The entire MMA world was buzzing when the announcement came, sudden as a heart attack, that the Ultimate Fighting Championship would soon make a huge leap forward into the mainstream. Media cheerleaders swooned, even as the promotion made it clear that just a single fight would air on television during this debut show. But that bout, according to owner Lorenzo Fertitta, was a chance to let the general public "know about the UFC and its fighters and understand the product."
It should. It's the story of the UFC's debut on Fox last year.
It's also the story of the UFC's original television debut, a June 25, 2002 broadcast of The Best Damn Sports Show, Period on Fox Sports Net.
For UFC fans in 2002, this was a seismic moment, shaking the entire sport of MMA to its very core. That sounds awfully dramatic, I know, but in 2002 MMA in America was still a very iffy venture. The UFC, the flag bearer of the sport since its 1993 debut, nearly went bankrupt at the turn of the century as owner Bob Meyrowitz fought a desperate battle, not to gain an audience, but rather against legislators and cable companies just for the right to exist.
From Puerto Rico to New York and most everywhere in between, Meyrowitz battled to escape the bed he had helped make for himself, trapped by early marketing that identified the sport as a bloody spectacle, death always looming just out of camera frame.
After eight years, he didn't have any fight left in him, selling the company to Las Vegas casino moguls Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.
Under the Fertittas, and their consigliere Dana White, there was progress at a breakneck pace. The hurdles, whether regulatory or cable, seemed to melt away as the two brothers flexed their bank book and their connections.
The UFC, in just months, was holding shows in the mecca of professional fisticuffs, Las Vegas, Nevada, and was widely available again on pay-per-view. But the Brinks trucks filled with cash, the ones that seemed inevitable at the time, never arrived. The promotion floundered and, like Meyrowitz before them, the Ferittas were soon swimming in a sea of red.
The solution, it soon became clear, was television.
Free television, not just PPV, which limited the audience to fans who were already diehards. The UFC was convinced that if they could only get their product in front of people, success would follow as a matter of course. The search for a broadcast partner became the company's top priority—a last ditch effort to rescue the promotion and, by proxy, the entire sport.
It was this sense of desperation that led to UFC 37.5, so named because it wasn't conceptualized and executed until after the company had already begun planning and promoting UFC 38 in London. It was not an ideal time for a show, but when Fox Sports Net said "jump" Fertitta and his team were happy to say "how high?"
It was too late in the game to book one of the major arenas around the country, so instead of the MGM Grand or the Mandalay Bay, the card was held in the swanky Bellagio, a casino on the strip that, lacking an arena of its own, had to make due with their spacious Grand Ballroom, a 45,000 square-foot site that was plenty big enough to comfortably fit both the UFC Octagon and 3,700 of the company's most raucous fans.
To the dismay of many, the network didn't want an entire fight card, just a single bout.
It was a challenge, then, to decide how best to utilize this opportunity, this one chance to show the world (or at least the 150,000 viewers tuning in to Fox Sports Net) exactly what this sport was all about.
UFC President White, however, had the perfect man in mind for the job.
It seems ludicrous to consider now, but Robbie Lawler, a man who hasn't fought in the promotion since 2004 and seems to be on the tail end of his career at just 30 years of age, was once the UFC's golden boy.
Just 19 when White personally signed him after an impressive showing at a minor show in Hawaii, Lawler was handsome, muscular and had hands of stone. Comparing him to a young Mike Tyson, Dana called the move "a Christmas present to myself."
And so it was that Lawler, despite having fought a grueling bout with Aaron Riley barely a month earlier at UFC 37, found himself hand selected to represent his entire industry on national television for the first time.
Although the current UFC mythology claims Fox Sports and the UFC picked which bout to air only after the fights were in the can, reporting at the time in Full Contact Fighter makes it clear that Lawler's fight with Steve Berger had already been selected for broadcast "well before the opening bell."
White himself acknowledged as much, telling reporters after the fight that "As I was sitting here when the fight started, I realized how much pressure I put on him when he was preparing for that fight."
Luckily, the young man, then all of 20 years old, delivered in a big way. After a back-and-forth first round, one that showcased the breadth of technique that makes MMA, well, MMA, Lawler got the highlight-reel knockout the UFC desperately needed, dropping Berger with a series of punches and landing five more on the ground to force the stoppage.
For Fox Sports Net officials, the show was an eye-opener. Originally described by White as "standoffish," the event's success (drawing what White claimed was the second biggest audience in The Best Damn Sports Show, Period's history) led to a shift in attitudes—and other opportunities with the network.
They filled in for boxing on Sunday Night Fights broadcasts later that year with taped programming, doing, Fertitta said, double the numbers boxing did in the same slot. The Best Damn Sports Show, Period provided an outlet for Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock to hype their main event at UFC 40, an event that turned around the UFC's PPV business in a major way.
Yet, a long term deal couldn't be reached.
The Fox Sports Net deal, in the wake of what would follow on Spike TV and now Fox, is just a blip in the UFC's television history, albeit an important one. Going forward, the company could show other TV executives exactly what the sport would look and feel like on mainstream television and also point to a track record of success.
It opened the door for everything that followed, both for the UFC and their myriad of competitors, helping create the boom that opened the door wide for the UFC to challenge boxing for the hearts and minds of the world's fight fans.