The story of how the UFC came to be is one of sports' most underrated and fascinating stories. In 23 years, the organization went from providing a pay-per-view platform for no- holds-barred fighting to implementing new rules and features to lift the sport of mixed martial arts from obscurity in the United States. Business really began to pick up when Zuffa, led by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta in addition to appointed president Dana White purchased the UFC and turned it into a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Now in the hands of WME-IMG, the future of the company--and sport's growth is uncertain. The unorthodox road to prominence, however is certain and is worth taking a look at to see what they did well and what they could have done better. Here are 15 facts you didn't know about the UFC.
15 15. Dana White's Relationship with the Fertittas
Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta may have named Dana White the first and only UFC President under the Zuffa banner, but the origins of White's relationship with the Fertittas dates back to the 1980s. White and Lorenzo, the younger Fertitta attended high school at Bishop Gorman High, but their friendship did not truly kick off until a chance encounter at the wedding of a mutual friend years later. The two soon discovered a mutual interest in combat sports, which later prompted White to convince the Fertittas to buy the UFC and nearly monopolize the sport of MMA.
The "childhood relationship" between Lorenzo and Dana is slightly overblown, as the two did not become "close" until their chance encounter many years later. However, had White not attended Bishop Gorman for the brief time he did (he got expelled twice), he may have never had a relationship with Fertitta to begin with and the whole landscape of MMA as it is known today could be different.
14 14. Dana White Managed Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz Before The UFC
Before taking the reigns as UFC President, Dana White had already started to become heavily involved with MMA in spite of his boxing background. He managed young upstarts Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz in the pre-Zuffa days. In fact, White can be seen in the corner during some of the two fighters' earlier fights.
The interesting thing about this tidbit is Liddell and Ortiz would go on to become two of the biggest rivals in the company and do solid pay-per-view business. Even today, UFC 66: Liddell vs Ortiz II ranks as the ninth highest grossing pay-per-view in UFC history and topped one million buys. It is very conceivable that the origin of the dislike between the two fighters stemmed from jealousy of White's affection for the other, even though there is no love lost between White and Ortiz. All in good time, however...
13 13. Demetrious Johnson Is The Top Pound-For-Pound Fighter
When it comes to determining who the UFC's top pound-for-pound fighter is, the first impulse of the casual fan is to think of who the biggest name is and who the biggest draws are. To become the number one pound-for-pound fighter though, dominance and longevity are two of the most important factors so it will be surprising for the casual fans to learn that Demetrious Johnson is the best fighter going today.
He makes for a tough sell due to his size, lack of contenders and non-confrontational personality but Johnson has to be considered the UFC's best pound-for-pound fighter. He has no weaknesses and can take the fight to wherever he pleases. He has had a dominant five year stretch as the UFC's first and only flyweight champion and is just one fight away for setting the company record for title defenses. Jon Jones is the only fighter today that comes close to "Mighty Mouse's" level of all-purpose skill, but also carries with him a checkered past. Johnson also just won an ESPY for "Fighter of the Year," which is surprising given how poor his pay-per-view numbers are but helps validate his status nonetheless.
12 12. Joe Rogan Worked For The UFC Pre-ZUFFA
Joe Rogan is no stranger to making unorthodox career choices as a part-time MMA broadcaster and full-time comedian and podcast host. Still, not many know the story of how he got involved in the UFC to begin with. While he is good friends with Dana White, Rogan's beginnings with the company actually predate White and the Zuffa era.
Rogan's agent, Joe Sussman, used his relationship with UFC co-createor Campbell McLaren to get Rogan a part-time job as a backstage interviewer in which they paid him "barely enough money" to show up. He made his debut for the company at UFC 12 in Dothan, Ala. While he eventually had to quit, he began to reappear in the audience at post-Zuffa purchase UFC events and built his friendship with White. Though Rogan initially declined White's offer for a color-commentary position, he eventually agreed to do it for free in exchange for free tickets for his friends before finally agreeing to be paid for the job. Rogan still commentates on North American UFC pay-per-views.
11 11. There Used To Be No Weight Classes
The UFC's early days brought about a fair share of controversy. The first UFC pay-per-view was created as a forum for martial arts practitioners of all walks of life to test their mettle against one another to find out which style was superior. Of course, gloves and uniform were not mandated as they are today, leading to some interesting fashion decisions like Art Jimmerson's infamous one-glove look.
This time period also predated basic functions of today's version of MMA, such as rounds, time limits and illegal holds. It was a no-holds barred fight to the death with the winner being the first fighter to incapacitate their opponent. Weight classes were also yet to be implemented, leading to some size mismatches that only furthered the idea of the UFC as a form of "human cock fighting." It surely led to a brain injury or two along the way, but the UFC did eventually create a weight class divide of 200 lbs. at UFC 12. Today, the UFC has eight weight classes for men and three for women.
10 10. The Joe Silva Story
The story of matchmaker Joe Silva's tenure with the company is an interesting one that does not get enough play considering how one-in-a-million the opportunity was. Prior to signing on with the UFC, Silva, then 29, worked at an arcade parlor and one day decided to make a phone call to a number listed in Black Belt Magazine for fighters looking to fight in the UFC. Silva, not expecting anything to come of the call, got Campbell McLaren on the phone and they talked for hours about the product. McLaren, fanatical about Silva's knowledge and perspective encouraged Silva to start attending the fights and eventually hired him.
The Zuffa purchase could have marked an end to Silva's run with the UFC, but Tito Ortiz, the light heavyweight champion at the time mentioned Silva's name when Dana White asked him for suggestions as to who should be the matchmaker. Despite having no experience in management, fight promotion or otherwise, Silva interviewed and soon got the job. 16 years later, he has retired from the profession and just recently entered the UFC Hall of Fame as one of the more influential figures to the company's long-term success.
9 9. Only Three Fighters Have Championships In Multiple Weight Classes
Conor McGregor added to his run as the UFC Featherweight Champion by taking the lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez at the UFC's debut card at Madison Square Garden. McGregor may have been the only fighter to hold both belts up at the same time in an iconic display, but he is not the only fighter to venture into two weight classes and come away with championships.
"The Prodigy" B.J. Penn flirted with the lightweight championship back in 2003 before finally winning it at UFC 80 in 2008. Prior to the title victory over Joe "Daddy" Stevenson, Penn won the welterweight championship at UFC 46 when he submitted fellow UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes. The legendary Randy Couture also has a claim to multiple weight class championships. Couture technically has six UFC world titles to his name; three at heavyweight, two at light heavyweight and one interim championship at light heavyweight. His resume speaks for itself.
8 8. Mergers With PRIDE, Strikeforce And WEC
A big reason for the UFC's large collection of fighters is the mergers and business deals it made to put two of its fiercest competitors out of business and merge its lighter class feeder league into the promotion.
PRIDE, due to an irreverent rule set and merciless combatants gave the UFC fits in the 1990s and early-2000s. When the UFC bought out the Japan-based company in 2007, it brought big stars such as Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Shogun Rua, Dan Henderson and Wanderlei Silva over to America. The PRIDE deal created some dream fights and similarly, many of the UFC's top stars today had origins in Strikeforce and the WEC. Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold, Jacare Souza and Ronda Rousey came from Strikeforce and the WEC, a breeding ground for lightweight fighters and a platform for the featherweight and bantamweight divisions gave the UFC former champions in Benson Henderson, Anthony Pettis, Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz in addition to massively popular challengers such as Urijah Faber and Donald Cerrone. In fact, Joe Silva originally pitched the idea that the WEC be built around the lightweight fighters, which led to the individualized success of the WEC and the eventual incorporations of bantamweight and featherweight.
7 7. Many UFC Greats Took Up MMA As Self-Defense Against Bullies
Many of the UFC's top fighters and top draws did not get into fighting to aggressively put a hurting on people. The motives for several fighters to even take up a form of hand-to-hand combat stemmed from bullying. Sick of the abuse, these fighters took up self-defense for precisely that--self-defense--with no intention of making an eight-to-nine figure career out of it.
Georges St. Pierre is one of the more well known examples. Though St. Pierre was a multi-sport athlete in his native Quebec, he began taking lessons from a Kyokushin Karate Master to defend himself from a bully at his school. St. Pierre fell in love with martial arts, however and soon began to take up wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and boxing. The rest is history. Conor McGregor, similarly took up boxing at 12 years old to defend himself from a bully. MMA legend Bas Rutten might be the best example of this, however. After watching Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon while on vacation, Rutten knew he needed to take up taekwondo. At 14, Rutten challenged the biggest bully at school to a street fight and broke his nose with just one punch. Now a UFC Hall of Famer, Rutten went on to spawn a successful career all around the world.
6 6. Dana White Planned To Box Tito Ortiz
Who can forget the Dana White-Tito Ortiz feud of... well, technically the two are still feuding with no end in sight. As previously mentioned, White managed Ortiz before becoming UFC president. Naturally, the origins of the feud stem from a monetary dispute back in 2007, when Ortiz felt disrespected by the UFC's offer to have him fight Chuck Liddell and threatened to walk. Ortiz also felt a sense of responsibility for the UFC's rise in popularity in the mid-2000s even though the machine kept turning without him.
Tension between the former friends turned bitter enemies in the media got so heated that a boxing match between the two was in the works for a short time. Had it come to fruition, it is anybody's guess who the winner might have been. Ortiz may have been the younger fighter and the only actual athlete out of the two, but White held his own on the amateur boxing circuit in his youth and had some extra motivation on his side. On one hand, Ortiz has claimed he "manhandled" his former boss in a fight on a plane once "until he cried 'uncle'" while White has said he used to "beat the living s**t" out of Ortiz. So who might have won? The world will never know, but it is our job as fans to keep the speculation going.
5 5. Dana White Thought Women's MMA Wouldn't Draw
There may be more soundbites on Dana White than any commissioner of any sports league in the history of time. As successful as the UFC is however, its president still has his faults. When asked in 2011 if women would ever fight in the UFC, White replied, "never."
Of course, the narrative shifted during Ronda Rousey's rise to power in Strikeforce and soon after the UFC; the same UFC its president claimed women would never be a part of. To White's credit, he has admitted he was wrong. In 2012, he admitted he was "dipping a toe in the water" because of Ronda Rousey. After the last pay-per-view of 2016, White claimed that female mixed martial artists had surpassed the men. The only thing that can be surmised from these statements is Dana White is extremely quotable and loves making money. Who doesn't? It does not change the fact, however that he was wrong about the drawing power of women in his company.
4 4. Jon Jones And Nike
MMA fighters, for a long time lacked mainstream sponsorship visibility in comparison to other sports. For instance, shoe deals in basketball make national news and Aaron Rodgers' participation in those "discount-double check" commercials from State Farm certainly helped his visibility. Seldom do MMA fighters reach levels of coverage that high, but it really happened for the first time when Jon Jones notched a deal with Nike.
The fighter and brand quickly became synonymous with the "swoosh" logo appearing on the back of Jones' fight shorts for all of his fights between August 2012 and the Reebok Deal. The sponsorship made waves in the MMA community and Jones claimed he had been trying to get on Nike's radar since 2005. Anderson Silva soon followed suit with a Nike deal of his own and if for only a minute it seemed as though MMA fighters could be seen as stars by sponsors and new doors for financial had opened. Of course, the uniform deal White cut with Reebok in December 2014 put the kibosh on the idea of fighters going out and making for themselves with future Nike sponsorships. Don't believe me? Ask Gegard Mousasi what he thinks of the Reebok deal.
3 3. Conor McGregor Grossed Four Of The Five Biggest PPVs Of All Time
For as short as his run at the top of the UFC's featherweight and lightweight divisions seems to be, Conor McGregor has been on fire since he started main eventing UFC pay-per-views. Though Brock Lesnar is the name oft-thought to be the greatest draw in company history, it is McGregor who has main-evented four of the UFC's top five pay-per-views of all time.
Both of McGregor's fights with Nate Diaz take the top-two slots, though important to remember Diaz only became McGregor's opponent in the first fight because Rafael Dos Anjos had to pull out with an injury. According to Tapology, the rematch did 1,600,000 buys on pay-per-view, the most ever and more than UFC 100 and UFC 200, two of the most marketed fights ever. Imagine what the Diaz rematch would have done had it stayed on the card for 200? His fights with Eddie Alvarez and Jose Aldo also did 1,300,000 and 1,200,000 buys each, making him the greatest draw in the history of the UFC by a large margin. Should he return for a third Nate Diaz fight, one can only imagine the business it can do, especially after all the exposure McGregor will get from fighting Floyd Mayweather next month.
2 2. Dana White's Mob Run-Ins
White's history with Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz received previous mentioning on this list, but one has to wonder how White, who has roots in Boston, found himself managing the two future UFC draws in the first place? The answer? A visit from the Mob.
In the early-'90s, White ran a ‘get kids off the street’ program at a boxing gym in Boston. One day, he received a visit from Kevin Weeks, the right-hand man of "Winter Hill Gang" kingpin Whitey Bulger in the middle of a class. Weeks told White he owed the gang $2,500 for operating his business in their neighborhood. White, ignoring the demand at first, brushed the visit off. Several weeks later, he received a phone call from Weeks simply saying, "you owe us the money by 1 o' clock tomorrow." White, terrified of the mob, bought a plane ticket to Vegas and never looked back. Needless to say, it changed White's life and after he discovered mixed martial arts and convinced the Fertittas to buy the UFC, the rest as they say is history.
1 1. The Latest Sale
All good things must come to an end. Last summer, rumors began to swirl about the possibility of Zuffa, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta's company, selling the UFC. Slowly but surely, bidders began to line up with the price tag being estimated at around $4 billion. It is important to note that White and the Fertittas bought the UFC for just $2 million, so to say they got a great return on investment would be a massive understatement. Talent agency WME-IMG partnered with Silver Lake Partners, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and MSD Capital to complete the $4 billion dollar sale, the most expensive transaction for any organization in sports history.
White, who retained his role as UFC President, cashed out on his nine-percent ownership stake and received new ownership shares of the WME-IMG financial pie. The Abu Dhabi government also retained their 10-percent minority stake. The terms of the sale are to this day unfathomable and the new leadership has led to changes across the board, such as the resignation of Joe Silva and release of longtime play-by-play commentator Mike Goldberg. Many questions surrounding the UFC's future still need to be decided, however. Will the new ownership group continue the Reebok uniform deal when it eventually expires? Can they convince Conor McGregor to return to MMA after he fights Floyd Mayweather? Can they create new stars to carry the sport into the next generation? Time will surely tell.
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