To watch mixed martial arts now, to witness the slick productions, screaming fans and dynamic fighters, it's hard to believe how far and how fast the sport has come in a single decade.
"If you would've come to me in 1999, and said there's going to be this new sport emerging, and by 2009 it's going to be where it is right now, I would have told you that would be an extremely unlikely and impressive achievement," said Robert Thompson, a noted pop culture expert and professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
On March 10, 2000, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, MMA ran its first major event of the decade in the United States. The UFC 24 card, christened "First Defense," was scheduled to pit newly crowned heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman against challenger Pedro Rizzo.
As metaphors go, the one that describes the state of MMA as the '00s began is almost too perfect to believe. Because as the calendar turned the page to the year 2000, the sport lay injured and ignored in a Louisiana hospital bed, a victim of its own hand.
In the bowels of the Lake Charles Civic Center, while preliminary fights took place in the cage before 4,000 fans, Randleman began to prepare for his bout. During his warm-up session, however, all hell broke loose. Randleman somehow stepped on a pipe, lost his balance and fell, smashing his head on the ground. Immediately, it was clear he was badly injured. As the broadcast continued on and UFC executives panicked, Randleman was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion, forcing him out of the match and leaving the night without a main event.
With little option, the UFC announcers embarrassedly informed the fans in the arena and those watching on pay-per-view that the event was over, without so much as a peek at the champion. The scenario was nothing short of a debacle. Yet somehow, MMA would rebound, grow and thrive into a billion-dollar business.
"When this was first brought about, it was the bloodiest sport alive. Two men enter, one man leaves," said Tito Ortiz, who began his MMA career in 1997. "Now we're on the main stage."
So how did we get from there to here?
The UFC began to reverse the sport's fortunes in January 2001, when brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta along with minority partner Dana White purchased the company from SEG for $2 million.
In the past, pressure from politicians and citizens who objected to the young and still largely unregulated sport had convinced many satellite and cable providers to stop offering UFC pay-per-view cards, and the UFC had become so cash-strapped that the company was not even able to produce a home video or DVD of its events. As a result, the stretch of time until early 2001 is often referred to as "the Dark Ages."
Though SEG had tried to gain sanctioning by major state athletic commissions in hopes of bringing their product to more viewers, the company's efforts had only minor success, getting the sport regulated in New Jersey as well as a few other, less influential states. The Fertittas and White, under their parent company Zuffa -- Italian for "fight" or "brawl" -- immediately set about sanctioning as one of its top priorities.
Within months of buying the company, Zuffa managed to secure sanctioning in Nevada, the most critical state commission in the nation. The domino theory worked, and to date, 42 states and Washington DC regulate the sport, with New York the only major holdout (a bill to regulate the sport was passed in a key Assembly committee but not acted upon before the Senate session ended because of governmental turmoil; it appears likely to pass next year).
The legitimacy that came with sanctioning was crucial. Because without sanctioning, there would be no increased television coverage, and without the TV coverage, the climb to respectability would have been impossible. But putting MMA on TV was important for a reason other than exposure; it gave the sport a chance to educate new fans.
MMA veteran Jens Pulver was one of the men fighting on the UFC 24 card that featured no main event because of Randleman's injury. According to him, as bad as the business situation was in the early '00s, equally as infuriating was the ignorance showed by an audience that still did not understand the nuances of what they were watching.
"I remember if you shot a takedown and took your opponent down, you'd hear, 'Boo! You p***y, stand up and fight!'" Pulver said. "You'd want to yell back, 'This ain't Toughman!' In Japan, they'd cheer takedowns and groundwork like they were watching Wimbledon, but not here. It took a while to get to where we are now."
That issue was solved by the groundbreaking The Ultimate Fighter program, which stripped away the violent surface of fighting and showed the varied personalities behind its athletes.
"Looking at the chronology of moments involved in mainstreaming MMA, it was certainly one of the most important," said Thompson. "It's true for any sport, that if you're going to get people into following it, you need to educate them in who its participants are. You want them to root for one side or the other. Bringing a sport to a wide audience depends on it. It's a way to move towards attention and acceptability."
If there was a single major turning point in the sport's fortunes, it came on April 9, 2005. As they walked into the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas that evening, the three men who would become the night's key players were all in various states of personal or professional disarray. Forrest Griffin had agonized over the decision to leave his job as a Georgia police officer to join the show before boarding the plane to Vegas at the last minute. Stephan Bonnar had taken a leave from graduate school to chase his dream of fighting. And UFC President Dana White, whose company had sunk $10 million of its own money into the TUF series, had no promise of a follow-up season from Spike despite a series of trips to New York in hopes of locking up an extension.
Everything would change after 15 minutes of blood-soaked, back and forth action between Griffin and Bonnar, as 3.3 million people tuned in to watch the then-little known fighters stage a classic. In the moments that followed the event, White led the suddenly enthralled Spike executives in attendance into a back alley behind the Thomas & Mack Center and hammered out a new deal. The two-year contract, announced less than a month later, brought the UFC instant credibility in the sports world. And with its athletes and product featured frequently on cable television, UFC pay-per-view buyrates quickly began to rise.
Established champions Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, polarizing figures Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock, promising UFC newcomers Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva combined with newly minted TUF alumni to quickly raise interest. When UFC 66 did over one million pay-per-view buys just over a year after the TUF 1 finale, the sports world couldn't help but take notice that MMA had truly arrived.
"I think the sport of mixed martial arts has already proven in the past five years that it can have a very fast rate of growth," said UFC welterweight Josh Koscheck, who began his UFC career as an Ultimate Fighter season one cast member. "In the past five years since Ultimate Fighter's season one, it's come tenfold. I believe that in the next five years, it'll be like NFL football, NBA basketball. You'll see kids in gyms and dojos around the country, inspired by MMA. We're going to break a lot of records, that's for sure."
The next step in the evolution is a larger presence on network TV and increased coverage from mainstream media, who largely ignored the sport until recently. UFC 100, for example, featuring a main event of Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir, reportedly drew 1.6 million pay-per-view buys, but received significantly less media attention than the recent boxing superfight between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, which drew 1.25 million buys. Still, shows like HDNet's Inside MMA as well as ESPN.com's MMA Live both show promise that future coverage will increase.
The network TV barrier, at least, has already been cracked, first by EliteXC and now by Strikeforce. As many as 7.3 million viewers have tuned in at one time to watch MMA on CBS, though the average audience sizes have varied depending, it seems, on the main event participants. (The largest audience in U.S. MMA history came from CBS's May 2008 Kimbo Slice vs. James Thompson fight, while the network's most recent Strikeforce event featuring a main event of Fedor Emelianenko vs. Brett Rogers drew an average of 3.79 million viewers.)
While the UFC has had discussions with several major networks, none has yet to submit an offer to the UFC's liking, according to White.
"I can have a deal done tomorrow," he recently said. "But I'm not going to take a bad deal. I'm not going to do it just for the sake of doing it. It's got to be a good deal for us."
For White, who once noted that before Zuffa's ownership of the UFC, the organization was not shown on many cable systems, though pay-per-view porn was, it represents a major shift in power to be able to turn down a network deal.
That deal seems to be just a matter of time, but until then, CBS's MMA production behind Strikeforce stars like Emelianenko, Cung Le and popular female fighter Gina Carano can only help ingrain the sport into a national audience. On the international scene, roots have been planted in numerous countries, from the UK to Brazil to Japan and beyond. Because of the sport's global appeal, White often voices a belief that MMA can surpass the popularity of baseball, basketball, even football. That remains to be seen, but what does appear clear is that the sport's future appears equally as bright as its recent 10-year stretch. Major events continue to do huge numbers, mainstream sponsors like Gatorade and Budweiser have begun to come aboard, and the caliber of athletes continues to improve.
"For the next crop of athletes coming up, talent goes where the money is," said former UFC light-heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin. "There's lots of money in the UFC now. Guys that were a step away from being in the NFL, maybe one-tenth of a second too slow, they're coming. That's going to cause another growth in the sport."
While most major sports took decades to gain their respective footholds in the American landscape, MMA has quickly and efficiently established its roots. In a recent USA Today poll, sports fans selected MMA's growth as the top sports breakout of the decade, ahead of the Boston Red Sox ending their 86-year World Series championship drought and Tom Brady's rise as an NFL star. The critics who once thought the sport to be a fad are fewer, and those who were once morally outraged against it are quieter. With less obstacles in its path, the challenge ahead will be pure business: maintaining explosive growth in the U.S. and around the world.
It's been a long time since the event with no main event, and unlike the '00s, the decade ahead will start off filled with promise.
"This is a sport that's so young that it's still introducing a potential audience to the product who maybe never even thought or heard of MMA," Thompson said. "If they're able to do that and they keep picking up a bigger audience, they can continue to build upon their existing audience. I think there's still great growth potential in this."