WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- In the beginning, even Dana White was a skeptic.
The current UFC president was teaching boxing in South Boston in the early 1990s when the company's earliest events took place. And like most who were allied with the sweet science, White and his partners at the L Street Gym flat-out dismissed the fledgling sport that had yet to be named mixed martial arts as anything that would last, much less change the face of combat sports.
"We were like, 'hell no, no way this is going to happen, no rules' and this and that," White said. "We were 'like, s---, that's crazy.' That was the first one. It wasn't until the second one came out that I was like, ‘this is bulls---, boxers would kill these guys.' Then Art Jimmerson, we were like, c'mon, that guy's a nobody."
Eventually, of course, White came around. Without he and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta's persistence through years of lean times, it is unlikely the UFC would even exist today, much less be a network television property celebrating its 20th anniversary. As part of the UFC's run-up to the Nov. 12 milestone, it will debut the documentary "Fighting for a Generation: 20 Years of the UFC" Tuesday night on FOX Sports 1.
"It became this thing where we hung on for so long because we thought, are we really that different from the rest of the world?" White said, after a recent private screening of the film on the Sunset Strip. "We said, just think, if this thing was sold to the masses, people would love it like we do."
That sort of drive is part of the reason why Lorenzo Fertitta picked White to run the company after acquiring it from original owners Semaphore Entertainment in 2001. In the documentary, White expresses surprise the Fertittas chose him to run the ship, figuring he'd have a role in the company, but wouldn't be put in charge.
In a recent phone interview, Fertitta, the chairman and CEO of UFC parent company Zuffa LLC, expounded on the scene and explained why he put his inexperienced friend and former skeptic of the sport in a position of power.
"It was true at that point that Dana had never run a business," Fertitta said. "But he knew the fight game inside and out, and we knew Dana had just endless energy and passion for whatever he threw himself into. At the time, he was running boxing and exercise classes from six in the morning until 11 at night and if he ever got tired, you'd never know. In that situation, passion and enthusiasm more than made up for a lack of experience."
The 90-minute documentary touches upon most of the issues anyone familiar with company history would expect, from the Wild West early days up through the seminal first season of The Ultimate Fight to the present-day FOX era, with plenty in between.
This, of course, includes the early years of the Zuffa regime, in which the UFC must have seemed to the Fertittas to be a never-ending, money-consuming furnace. The famed story of the time in which Fertitta nearly threw in the towel and had White find an offer to buy the company, only for Fertitta to change his mind the next day after White found a potential suitor, is retold.
"Some days you wake up and you have that extra bit of energy," Fertitta said of the fateful morning. "For whatever reason, and I woke up ready to attack the day. And I said, ‘let's keep going.' It really is as simple as that."
But Fertitta revealed to MMAFighting that with the benefit of hindsight, he likely would have pulled the plug on the deal even if he had decided that morning to go through with it.
"These deals take time," Fertitta said. "My gut feeling is that even if I had woken up the next day and decided to proceed with a sale, somewhere along the way I would have gotten cold feet and backed out of it. Anyone who had ever taken a business class would have told you to sell in that situation, but this was a matter of the heart."
While the "sale which wasn't" is an oft-told tale in UFC lore, one event that doesn't often get cited as a milestone moment is given a full re-examination in the documentary: UFC 60, the 2006 card at Los Angeles' Staples Center which featured then-welterweight champion Matt Hughes in a catchweight fight with early superstar Royce Gracie.
The bout was Gracie's first in the UFC since 1994. His presence garnered a then-record reported buy rate of 620,000, as fans who abandoned ship a decade prior came back for a second look. Most of them stuck around after sampling the new product.
"That was one event where, I really have to hand it to Dana," Fertitta said. "He came to me and said ‘I think we can get Royce,' and I wasn't so sure. Not only did he get Royce on board, but that was one of the events which just really took off. You got the fans from the early days who hadn't watched in a long time, and when they saw the card from top to bottom and saw what the sport had become, they stuck around."
"UFC 60 was huge," White said. "The fans saw the evolution of it. That's what it was designed to do."
While enough has gone down in the UFC over the past 20 years to make a mini-series, UFC vice-president of production Craig Borsari and his crew had to winnow the story down to 90 minutes in order to fit the two-hour window (including commercials) FOX wanted. That means a lot of material had to hit the cutting-room floor.
"Any time you take out a big high profile fighter from a documentary, people go 'aww man, I would have liked to see that fighter,' Borsari said. "So that was a bit difficult to scale back. But, we didn’t pull anything out completely that was so painful that I thought it was a major omission. What we did was condense sections."
And while no doubt some decisions will be second-guessed, the company doesn't run from its rough patches. Several people who are or were at one point on the outs with Zuffa, from Tito Ortiz to John McCarthy to several from the SEG contingent, are given significant face time.
"This isn't a negative story," White said. "There's no personal beefs. It's not negative towards anyone. There were personal beefs between us and the old owners at one point. But that's not what the story is about. I think the old owners come off as bad guys all the time, when really, they're the good guys. They didn't understand what they had at the time, and as the thing started to evolve it was too late for them to save it. And then there was the passing of the torch. And then someday there will be the passing of the torch from and someone else will take it somewhere else."