by Jeff Cain – MMAWeekly.com
The Ultimate Fighting Championship put on twenty events in 2008, three in England, one in Canada and opened new markets in the U.S. with shows in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Omaha, Chicago, Fayetteville, and returned to where it all began back in 1993, Denver.
In 2008 we witnessed a changing of the guard with The Ultimate Fighter alums rising to the top of their divisions with The Ultimate Fighter season 1 winner Forrest Griffin defeating Quinton “Rampage” Jackson to gain the light heavyweight crown only to have it taken away by season 2 winner Rashad Evans. Season 1 finalist Kenny Florian solidified himself as the No. 1 contender to BJ Penn’s lightweight title.
We witnessed the return of Randy “That Natural” Couture, the untimely death of former middleweight titleholder Evan Tanner, the emergence of Brock Lesnar and the resurrection of Frank Mir’s fighting career. Familiar faces and long-time contenders were toppled as Chuck Liddell was viciously knocked out by Rashad Evans, Wanderlei Silva was put to sleep by a counter left-hook from Quinton Jackson, Randy Couture got TKO’d by Brock Lesnar, and “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” Tito Ortiz, disappeared.
While other promotions would falter in 2008, the Ultimate Fighting Championship continued to grow and solidify its dominance as the premier mixed martial arts promotion in the world. While they put on several events, big fights and a reality television series, 2008 for the UFC was the “Let’s Make a Deal” year.
In a troubled economy where even top NASCAR teams have struggled to secure sponsorships, the UFC inked deals with major companies. Harley Davidson signed on with the UFC in December of 2007, with it’s logos showing up on the Octagon canvas and the backdrop of the weigh-ins, replacing Xyience. The sponsorship was the first time the motorcycle giant sponsored a sport outside of racing.
Announced at UFC 82: “Pride of a Champion” pre-fight press conference on Feb. 28, was a three-year deal with Anheuser-Busch as the UFC’s official beer sponsor.
“Landing Anheuser-Busch and Bud Light is huge for us, our fighters and especially our fans,” said UFC president Dana White. “We’ve got the number one selling beer in the world and one of the top marketers in all of sports as our sponsor. If our TV ratings, pay-per-view buys and venue sell-outs weren’t enough, this definitely cements UFC as a major player in sports business.”
“UFC has developed a huge following in recent years and is wildly popular with the 21-34 year old fans we want to reach,” said Tony Ponturo, vice president, global media and sports marketing, Anheuser-Busch, Inc. “The number of people attending live events, buying the pay-per-views and talking about UFC around the water cooler continues to grow. It’s just a great place for us to be.”
The UFC also inked a deal with BSN as it’s official nutritional supplement provider.
“I’m proud to announce that BSN is now the ‘Official Nutritional Supplement Provider’ of the UFC,” said BSN CEO Chris Ferguson. “MMA is the fasted growing sport in the world today. We are excited to be aligned with an organization as prestigious as the UFC.”
In June, toy maker Jakks Pacific Inc. signed a four-year license agreement with the UFC to develop a line of action figures. The Octagon was also included in the license agreement.
Along with the action figures, the Octagon, and other accessories, the four-year Master Toy license also includes “role-play items based on the UFC brand and its classic and current roster of star fighters.” The first set of figures will be released this fall and feature UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, middleweight titleholder Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Michael Bisping and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, among others.
In April, UFC-branded Bic lighters made their way into stores. Silver Buffalo introduced UFC-branded watches, barware, bar accessories, lighting, wall décor, and billiards and darts accessories. And on June 15, US Bank launched its UFC VISA card with no annual fee and the option to receive points for UFC merchandise.
On Oct. 14, The Topps Company and the UFC announced an agreement that gave Topps exclusive rights to produce UFC brand trading cards featuring current, future and former UFC athletes. The deal lasts through May 2011 for UFC trading cards and stickers.
“MMA continues to become one of the most popular sports in the country and Topps is looking forward to joining forces with UFC’s rising stars and illustrious history,” said Warren Friss, Topps’ General Manager of Sports & Entertainment. “We are extremely excited to work with UFC and give our collectors access that has never before been available in our industry.” The cards will debut this year.
“There’s going to be incredible UFC-branded product,” said Randy Klein, the UFC’s Vice President of Licensing and Merchandising. “We’re establishing a benchmark of MMA product that no one has ever seen before. We’re going to be in retailers all over the world with our video game, apparel, and sports collectibles. It’s really an exciting time right now.”
On June 10, the UFC and Globosat announced a three-year television distribution agreement to show UFC events on two Globosat channels – Premiere Combate and SporTV – in Brazil.
“We are very happy to be able to show the UFC for another three years, this is the event that our subscribers continually request,” said Elton Simões, Globosat’s premium channels director.
“We have over 20 Brazilian fighters in the UFC, including our middleweight champion, Anderson Silva, Antonio ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva, Lyoto Machida, Gabriel Gonzaga, and the list goes on and on. Now fight fans in Brazil can see their fights and follow their favorite fighters,” said Dana White, UFC President.
In September, the UFC announced it had reached a deal with TELESPORT, one of the largest sports networks in Romania, to air live UFC events. “We look forward to bringing (Romania) all the best fights as they happen on TELESPORT, as well as new and exciting ways that they can experience the UFC,” said White.
On Oct. 13, the UFC announced it had reached a two-year agreement to return to Japanese television with WOWOW.
“WOWOW is extremely pleased to announce that UFC is back on WOWOW, starting with the UFC 89 event in Birmingham, UK,” said Mr. Kazuyuki Omura, Chief Producer, WOWOW. “The UFC will telecast in High Definition on WOWOW’s popular ‘Timely-on-Air’ format, a limited delay broadcast adjusting the airtime to a time that will be convenient for the sports fans in Japan. After airing over 50 UFC shows from 2001 to 2007, we are excited to once again provide our subscribers with the most prominent mixed martial arts program in the world.”
CANADA FINALLY GOT THEIR EVENT
The UFC going to Canada had been promised and questioned about by the media for years. On April 19, Canada finally got its UFC event, headlined by the Canadian 2008 Athlete of the Year Georges “Rush” St. Pierre. The sellout crowd was electric inside the Bell Center in Montreal that night as St. Pierre rematched Matt “The Terror” Serra, who had previously TKO’d the Canadian in one of the biggest upsets in mixed martial arts history.
St. Pierre would avenge the loss by dominating Serra in every facet of the game, finishing The Ultimate Fighter season 4 winner, former welterweight titleholder, and Renzo Gracie black belt with knees to the body on the ground.
Heavyweight prospect Cain Valasquez would make his UFC debut that night. Rich Frankin TKO’d The Ultimate Fighter season 4 middleweight winner Travis Lutter. Michael “The Count” Bisping made his middleweight division debut, while Nate “The Rock” Quarry literally chased Kalib Starnes around the Octagon in a 15-minute marathon decision win.
UFC TAKES THE SHOW TO NEW MARKETS
While the UFC continued its European invasion, on the home front, they brought the Octagon to new markets and returned to some old ones as well. The UFC began 2008 in Newcastle, England, but put on events in eight U.S. cities: Las Vegas, Columbus, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Omaha, Chicago, and Fayetteville, N.C.
The UFC marked its second visit to Columbus, and it’s third trip to Ohio, in 2008. The Ultimate Fighting Championship began in Denver, Colorado in November of 1993. UFC 1 and 2 would play out in the Mile High City, as well as “The Ultimate Ultimate 1995,” in December of that year. They returned to where it all began for UFC Fighting Night 13, headlined by Kenny Florian and Joe Lauzon. Okay, so it was actually Broomfield, Colo., but that’s still the Denver metro area.
On Aug. 9, the UFC went to Minneapolis for the first time with welterweight titleholder Georges St. Pierre defeating top challenger Jon Fitch in the main event. On the undercard, Kenny Florian was victorious over a then undefeated Roger Huerta, and Minnesota’s own Brock Lesnar got his first UFC win by decision over veteran fighter Heath Herring.
The UFC would return to Georgia for the first time since UFC 13 in May of 1997. Atlanta boasts the world’s busiest airport, professional baseball, football, and basketball teams. On Sept. 6, Phillips Arena was filled to capacity to witness the fastest growing sport, mixed martial arts, as the UFC invaded the crown jewel of the south. The arena went silent in the main event, brought on by a thunderous right hand from Rashad Evans that put former UFC light heavyweight titleholder Chuck Liddell to sleep.
Eleven days later the UFC would take its product to Omaha. Hometown favorite Houston Alexander would be defeated by Eric Schafer in the closing seconds of the first round, while Alan Belcher and Ed Herman would go to war, ending in a split decision, and The Ultimate Fighter season 5 winner Nate Diaz had his toughest test to date, edging out Josh Neer by split decision in a back and forth battle to cap off the night.
An event in the Chicago area had long been talked about and on Oct. 25, it became a reality. UFC middleweight titleholder Anderson Silva defeated Patrick Cote in the main event after Cote sustained a knee injury. MMAWeekly.com’s 2008 Fighter of the Year, Thiago Alves, handily defeated Josh Koscheck in their welterweight match-up, while former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk and Tyson Griffin went to war with Sherk pulling out the unanimous decision.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship hadn’t been to North Carolina since UFC 5 in April of 1995, but in 2008, the UFC put on a special event to raise money for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, raising more than $4 million for injured soldiers. The night was filled with brutal fights. During the second bout on the card, Corey Hill suffered a broken leg when his kick was checked by Dale Hartt. Hill went into surgery the next day to repair the damage. Ben Saunders finished Brandon Wolff with a series of knees, while former World Extreme Cagefighting light heavyweight titleholder Steve Cantwell dislocated Razak Al-Hassan’s elbow with an arm bar that Al-Hassan refused to tap to. Mike Swick lived up to his nickname, “Quick,” taking only 33 seconds to viciously knock out Jonathan Goulet, and Josh Koscheck delivered a highlight reel KO over Yoshiyuki Yoshida in the main event.