As we welcome the 2009 season for the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), we should reflect on how far it has really come — especially since no other sport has taken bigger steps than the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Just a week after three mega fights — Rampage vs. Silva, Mir vs. Nogueira and Evans vs. Griffin — on UFC 92 on Dec. 27, 2008, the event itself raked in $3,468,440 at the gate, an impressive revenue jump since the organization’s inception in 1993.
Now this begs the question: How has the UFC become the premier MMA organization that it is today?
Gone are the days since the skimpy 6-foot-1-inch, 170-pound Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner Royce Gracie competed in the Octagon, disposing of far bigger opponents in what seemed to be mismatches — worst than a match-up against the 2008 Lions.
The UFC has held 20 events this year alone, a significant increase compared to the beginning of 2000 when five events were the average.
“In three years, [MMA] will be the biggest sport in the world, bigger than the NFL, bigger than soccer. It’s going to be the biggest,” said UFC President Dana White on ESPN’s MMALive in June 2008.
Although White’s statement might be a little bold, he has already bought out the World Fight Alliance and purchased World Extreme Cagefighting under Zuffa LLC., parent company to the UFC. In March of 2007, he and Zuffa bought out PRIDE in Japan, a rival MMA organization to the UFC, which was perhaps the biggest move for the UFC, allowing them to acquire top-tier fighters across the seas; in analogy, this worked like the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
So how is the UFC expanding its organization to other countries?
With Zuffa co-owner Lorenzo Fertita, a wealthy casino executive in Las Vegas joining the UFC full-time, he can help their international expansion in different countries. The UFC already holds five to six events a year in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, they are already televised on pay-per-view in 170 different countries, according to White.
“This sport transcends across all cultural barriers [and] all language barriers,” White said. “You take two guys and put them in the octagon and if they can use any martial arts they want, everybody [around the world] gets it.”
Well, at least the male demographic at ages 18 to 34 would obviously get it. Two years ago at UFC 75, that event drew 4.7 million viewers, the most ever in North America. The dominant age range was from 18 to 34, most typically males.
It must be the combination of martial arts fused into one sport that draws the male demographic toward the UFC. Or it might be the whimsical and unpredictable nature of the fight game. Every fighter stepping into the Octagon equally has a puncher’s chance to knock out an opponent or skillfully pull off a submission; that’s the beauty of the sport. That is possibly one reason why the longest record for title defenses in the UFC sits at five, with Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz holding the record.
However, in boxing, Joe Louis holds the record for the most heavyweight title defenses at 25, a staggering number compared to the UFC’s five. When there are punches thrown to the body and to the head, it limits ways in which a fighter can take out their opponent. But in the UFC, there are many ways to lose a fight: a knockout, leg-lock, arm-bar, guillotine choke, etc. It adds more flavor to the fight game. No one wants to see a football team run a dive all day. They want screens, slants, streaks, curls, hook-and-ladder,and statues of liberties.
The UFC’s rise to prominence can also be attributed to the newly acquired former WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar, who is now the interim-heavyweight champion. At UFC 91, his bout with legendary Randy Couture drew in $4,815,675 at the gate, $1 million more than UFC 92 held a little more than a week ago. Maybe a quarter of the people at UFC 91 or more were rabid WWE fans, helping the UFC’s exposure to fans outside of the MMA sphere.
But in 2009, Dana White and Lorenzo Fertita have bigger plans for the UFC.
“We have a serious global strategy that we’re implementing over the next three to four years,” White said, referring to the international expansion of the UFC.
Let’s face it. The UFC, in its burgeoning stages, is rapidly increasing their fan base every year — even in other countries. How is this even happening?
White might know the answer.
“As human beings, it’s in our DNA [to watch fights]. We love fighting. People like it. They’re attracted to it.”
If that’s the case, move on over soccer – We’ve got a new sport at the helm.