As the UFC approaches its 20th anniversary show on Saturday with UFC 167, much of the reflection among the MMA community centers on how the sport evolved from something it is now not and how that evolution was central to the sport's identity today.
Those are important stories, to be sure. Few, however, pay much attention or even know about the mechanics of how the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event ever came to be and how circumstances aligned themselves to make it all work.
That's where the invaluable perspective Bob Meyrowitz, one of the UFC's original founders, and the story of making that November night in Denver in 1993 a success, comes into play.
"To tell you the truth, it's amazing that it's twenty years," Meyrowitz told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "It seems so recent. It seems like it was yesterday and just to correct you, UFC 1 is the only show I didn't attend. I watched it at home so I could see what it would look like on television."
If it seems strange the partial inventor and creator of something as bizarre, different and new as the UFC was in 1993 didn't attend the first show, you're not alone. Yet, to Meyrowitz, he had no choice. No one, Meyrowitz said, really knew what they were doing or how it was to be done. Seeing things at home as the consumer did was central to helping he and his creative team square the circle.
"We were making this up. We didn't know what it would be," Meyrowitz confessed. "I stayed home. I watched it on television. I watched it with my college roommate and his 13-year-old son and was able to get the whole thing and understand the whole thing so much better by watching it on television, appreciating what we were seeing and seeing a thirteen-year old's reaction to it.
"You have to understand that nobody knew what we were doing, including ourselves," he continued. "I came out of the music business, and when I met a band, I'd always listen to it on a small, crappy radio because I wanted to hear it the worst way you could hear it."
Meyrowitz concluded what they were ultimately creating was a television product. Sure, he could've watched from a television on location, but that would be inauthentic. He needed to be removed and absorb the experience as close to how an uninvolved consumer would be.
"I wanted to see this on television because this was a television show. What would it look like? How would it feel? What would people think? And really, what happens? Nobody knew. As you might remember, on that first show, a lot of things happened.
"It was a great way to learn what we were doing and what we could do better."
The natural question that arises when reviewing Meyrowitz's statements is, why was he even trying to get involved into something he didn't even understand or could meaningfully say what it was?
The answer: cost and ownership.
Meyrowitz, at the time an executive at Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), was producing pay-per-view events for musicians. He had worked with all manner of talent from The Who to New Kids on the Block to Tupac Shakur. The problem was not that these events were unsuccessful, but rather, they couldn't be used for larger marketing or promotional purposes. They couldn't advertise a Tupac event on a New Kids on the Block pay-per-view, Meyrowitz noted.
The solution? "We were looking at something we could do where we could actually own." With ownership came the ability to use as they needed, how they wanted.
Meyrowitz said the seeds of the idea for what would become the UFC, from his end of things, was the result of a friend who was part of and a practitioner in tae kwon do. He had encouraged Meyrowitz to air tae kwon do events, but the executive declined, believing not enough people cared to watch just that sport.
The more the thought about it, though, the more an adaptation of that idea occurred to him as potentially interesting. "One day I asked him, 'Could tae kwon do beat up karate?," Meyrowtiz asked of his friend. "And he said, 'What kind of question is that? Beat up? It's not about beating up.' They couldn't even fight each other because they have different rules.
"Every Tuesday we have our creative meeting. On Tuesday I said, 'I want to have a show where we'll have karate fight tae kwon do.' There are so many people who do karate. There are so many people who do tae kwon do. They'll want to know what will win."
That idea wasn't accepted on its own, but it did get the ball rolling. Meyrowitz said Campbell McLaren, another SEG executive, came back with the proposal to all judo, jiu-jitsu and other forms of martial arts, not merely karate and tae kwon do. Meyrowitz agreed.
That's when McLaren produced perhaps the most important ingredient in terms of putting the nuts and bolts of the operation into motion. "Then," Meyrowitz recalls, "McLaren came back with the Gracies."
Meyrowitz says Rorion Gracie, the point man for the entire family in working with SEG, was critical producing the first event. He would create the minimal rules set, help recruit talent and more. In fact, he would be a part of the team who ended up engineering the fighting surface.
"This was discipline vs. discipline. So, we wanted to have every discipline to fit in, but no discipline to have its own surface. So, we created the Octagon. It had no shape, a certain height, people couldn't be hurt and fall through" as well as other characteristics Rorion Gracie and his team felt would be neutral enough to the competitors involved.
Set at $19.95 for the first show, the first UFC event was a hit, Meyrowitz contends. He acknowledges it pulled 80,000 buys, a considerable number at the time.
"That was phenomenal," he said. "There were only, at that point, I'm going to say 13 or 14 million homes that had pay-per-view. So, that was a huge, huge number." Meyrowtiz is also quick to note that relative to a show with The Who, producing the UFC was much less expensive.
Meyrowitz said they made a profit on the first UFC show as they expected half of the number of buys. They also recognized what they had finally created, why it was important and what an audience would expect from it. It was the evening everything came together, both conceptually and financially.
It was also the catalyst to keep the experiment rolling. Maybe, just maybe, they could really turn this UFC stuff into something gi.
"Given what we saw, given the numbers, we knew we had something big on our hands," Meyrowitz recalls. "We had to do it really right and had to work at this."