It's only natural the UFC's 20th anniversary has led to a lot of nostalgic looks at an organization that changed the perception of what fighting is, first in the United States and Canada, and later across many parts of the world.
In 1993 when people thought of fighting, the arguments usually wound up with discussions of whether a martial arts expert, with their flashy kicks that looked great on a movie screen, could get the better of the usually larger-than-life heavyweight boxing champion, whether it be Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and eventually Mike Tyson.
That changed on Nov. 12, 1993, in Denver, Colorado, when eight men entered a tournament that almost nobody watching had a clue what would happen. When it was over, Royce Gracie, tall and skinny, maybe 180 pounds, had used the most basic jiu-jitsu to choke out three foes so quickly that people had a hard time believing what they had just seen.
Since that time, the perception of UFC, and of fighting, was in a state of constant evolution. At first it was the province of the jiu-jitsu kings. Then came the era of the powerhouse American wrestlers, once they started learning submission defense. Eventually, expert strikers who specialized in takedown defense started having success. And now, while everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, the champions are those who can fight well at every aspect of the game.
The fighters improved. The marketing improved. The exposure improved. The money improved.
UFC at first billed itself as a show with no rounds, no gloves, no weight classes and no rules. The promotion claimed on its videotape boxes that it was banned in 49 states. The shows were based around one-night tournaments where fighters fought three and even four times. Contrary to hype, there were always rules, although minimal in the early years. And it really wasn't actually banned anywhere at first.
The original marketing, including the famed line about how matches can only end via knockout, submission or death garnered interest early. Pay-per-view numbers grew with every show in those early days. By the end of year two, it was drawing more of the wrong kind of interest. Politicians and reporters railed against it. It was called a human cockfighting. Its popularity was said to be a sign of the decaying of society.
Even in recent years, as the traditional martial arts dojos teaching Kung Fu have been replaced by gyms teaching far less mystical and far more practical self defense styles, the UFC is still fighting that negative image. It's not allowed on television or live in France, even though it's popular in the country, but it can only be viewed on television from neighboring countries. In Germany, it wasn't allowed on television in any kind of a decent time slot for fear of its effects on children. In Melbourne, Australia, a city where it has extreme popularity, MMA events in a cage are banned. The silliest of all, to this day, it is actually banned in New York live even though it can be viewed several nights every week on television and there are training centers all over the state.
There are endless high and low points of a 20 year journey that started in Denver when a pay-per-view opened and Dutch kickboxer Gerard Gordeau, in the first televised match, kicked a near 400-pound sumo, Teila Tuli, in the mouth, and his teeth went flying.
It was new, and because of that, nobody had really figured out even what it was. Shows were only held every few months. Every event was more of a question of what moves actually work in a real fight.
The first few years were about style vs. style. It became a matter of pride among wrestlers and jiu-jitsu specialists when they would routinely dominate. Those from other martial arts were left trying to explain how the rules were biased, or how the top fighters from their disciplines never competed or they'd clean up, even though in most cases they were invited and knew better themselves. Eventually the star wrestlers and jiu-jitsu players, if that's all they had, fell by the wayside as one dimension was no longer good enough.
The original big three stars were Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn. Shamrock was a pro wrestler who went to Japan, learned some submissions, and was part of a troupe who actually wanted to fight for real. They started a group, Pancrase, that used rules from pro wrestling to do actual real matches in a ring. Severn was a world class amateur wrestler who nearly made the 1984 Olympic team. Gracie, whose family pioneered the sport, known as Vale Tudo in his native Brazil, couldn't match the two for strength. But he was far ahead of them in knowledge of the game. His family, and most notably his aging father Helio, were the real pioneer of Vale Tudo fighting, which UFC evolved from, dating back to the 1920s. At first, when it came to knowledge in a real fight situation, he had the benefit of a 70 year family head start.
Gracie beat Shamrock at the first UFC with a choke, and Severn at the fourth UFC with a triangle from the bottom. In both cases, he beat both men before either even knew what was happening. But after the fifth show, when the stronger Shamrock was able to neutralize the submission game of Gracie, he bowed out, having problems with new rules regarding time limits. But the reality is for a televised event, time limits and judging were necessary.
On July 14, 1995, in Casper, Wyoming, a new UFC hero was born. David "Tank" Abbott was a former college wrestler with a big bench press and knockout power, the original "Huntington Beach Bad Boy." His actual background was kept hidden, as he was promoted as a big-talking bar fighter. He was far closer to people's imaginations of what the toughest guy in the room would be than a skinny Brazilian in a gi or a clean-cut amateur wrestler.
In those days, guys were announced as representing a martial arts discipline. Abbott was called a "Pit Fighter," telling stories about two guys coming into the pit, each bringing a wad of cash, fighting, and the winner gets the money.
When he knocked out huge 340-pound Samoan John Matua in 18 seconds, leaving Matua convulsing on the ground, he became the fastest made star UFC would ever have. Abbott actually lost in the tournament finals that fight night to a Russian Sambo specialist, Oleg Taktarov, via choke in 17:47. But Taktarov went to the hospital after the fight, and Abbott went to the party, and much of the fan base wanted to believe that made him the real winner.
With Gracie out of the picture, Severn and Shamrock dueled for the top spot. Shamrock took the first fight quickly with a standing guillotine submission. Severn then won the toughest eight-man tournament the company ever put together, out wrestling three foes to victory, to set up a rematch.
Pay-per-view numbers grew, starting at 80,000 for the first show, hitting 240,000 to 260,000 for Shamrock's fight second fight with Gracie and first with Severn.
The May 17, 1996, show at Cobo Arena in Detroit, headlined by Shamrock defending his superfight title against Severn, was the first major live event, selling out with more than 11,000 fans paying $400,000. In hindsight, it was also the end of UFC's first glory period.
Local politicians were constantly attempting to shut down shows, up to that point with no success. But before this show, Canadian cable companies stopped airing the shows due to controversy.
At the time, Canada represented 25% of the buys. Severn and Shamrock fought a fight that was more like a slow-moving dance, with maybe two minutes of action in a 30 minute fight. Garbage was thrown into the octagon. Severn captured what was called the superfight title, which evolved into the current UFC heavyweight title,in a fight that nobody truly won.
It was ironic that after the least violent main event in history, a domino effect that started in Canada, spread to one major pay-per-view company after another. By the end of 1997, unless you had a satellite dish, it was almost impossible to order the shows. Revenue dropped and what was a lucrative enterprise went through the dark ages, three years when it was struggling to stay afloat.
It was during that period when all kinds of changes took place. The MMA gloves, first worn by Abbott when he knocked out Matua, became mandatory. Rounds were instituted. Judging fights had already started in 1996, with the simplest of scoring systems. At the end of the fight, the judge wrote down on a small piece of paper who he thought won. This was changed to scoring round-by-round using boxing's ten-point-must system.
It was in this period where the next generation of stars started filtered in, Chuck Liddell, a Division I wrestler who had become a kickboxer; Vitor Belfort, a 19-year-old Brazilian with the fastest and most accurate hands UFC had ever seen, a protege of legendary fighter Carlson Gracie, who at first was going to be called Victor Gracie; Randy Couture, an Olympic wrestling hopeful; and Tito Ortiz, a one-time training partner of Abbott who became the second "Huntington Beach Bad Boy."
Even though Belfort and Liddell won fights with their feet and fists, both had strong backgrounds in jiu-jitsu and wrestling respectively. But it was Maurice Smith, a world champion in kickboxing during the 80s, who was the first stand-up fighter to win the UFC championship. Smith defeated wrestler Mark Coleman via decision on July 27, 1997.
Smith didn't keep the fight standing, but instead, defended himself on the ground until the overly aggressive Coleman got tired. Smith then picked apart the exhausted champion to take the decision. The result was shocking at the time.
The next stage in the evolution of the sport to the complete fighter, epitomized by Frank Shamrock and Bas Rutten.
It was during the dark ages when the sport as it is today started really taking shape. A second weight class was implemented on December 21, 1997, when Frank Shamrock, the adopted brother of Ken, armbarred Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Kevin Jackson in 15 seconds to become the first under-200 pound UFC champion, called middleweight at the time. That weight class was later changed to 205 pounds and is the current light heavyweight division.
What is generally considered the classic match of the 90s was on September 24, 1999 when Frank Shamrock pounded an exhausted Ortiz into submission late in the fourth round. Shamrock, giving up somewhere between 25 and 30 pounds in the cage that night, appeared to be losing the fight, when in fact he was tiring Ortiz out, and then took over when his larger foe was out of gas.
But the money and exposure was almost gone. Shamrock retired, figuring the physical cost of fighting bigger man wasn't worth the meager payoffs. Ortiz became an important figure in the growth from the ashes in fights with the likes of Ken Shamrock, Couture and Liddell.
In hindsight, three moments in the sport's history were the most important.
They were the first show, the sale of the promotion by Bob Meyrowitz and his Semaphore Entertainment Group, to Las Vegas casino moguls Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta in 2001, and the debut of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV in 2005.
When purchased, the goal was to get UFC back on pay-per-view, something Meyrowitz couldn't do and had exhausted all finances. The idea was that once people had access to it, the glory days of hugely profitable events would return.
But things had changed.
The real lure of the early shows was answering questions nearly everyone had as a kid. If you put a boxer, a wrestler, a kung fu guy, a karate guy, a judo guy, a kick boxer, and had them all fight, who wins. By 1996, people thought they had the answer. Even before the cable ban, signs of declines were already there.
With the exception of those early UFCs, nobody had ever been successful in the pay-per-view field without television. The new UFC was a money pit. The Fertittas were able to get the sport back on pay-per-view, but they weren't able to find a strategy to get people to buy the shows, with shows hovering between 30,000 and 50,000 buys.
The lone ray of hope was Ortiz, whose fights with Liddell, Couture and Ken Shamrock in 2002 and 2003 were able to pull 75,000 to 150,000 buys. But after those fights, the numbers would fall right back where they started.
The modern era started with the first episode of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV. Couture and Liddell were the two big stars, coaching people who the audience were told were the best fighters in the country who were as yet undiscovered.
The antics of Chris Leben from week one turned the show into a hit. Leben's grudge match with Josh Koscheck was the first breakthrough. The second, and even bigger breakthrough, was a few weeks later, at the finals, for the Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight. To this day, their April 9, 2005, fight, won by Griffin via decision, is considered by many as the greatest fight in UFC history.
While that can be argued, what can't be argued is that it was the catalyst from everything that followed. Leben and Koscheck got people interested, but their fight was completely forgettable, to the point people were wondering if it had blown UFC's golden opportunity. Griffin vs. Bonnar was the perfect fight on the perfect night. The power of television for UFC business was confirmed seven days later.
UFC 52 was headlined by the second Couture vs. Liddell fight. The first, in 2003, drew a half-full Thomas & Mack Center and did 48,000 buys on pay-per-view. The rematch, because of television, did a sellout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a company record gate of $2.6 million, and 300,000 buys.
Liddell knocked Couture out in 2:06, and became the biggest superstar of the new profitable era. Earlier that night, the company was fortunate to have its second classic fight in the space of a week. Matt Hughes, a welterweight champion and future Hall of Famer, came back from a low blow and nearly being choked to pick Frank Trigg up, run across the octagon with him and slam him down in what is now commonly referred to as a Matt Hughes slam. He then won via choke.
As the company became an even bigger pay-per-view force in 2006, one of the biggest fights when it came to growth was the generational battle with Hughes, the dominant welterweight of his time period, against Royce Gracie, returning after 11 years. A lot of people didn't realize just how much things evolved as Hughes won easily with a flurry of punches from back position, before the fight was stopped.
The period of Hughes dominating the welterweight division ended on November 18, 2006, in Sacramento, Calif. Montreal's Georges St-Pierre, who Hughes had beaten a few years earlier, had now surpassed his one-time idol. It was quite the statement when Hughes, who in those days would throw around opponents at will, could not take St-Pierre down, and even got taken down, before being finished with a head kick.
St-Pierre became one of UFC's biggest stars, the key to its success in Canada, a tremendous draw and a fighter who only lost once over the next seven years.
One month earlier, on October 14, 2006, Anderson Silva had destroyed middleweight champion Rich Franklin, starting his own record setting title run.
It was also during that era when the some of the loudest crowds in company history were there for the biggest matches.
The second Liddell vs. Ortiz fight, on December 30, 2006, in Las Vegas shattered all company pay-per-view marks, being the few shows in history to hit 1 million buys.
Couture, at 43, moved back to heavyweight to win his record-setting fifth and final UFC title on March 3, 2007, in Columbus, Ohio, from Tim Sylvia. This set the company's attendance record, with 19,079 fans at the Nationwide Arena. Couture controlled Sylvia for the entire 25 minutes as the underdog, giving up tremendous size.
While Couture had his issues with management, it was wins like this that made Couture one of the most popular fighters in company history. He actually quit the company during this title reign, and wound up in a lengthy and expensive legal battle.
His return, on November 15, 2008, saw him drop the title to Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA champion heavyweight who came to UFC with almost no MMA experience after being one of the biggest pro wrestling stars in the world a few years earlier. Youth, size and power took the measure of experience that night.
Few fights in UFC history could match the atmosphere. Lesnar was as hated as Couture was loved, and the title win propelled Lesnar to have a run as the biggest pay-per-view draw the company ever had.
But even that crowd wasn't as loud as on April 19, 2008, when UFC made its Canadian debut at the Bell Centre in Montreal, headlined by local fighter St-Pierre winning the welterweight title from Matt Serra. They broke the company attendance record, selling out with 21,390 fans. Serra's title win over St-Pierre a year earlier was among the biggest upsets in history.
Three years later, when a stubborn athletic commissioner gave up the fight against allowing UFC into Ontario, the debut in Toronto for St-Pierre's title defense against Jake Shields, shattered all live event records. The April 30, 2011 show, UFC 129, at Rogers Centre, sold out 55,724 tickets for a $12,075,000 gate. The latter was the largest gate for a non-Olympic sports event in the history of the country.
It was the combination of Lesnar and St-Pierre, along with the incredible momentum of UFC 100 that led to what is still the biggest show the company has ever done. On July 11, 2009, Lesnar retained his title over Frank Mir and St-Pierre retained his over Thiago Alves, resulting in 1.6 million pay-per-view buys, blowing away any show in company history and one of the biggest totals for any event in history.
The company's other night of its greatest visibility was on November 12, 2011. After the signing of a landmark seven-year contract with FOX, with an estimated $700 million, the first even was a show built around one fight.
Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, who has ended Lesnar's title reign in his previous fight, faced Brazilian knockout artist Junior Dos Santos. As the fight started, there were 8.8 million viewers on FOX, and several hundred thousand more watching in Spanish on Fox Sports Espanol, far more than at any point in company history.
Unfortunately, the fight only lasted 64 seconds, with Dos Santos knocking Velasquez out. It was the only blemish on Velasquez's career record, since he came back to win a second and third match with Dos Santos. While UFC regularly appears on the FOX network, it has never come close to that kind of number since.
Matching up with any rivalry in UFC history was that of Anderson Silva, the middleweight champion, and Chael Sonnen, the champion o promos regardless of weight. Sonnen, something of a little-known journeyman fighter, had put together a string of wins, and then upset Nate Marquardt to become the No. 1 contender at middleweight.
He unleashed a verbal barrage at Silva, and even the country of Brazil, for months. Some fans hated him. Some were entertained by him. Most expected he was about to get killed.
On April 7, 2010, in Oakland, Sonnen won four straight rounds, a few of which could easily have been 10-8 rounds. Silva had been untouchable in his UFC career, and he was less than two minutes from losing among the most lopsided decisions in title match history, being hit with the all-time record of nearly 300 strikes. Then Silva clamped on a triangle and Sonnen tapped.
Sonnen tested positive for elevated levels in a T:E test, which he claimed was due to testosterone replacement therapy for hypogonadism. He claimed his actual amount of testosterone was at normal levels. He wound up suspended, but came back and earned a rematch. Silva won that one in the second round, but Sonnen's mouth and the story of the first match led to more than 925,000 pay-per-view buys.
After nearly seven years, Silva's title reign came to a close with among the most shocking finishes in UFC history. Silva was clowning and mocking Weidman in the second round of their fight, seemingly toying with him with his freakish speed and reflexes. Then Weidman connected with a punch that knocked Silva out. The rematch on Dec. 28 may be the first of the great moments of the next 20 years.