Jack Walsh looks at the origins and growth of UFC over the last nineteen years, and picks the five best fights of the summer
What we deem to be modern day mixed martial arts (MMA) was in essence formed at the first UFC event, in Denver Colorado on November 12, 1993. It was a tournament devised to showcase and attempt to answer what was the most effective martial art on the planet, whilst also serving as an opportunity for one of the co-creators to showcase his family’s style of Jiu-Jitsu. Fights had no rules, the first of which ended in twenty-six seconds, with one combatant breaking his hand and the other losing three teeth. Despite its brutal nature, pay-per-views remained profitable. Eventual UFC president Dana White commentated on the event saying: “That show was only supposed to be a one-off; it did so well on pay-per-view they decided to do another, and another. Never in a million years did these guys think they were creating a sport.”
A sport, perhaps rightly, seen in the eyes of the public as barbaric, eventually drew the attention of high profile figures such as Senator John McCain. McCain, who had seen a tape of the inaugural UFC event, sent out letters to every governor of every U.S. state, pleading with them to ban no holds barred fighting. Thirty-six states responded to the plea by banning the sport.
In response, the UFC began working with several state athletic associations, focusing on the core ideals of striking and grappling, and in essence, cut the spectacle and created the sport. With the evolved rules bred a new style of competitor, who understood the importance of using a variety of styles in an athletic fashion. During this time, the UFC was nearing bankruptcy, as casino tycoons Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased the rights to UFC and installed childhood friend and promoter, Dana White, as president. Ties to the Nevada State Athletic Association meant Las Vegas would become the unofficial home of the UFC, with make or break event UFC 40 selling out the MGM Grand Garden. This event would usher a new era for the sport and a global surge that is directly attributed to the premiere of the Ultimate Fighter in 2005.
Dana White has been highly vocal on the subject, how in essence the UFC, which is still in debt, spent millions developing the show and creating a ‘Trojan Horse’ to be delivered to homes across the world. At its core, the show was simple, sixteen of the best middleweights and light heavyweights would compete for a six figure, three-year contract with the UFC, determined by two elimination style tournaments, one for the eight middleweights and the same for the light-heavyweights. The fighters would also live with each other in a secluded house, and would be coached by the two biggest stars of the sport: Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. Camera crews followed every step each contestant took.
The show served three functions, the first and most important of which was to explore a fly on the wall glimpse of the sport itself, how technical and exciting the fights could be and the fundamental idea that this was a sport, not a gimmick or a trick.
The second aspect was the coaches, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, who as the coach of each team of fighters, would not only be coaching each man and serving as the ambassadors for the mixed martial arts community, but would also build their own fight for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship at UFC 52, which incidentally would be the highest grossing UFC card at the time.
Finally, the key to the success of the Ultimate Fighter was to showcase the fighters themselves. They were portrayed as they were: sixteen working-class people with college educations and incredible talent and work ethics. Their personalities would also have effects on viewership, with standouts Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar and future colour commentator Kenny Florian, serving as leading examples as to who would go on to be ambassadors for the sport.
It was the finale of the Light Heavyweight bracket that would prove to be the game changer with Forrest Griffin defeating Stephan Bonnar via a razor thin decision. Each man had such a burning desire to win, resulting in fifteen minutes of a back and forth affair named fight of the year by Fight Magazine, as well as being described by a variety of analysts as the fight that fully showed the full spectrum of positives that MMA had as a sport, with as many as thirteen million people tuning in.
Following this fight, executives jumped on the opportunity to renew season after season, resulting in a huge amount of interest in every aspect of the UFC. It also showcased the growth of the sport, from the newly created Bantamweights and Featherweights (Ultimate Fighter 14), to the peaked international interest (as many as eighty million Brazilians’ watched UFC 126, which prompted a recently finished season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil). Modern MMA is only nineteen years old, yet from the success of a highly unlikely source, the sport now competes internationally alongside the dizzying heights of the NFL and soccer.
Top five fights of the summer:
- UFC 148, July 7th – Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen II: Perhaps the most anticipated fight of the year, due to Sonnen’s now legendary Ali-style of cutting interviews, as well as this being their second encounter. Silva, on the greatest winning streak in the UFC, was controlled for nearly four and a half rounds, before catching Sonnen in a triangle choke. Sonnen captured the imagination of MMA fans across the planet; he laughed in the immortal Silva’s face, and brutally outmatched him in every element of the game, right until the triangle. Now, two years later, it’s the fight to prove it wasn’t a fluke, for each man.
- UFC 151, September 1st – Jon Jones vs. Dan Henderson: Another title fight, another legend in the sport. This could be Jones’ last fight at light heavyweight as having won and defended the belt three times in eighteen months, he will be hoping to cement his legacy as the most talented fighter to have graced the sport. Standing across from him however, is the embodiment of the old guard, the most decorated fighter outside of the UFC, who wants nothing less than a win, to lay the capstone of an incredible fifteen year career.
UFC 150, August 11th – Benson Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar II: There’s no doubt that Frankie Edgar deserves a lightweight championship rematch against Ben Henderson after losing his title to Henderson at UFC 144. Previous to that fight, Edgar was carrying career victories over BJ Penn, Gray Maynard and Sean Sherk, creating a persona as one of the most unsuspecting champions in UFC history. Meanwhile, having come up from the WEC, Henderson has shocked many by his quick ascension to the top of the division.
UFC 149, July 21st – Urijah Faber vs. Renan Barao: After UFC Bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz tore his ACL, sidelining him for several months, an interim title was created to be contested between arguably the most explosive and exciting bantamweights in and out of the UFC. A high class mix of wrestling (Faber’s a Division 1 champion from UC Davis), dangerous and unorthodox striking and a fully robust jiu-jitsu game (see Barao’s devastating finish of Brad Pickett at UFC 138) means regardless of where this fight takes place, it will not be disappointing.
Bellator FC, August 24th – Pat Curran vs. Patricio Freire: At Bellator 60, Curran dominated previous champion Joe Warren in the fight and finished him off with a devastating flurry in the third round. The performance made other featherweights, in all organization, take notice. Now he will meet the hard-hitting challenger in August. Freire’s lone loss was a split decision to Warren in 2010. He brings in a solid ground game and knockout power to the cage. Returning to the cage after a year away, one does have to wonder how a five round fight will affect him if the fight goes into the championship rounds. The fight features two of the best featherweights outside of the UFC who will put on a show on free television later this summer.