In 19 years, MMA has grown from a freak show to a billion-dollar industry.
Almost 19 years ago, the UFC first appeared on American pay-per-view for the first time. In the days since, a number of promotions have come and gone, the UFC twice came back from the brink of death and MMA has grown from a professional wrestling spin-off to a multi-billion-dollar industry.
How did this come about? What could have possibly resulted in such a turnaround?
That is what we are here to discuss. Here are the 10 Moments that made MMA the Sport It Is Today.
Enjoy your history lesson, as we look over nearly 20 years' worth of twists and turns and pick out the junctures that led MMA down the path it is today, in the United States and abroad.
UFC 1, obviously, was the first event for the UFC, which would come to dominate the global MMA scene.
The UFC, obviously, is the biggest company in the sport today, and it is fitting to start off this article with UFC 1. If you have not seen it, UFC 1 was a kooky tournament made up of fighters of all shapes and sizes, meant to represent different martial arts forms from across the world.
There was Sumo wrestler Teila Tuli, kickboxer Patrick Smith, savateur Gerard Gordeau and, of course, Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner Royce Gracie. UFC 1 was designed to be something directly out of Street Fighter 2 (which, not coincidentally, was still pretty damn popular at the time).
The event was relatively successful, drawing 86,000 buys. Obviously, though, the main thing here is how it introduced the United States to MMA and started what would become one of the biggest sports entities in the world.
A fierce media campaign against the UFC ended up helping MMA grow into a serious sport.
UFC 12 was supposed to be the biggest event in the UFC's at-the-time-short history and featured a heavyweight championship bout between Dan Severn and Mark Coleman, as well as the UFC debut of a 19-year-old hotshot by the name of Vitor Belfort. While fists would eventually fly, UFC 12 proved to be one of the greatest logistical nightmares in sports history.
The event was originally set to take place in New York. That, however, was nixed when anti-MMA sentiment in the New York media (most prominently with the New York Times) released a Kraken-sized wave of bad publicity surrounding the sport. This provided enough political pressure to have the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) refuse to sanction the UFC, effectively (and, to this point, irrevocably) ending MMA in the state of New York.
While fans may wax nostalgic about the “Golden Age” of the UFC, it is hard to blame politicians, including famous former detractor John McCain, for being critical of early MMA. After all, seeing Joe Son's groin ruthlessly punched by Keith Hackney and seeing Teila Tuli spit out teeth after being kicked in the face on the ground against Gerard Gordeau is difficult, even today.
Either way, UFC 12 marked an important turning point for MMA as a whole. What was previously a spectacle, filled with soccer kicks, fish-hooking and open weight classes started to become a legitimate sport.
Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought out the UFC, against the advice of their accountants and advisors. Thank God they did.
While the UFC was the top promotion company in the United States, it was still struggling mightily to keep paying its bills. The promotion's parent company, Semaphore Entertainment Group, was ready to plunge into bankruptcy, taking the UFC with it.
You know the rest. (But how about we go over it anyway?)
Dana White, who at the time still had hair, would approach casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and pitch the idea of buying the promotion to turn it into a legitimate sport. Against the advice of everyone around them, they went ahead and did it.
The UFC would grow and grow and grow into the monster it is right now. This, perhaps, is the single most important moment in MMA history. Regardless of how you feel about Dana White or Zuffa, this was the point where the sport started to become huge.
UFC 33 is acknowledged as probably the single worst event in the promotion's history and is among the worst ever in MMA. It was a downright catastrophe.
The UFC literally stacked the card as thoroughly as possible, with three championship bouts and an early Chuck Liddell appearance.
Then, remarkably, every main card fight went to decision, drawing things out long enough to have half of the main event get cut off for some viewers, due to the program running over the time allotted by some cable and satellite providers.
While that is what the event is mostly remembered for, it was still a key point for the UFC and MMA as a whole for two reasons:
First, and most importantly, UFC 33 was the first pay-per-view event widely available through most cable and satellite providers. After the controversy surrounding UFC 12, many companies refused to air UFC events, seriously limiting the promotion's reach and revenue potential.
Its 75,000 buys were an impressive feat at the time, and it is where Tito Ortiz first cemented himself as the UFC's top draw, from 2001 to 2004.
Additionally, it was the first MMA event that was fought under the newly-completed Unified Rules of MMA. As stated, before UFC 12, MMA in America was a wacky world of David vs. Goliath matches, 25-minute rounds and nutshots. The UFC progressively added rules from UFC 12 onward, and it was at UFC 33 that MMA literally became the sport it is today.
Dynamite (a.k.a. Pride Shockwave) was an enormous event that was so big it is still carrying Bob Sapp today.
While the UFC is huge now, it lagged far behind Pride FC at the start of the millennium. Pride Shockwave, a.k.a. Dynamite, in Tokyo, Japan remains among the biggest combat sports events in world history and was the jumping-off point for many staple fighters in the Japanese market.
To put things in perspective, UFC 39 took place at about the same time and had an attendance of 7,800 and a PPV buy-rate of 45,000. Pride Shockwave had an attendance (according to Dana White) of over 70,000 people and was viewed by millions upon millions of Japanese fight fans.
The event was absolutely stacked with many of Pride's best, including Wanderlei Silva, Gary Goodridge and Mirko "Cro Cop." The bout between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Bob Sapp is still one of the most memorable in MMA history and, in Sapp's case, was something to build an entire career off of.
Dynamite remains the gold standard for event attendance and was pointed to by fans and Dana White alike when the record-setting UFC 129 packed Toronto's Rogers Centre to the tune of 55,000 fans.
Spike and the UFC worked remarkably well together and helped each other grow in profound ways.
While many point specifically to the bout between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar as the turning point for the UFC, that does a disservice to the excellent relationship the UFC had with Spike TV for six full years. They helped each other grow in such an amazing way that it is kind of sad that they had such an ugly breakup.
They kicked off their magical run together with The Ultimate Fighter series premiere. Equal parts blood and melodrama, the reality show would draw sizable audiences and would give the UFC a long list of enduring stars, including Kenny Florian, Nate Quarry, Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, Chris Leben and the aforementioned Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar.
Spike would also host major events, such as UFC 75, less-major events like UFC: Fight for the Troops and hundreds of hours of back-footage on a near-constant loop.
While the two are on rocky terms right now, with Spike religiously counter-programming The Ultimate Fighter and Fox events, their partnership remains one of the greatest in sports history.
When Pride began hemorrhaging money, Zuffa took over the company and became the undisputed top promotion of MMA.
This, straight up, was the moment where the UFC became the king of MMA.
Pride FC was, perhaps, the biggest MMA promotion in the world for a good while, but when its major TV deal fell through in 2006, its days became numbered. When rumors began swirling about mafia involvement and the possibility of fixed fights, the company's fate was sealed. Zuffa, in turn, pounced on the opportunity to take over its biggest competitor.
While the original story was that the UFC would let Pride function autonomously, the Fertittas quickly changed their minds and announced their intention to close its doors and harvest most of its roster. With that, fighters like Dan Henderson, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko Cro Cop and many more found their way to the UFC.
Though the UFC, by this time, had already bought out the WEC and has since taken over Strikeforce, its acquisition of Pride remains the most important power play by Zuffa in history. While overly-nostalgic Pride fans still complain about this fateful turn of events, it is undeniably one of the most important days in MMA history.
BJ Penn's return to the UFC brought back a division that failed without him.
Many forget this, given how downright amazing it is right now, but from 2003 until 2007, the lightweight division was easily MMA's weakest.
When BJ Penn and Caol Uno fought to a split-decision draw at UFC 41, the division effectively died off and was officially disbanded at UFC 49. Pride had a lightweight division but pushed its bigger divisions above all others. The WEC existed but had almost zero TV presence at the time.
BJ Penn, by returning to the UFC and rejoining the lightweight division on a mostly-permanent basis, would become the savior of 155-lb fighters the world over.
Penn would offer the UFC security at the top division for a long while, fighting at a steady, but not particularly fast, pace while also taking a detour to the welterweight division to rematch Georges St-Pierre. This allowed the UFC to set up compelling title fights against Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, while, at the same time, allowing young fighters by the name of Nate Diaz, Gray Maynard, Frankie Edgar, Clay Guida and Joe Lauzon to join and develop in the UFC.
Indeed, 2007 set up the lightweight division (and, by extension, the featherweight and bantamweight divisions) for the long-term success it still enjoys today.
Elite XC seemed like it was going to give the UFC a run for its money but was ultimately thwarted by general incompetence and unscrupulous practices.
There is so much to talk about when it comes to this chapter in MMA history. The short (short-ish?) version is this:
Before Showtime got its hooks into Strikeforce, it was working with the ProElite MMA promotion. The combination of the two became known as Elite XC. A combination of an impressively-raw TV deal with Showtime and poorly-thought-out co-promotions forced it to put on far more shows than it was really capable of.
From day one, events were riddled with controversy and were rife with bad refereeing. Poor fighter conduct and a plethora of failed drug tests made more news than the lackluster events.
On the business end, fighters like Antonio Silva, Andrei Arlovski and Robbie Lawler were given huge contracts that did not offer good return on investment. Meanwhile, Elite XC was forced to stage loads of teeny-tiny events that consistently failed to draw viewers on TV or at the gate.
Most famous was the placement of all the promotion's eggs in the basket of MMA newbie, but lowest-common-denominator favorite, Kimbo Slice. Slice famously lost to UFC washout Seth Petruzelli as millions watched on CBS. The next day, Pettruzelli would let it slip that the promotion tried to massage Slice's chances by bribing him to keep the fight standing.
This proved to be the end for the promotion, which was already surrounded by accusations of fixing fights (most famously Slice vs. James Thompson and Andrei Arlovski vs. Roy Nelson).
Still, for a time, Elite XC seemed like it was the real deal. It owned the most-watched MMA event for more than three years with its network TV debut on CBS and was home to many legitimately great fighters.
Unfortunately, Elite XC's greatest contribution to the sport remains the blueprint for how to run a promotion into the ground.
The Fox-UFC partnership is still underway but is already hugely important.
Bringing this list to a close is the groundbreaking arrangement between Fox and the UFC.
While the deal has some MMA media folks (including our Bleacher/Report leads) wailing and gnashing their teeth over spotty ratings, the union has been a success by most accounts. Fox seems to love the way things are going, and events have consistently been a top draw in the always-discussed adult male demographic.
Either way, MMA finally becoming a consistent presence on network television is a major achievement for the sport. Obviously, this union is still underway, so we will have to wait to see how things play out over the next few years before we really know how big the partnership is for either company.
Above all, however, this union shows how far the sport has come, from a business perspective. From the 1990s to today, MMA went from a WWF-style spectacle thrown together by companies that would fall as quickly as they rose, to one of the greatest competitions on earth.
These moments, ladies and gentlemen, are the ones that brought about this change.