Not only did it send the UFC off to backwater Alabama on the last fight out, but other states, cities, vocal leaders and herded cattle followed suit in blacklisting the UFC. The vogue at the turn of the century was to pinch your nose at "human cockfighting."
That’s why, in the year 2000, the UFC was more synonymous with the courtroom than it was the Octagon. Meyrowitz was tied to a dying animal. The spectacle was in its Dark Ages, and should have petered out. It was like MMA’s e era of Prohibition, only it happened just a dozen freaking years ago when Technicolor TV was already a thing and Destiny’s Child was cranking out hits.
Then…well, then you know the rest. Things turned around. It’s like a momentous blur.
It was the Fertittas and Dana White, the Italian name Zuffa chosen at random, a fed-up Meyrowitz selling the dying franchise for a song (two million bucks)…Atlantic City, Donald Trump with his olive branch, Las Vegas, the construction of the unified rules, the thud of UFC 33…Bruce Buffer, Joe Rogan, indoor pyrotechnics, baby steps to sanctioning, Chuck Liddell and his Matrix tattoo down the side of his Hun-like head…Randy Couture, B.J. Penn, Pulver, The Best Damn Sports Show, Ken Shamrock getting busted up by Tito Ortiz once, twice, thrice…Big John, TUF staked on $10 million of the UFC’s own bleeding bank, and that crazy cast of spritzing wallbangers…Koscheck, Leben, the cult of Jason Thacker, the "do you want to be a f---ing fighter" speech, into Forrest-Bonnar and a fight on free TV, the ridiculous roulette and a million new eyes…further TUFs, Georges St-Pierre, Matt Hughes, Matt Serra, Anderson Silva, the purchase of Pride, the purchase of the WEC and IFL and all fight game acronyms…Marc Ratner breaking into new frontiers, UFC 100, Dana White threatening to jump off the roof of Mandalay Bay with record buy rates…the "don’t leave it in the hands of the judges" maxim…Canada, Toronto, 55,000 people in Maple Leaf blue hues…Australia, sheiks in Abu Dhabi, England, Ireland…fight night media scrums, Lorenzo Fertitta like a silver sphinx and Dana more and more audacious, Brazil, Versus…then FOX, mainstream press, the shrinking of Kenny Florian through the weight classes, followed by the rise of Kenny Florian[‘s hair] as a broadcaster…Cain Velasquez, the lighter weight classes, Edgar, Aldo, Cruz, Barao, flyweights, then the women, Rousey, Tate…Chael Sonnen out of left freaking field, Buffer on magazine covers like James Bond, Jon Jones and Nike and Gatorade and world tours and the brightest spotlights.
It doesn’t make complete sense, the UFC’s trajectory. The thing was built-up, torn down, rebuilt, recast and legitimized, and now it’s casually in the net worth ballpark of "two billion dollars," according to the reticent Lorenzo Fertitta. Given that it was created and bottled to be a civilization-decaying spectacle, it’s crazy to even write this: In 2013, the UFC is on broadcast television. It is the flagship of FOX Sports 1. We are seeing promos for TUF during the World Series. Jon Jones is wearing the Nike Swoosh.
Jon Jones has his own shoe in a sport that goes barefoot.
If there’s been one constant for the last 20 years, it has been hyperbole. Each fight card is a clean slate of enthusiasm. Illusion has stayed in business as long as regrets. But it’s not illusion nor hyperbole to use Dana White’s running mantra for the last decade: MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world. Given the ashes it rose from, this is a fact.
So, to commemorate 20 years of UFC, this is a countdown to 1993. I’ll work backwards beginning with this long-winded introduction in our present year of 2013. Better to start with these lush times, and head backwards into the wilderness of Rome.
These 20 entries, spread over 20 days leading up to UFC 167 on Nov. 16, will not be comprehensive, as I’m more of a quirkist than a biographer. But I’ll try to hit on key points, of which there are so many to choose from.