Those who have followed the sport of mixed martial arts from its inception have witnessed the leaps forward and steps back in its progression to where it is today. On Nov. 12, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will be seen for the first time on the Fox network. The one-fight UFC on Fox broadcast of the world heavyweight title bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos live on network television marks the biggest milestone in the sport’s short but fast-rising history.
America was introduced to mixed martial arts in 1993 when the UFC’s inaugural event took place at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. It’s been a rocky road for the sport that combines several traditional martial arts disciplines in an eight-sided cage to arrive on a network as mainstream as Fox.
There were the dark days when political opposition succeeded in banning the sport from being shown on television, including pay-per-view. The sport was driven underground, to the internet, where it thrived and seeded it’s expanding roots.
Today, the UFC is “liked” by just shy of seven million people on Facebook and UFC president Dana White has 1.7 million followers on Twitter. The internet, particularly social media websites, feed the hardcore fan base with up-to-date news and give them direct interaction with their favorite fighters.
Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the UFC, purchased the promotion in 2001 for a mere $2 million, changing the course of combat sports forever. They aggressively sought to get the sport back on television, as well as sanctioned and legalized in as many states as possible. The company and the sport saw the steady growth, but was still considered a fringe sport.
In 2005, the UFC took a gamble. Heavily in debt, desperate and facing bankruptcy, the Nevada-based fight promotion put all their eggs in one basket, hoping that their product would take off if just given the proper exposure. They inked a deal with male-content driven Spike TV to air a new reality television show where aspiring fighters fought there way into a UFC contract. The series debuted on Jan. 17, 2005, and was an immediate sensation.
Many have said, including the UFC president, that the fight between finalists Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar on that debut season’s finale was the most influential fight in MMA history. It was an epic back-and-forth battle. Where technique sometimes lacked, heart and toughness awed. The gamble had paid off. Mixed martial arts was catapulted into the public eye and the public couldn’t get enough of what they were seeing.
As monumental for the UFC as a company and the sport of mixed martial arts as whole that ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ debut season was, it pales in comparison to the milestone the former fringe sport will achieve this weekend.
“This is without a doubt the biggest fight in UFC history,“ said Dana White. “This thing started as a small fringe sport and has grown to what it is today. This Saturday night as we step out onto Fox, millions of people will see UFC who’ve never watched before.
“There’s been a ton of milestones in our 10 years with the UFC and this is definitely the biggest,” he added. “We are ready for prime time and we’re going to show everybody on Saturday night.”
The Fox marketing machine has been in full swing. Commercial advertising for this event aired during the World Series and NFL games on Sundays.
While White is right, the first UFC event on Fox will bring millions of new eyeballs to the UFC product, the significance and magnitude of the event are much more far reaching than that.
For the first time, mixed martial arts will get time on the same stage as the NFL, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR. That itself is a triumph for a sport that’s not yet 20 years old. For the first time, we’ll really find out how “mainstream” mixed martial arts really is and its marketability to the masses. We’ll find out just how the UFC stacks up with the staple sports in American culture.
White and company have prepared to make the first UFC on Fox a success, and the UFC president realizes the event’s significance. “It’s very important to me. I’m hoping for a big (number),” White said. “I’m looking for good ratings.
“No matter what, you know we’re going to deliver. We’re on Fox – the biggest, baddest network on the planet. We couldn’t ask for anything more. This is a dream come true.”