As the World Wide Leader gets set to snatch the baton from FOX as the exclusive broadcast partner of the UFC, it’s a rare chance to look back at the grainy old film from the early days — back to when MMA was first trickling across the airwaves and giving PC America the heebie-jeebies.
It was in January 2004 that WEC 9 brought its cage to the Palace Indian Gaming Center in Lemoore, Calif. for what would be a 15-fight mega card. At that point — just three years into the Fertitta’s reign as owners of the UFC — an extravaganza like that was a utopian experience for a few select diehards, but the sport of MMA was so bloody deep into the woodwork that most networks weren’t touching it.
With very little understanding of the intricacies involved in something as taboo-sounding as cagefighting, one network — HDNet — sent a crew to Lemoore, which sits half-an-hour south of Fresno. That podunk location was the unlikely spot for the beginning of a pretty remarkable run for broadcasting MMA.
“Plain and simply, it was the Wild West,” remembers Ron Kruck, who was the ring reporter assigned to the coverage that night. “HDNet came into this working a partnership with Reed Harris and the WEC. I had been a fan of the UFC, but I wasn’t covering the sport at the time. I remember my executive producer at the time came to me and said, ‘do you know anything about cagefighting?’ I said, ‘oh, you mean like the UFC?’ He said, ‘no Ron, cagefighting,’ and I had to tell him it was the same thing.”
Tonight, that same network — which was rebranded as AXS TV in 2012 — will televise its 400th event at LFA 40 in Dallas, Texas, featuring a featherweight title unification bout between the reigning champion Kevin Aguilar and the interim titleholder, Thanh Le. Four hundred shows is a lot of Friday night fights. In that time AXS TV has persevered through every kind of ebb and flow the sport has undergone, and watched many of its most promising stars graduate to the UFC.
And it all started in Lemoore.
The very first broadcast crew featured the late sportscaster Ryan Bennett, who founded the website, MMAWeekly.com, Jeff Blatnick, who came up with the term “mixed martial arts” and was pivotal in drafting the unified rules, and the “Fight Professor,” Stephen Quadros, who arrived with a cult presence after working ringside at PRIDE in Japan.
It was the kind of fight card that gave the uninitiated a baptism by fire.
“There was a fight that night between a guy named Olaf Alfonso and John Polakowski,” Kruck says. “Olaf was a crazy dude. He would go off and meditate in the trees before fights and just was a really interesting guy. He talked to me before the fight, and he had a very unique nose. He told me he’d broken his nose nine times. So he goes into this fight, and it’s an absolute war. He ends up getting a split decision, and I go in to interview him after the victory and his nose is literally bleeding on my microphone.
“I ended that interview with, ‘Olaf, you told me you broke your nose nine times, is this ten?’ He looks in the camera, kind of adjusts his nose, and says, ‘oh no, it’s not broken.’ That’s what pulled me in. I was sold at that point.”
This was a year before The Ultimate Fighter would begin airing on Spike TV, and a full 15 months before the Stephan Bonnar-Forrest Griffin slugfest that converted casual curiosity into awe. In fact, WEC 9 helped serve as back-story fodder for TUF 1, given that two of its participants — Mike Swick and Chris Leben — fought on the card. On numerous occasions that fight, which Leben won via knockout to win the inaugural middleweight WEC title — was brought up as a sore spot from the pre-TUF days of mysterious origin.
“Actually, [Adrienna Jenkins] did an illegal soccer kick to get disqualified,” Kruck says of that particular bout. “I remember [WEC owner] Reed Harris saying, ‘never again, no more women’s MMA.’”
Over the years, AXS TV Fights has been the scaffolding for MMA, with many different kinds of coverage and analysis, both in the States and abroad. It’s aired some of the biggest names in the sport’s history, identified rising stars, and provided a platform to fighters who’d otherwise go undernoticed. Everyone from Nick Diaz, Vitor Belfort, Mirko Cro Cop, Daniel Cormier to Mackenzie Dern, Brian Ortega, Holly Holm and Valentina Shevchenko have appeared on AXS TV Fights.
Kruck has been there since beginning and — like many of his colleagues there at AXS TV — has worn many different hats. He worked as a correspondent on the show Inside MMA for a decade, showed up as the ring reporter to more events than he can count, and even found himself segueing into play-by-play duties last year under the guidance of longtime voice Michael Schiavello.
He has been around for Mark Cuban’s attempt at starting a promotion (for two shows in Dallas), just as he was there for Affliction’s foray into the mixed techniques, as well as the early boom period of women’s MMA, when Holly Holm — the fighter who for all intents and purposes ended Ronda Rousey’s reign in MMA — won the inaugural bantamweight title at Legacy FC.
He was even in Japan for Yarennoka! on New Year’s Eve in 2007, when 30,000 fans stuffed the Saitama Super Arena to watch Fedor Emelianenko do battle with the 7-foot-2 Hong-Man Choi. “I just remember how humble Fedor was and how silent that crowd could be while watching, only to explode when something happened,” Kruck says.
AXS TV Fights has ultimately served as a kind of real-time chronology for the sport of MMA, and a parallel to the UFC. When Zuffa purchased the WEC, the spotlight began to shift from national shows to more regional brands, and the platform began to become more of a springboard for prospects. “We filled a void, bringing people grassroots, and the next generation of stars,” Kruck says of the network’s adaptability. “That really blew up with RFA and Legacy, and has continued on to today as those two groups merged into the LFA.”
“There’s a big sense of pride that we could go from this small little group bringing people to MMA on Friday nights,” he says. “That’s what kind of separated us…outside of ordering pay-per-views, nobody was broadcasting MMA. We were the first to start to deliver fans MMA on Friday nights, consistent, live fights.
“And that evolved into broadcasting the weigh-ins for Affliction back in the day, and that moved to Strikeforce. And we were doing Japanese MMA as well. Once Pride was kind of on the downswing, we were broadcasting DREAM, and Sengoku, and Yarennoka to U.S. fight fans live, which was as milestone for the sport as well.”
It’s been a long, meandering run of Friday nights to arrive at 400 shows. Over the years the coverage has been changed, tweaked, refined and specialized. The fighters have gotten bigger, stronger, and more media savvy. The markets have shifted, dwindled and evolved. The money, like many of the promotions, has come and gone. The ideas on how to cover the sport the right way are always changing.
Kruck and AXS TV have been sticking a camera and a microphone in front fighters since Olaf Alfonso bled all over the equipment in Lemoore. The beat goes on in 2018, as LFA harnesses the kind of talent that one day — just like Swick and Leben, the original HDNet alum from WEC 9 — can look back at its own origins.
“That’s what the LFA is about, creating the next generation of stars,” Kruck says. “The key to making that work is the group, the Legacy Fighting Alliance, has embraced that role of being the feeder league — or as they like to say,’ the college football for the NFL.’ I think it’s a little more accurate to say the AAA going into Major League Baseball, because the games are more similar.
“But embracing that role and being okay with signing a Brian Ortega, or a Sage Northcutt, or a Sergio Pettis with the understanding that, hey, this dude’s not going to be here too long, that they’re going to move on…that’s the key. Being not only willing, but actually appreciative of fighters like that moving onto the next level, that’s what makes this work.”