The dawn of the 21st century witnessed several new developments in the world of mixed-martial arts. The most important ones were:
- The re-emergence of the UFC on cable television
- The sale of the UFC by Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) to Zuffa LLC
- The appearance of MMA on Spike TV. This marked the first time an MMA event was not televised pay-per-view
- A new television show The Ultimate Fighter debuted. A combination of MMA training and fighting and reality television, the show caused an explosive growth in interest in MMA
- The emergence of Pride FC, the Japanese MMA organization that was growing by leaps-and-bounds and rivaled the UFC for top-notch talent
- The growth of many smaller American MMA organizations
- The continual evolution of technique, both in fighting and training
To begin, let’s take a look at the cable television ban. From UFC 1 held in November, 1993 until UFC 12 in February 1997, the event was available by pay-per-view on both satellite providers and most large cable providers.
The bad news? The action was only available through pay-per-view. Regular television had a total blackout of the event, with the exception of a few highlights during debates that were held and featured critics of the sport who were loaded with hyperbole statements. One of their favorite descriptions of the UFC was “a barbaric spectacle” or “human cockfighting”. However, in spite of the critics, the UFC rolled on
But it wasn’t smooth sailing by any means. Another early MMA organization Battlecade Extreme Fighting had scheduled an event to be held in Brooklyn, NY on November 18th, 1995. When word got out, a New York Times reporter Dan Barry swung into action, intent on doing all he could to stop the event from taking place.
Barry contacted New York Senator Roy Goodman who held a press conference denouncing the “brutality” of the sport. The NY Times launched a four-day barrage, salvo-after-salvo of hit pieces. Regrettably, it worked. The event was forced to make a last-minute move to North Carolina, causing a severe loss of money and terrible inconvenience to the fighters.
United States Senator and future Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, New York Governor George Pataki and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal also piled on and joined the banning cackle. Blumenthal was instrumental in getting Cablevision to drop coverage of the UFC, the first major cable company to do so.
And who can forget journalist George Will? Considered by many to be a pompous hack, in 1995 he penned a classic entitled “Cruelty For Sale” in which he described a UFC event as “the sounds of entertainment in a nation entertaining itself into barbarism.”
The piece was filled with inaccuracies, half-truths and attacks on everyone involved: promoters, fighters, and the fans, whom he described as “slack-jawed children whose parents must be cretins, and raving adults whose ferocity away from the arena probably does not rise above muttering epithets at meter maids.” Tsk, tsk.
Will continued his bloviating: “Competition for audiences in an increasingly jaded, coarsened and desensitized society causes competitors to devise ever-more lurid vulgarities to titillate the sated.”
Wow. How deep. How profound. Where does such deep wisdom and insight come from? To think that a well-known, much-vaunted and experienced journalist for the Washington Post could find the time to rant and rave this much over an activity that he knew close to nothing about is still, even after 20 years, incredibly mind-boggling.
In spite of the critics cries of “the decline of western civilization” and comparisons to the gladiatorial spectacles of the Roman Empire, the sport itself continued to be made available in most areas to those who wished to see it and were willing and able to pay for it (at an astonishing, budget-breaking price of $19.95…ah, those were the days!).
However, this was about to change
Since 1996 Senator John McCain (Rep-AZ) joined the growing chorus of hysterical voices that continued to voice their “concerns” about the “dangers” and “pure violence” of the sport. The phrase mixed-martial arts was just beginning to define the sport. More often, the UFC was referred to as “no-hold-barred” (NHB) when in fact it was never anything of the sort. Even in UFC 1, there was no biting or eye-gouging, and new rules were added slowly.
Remember, this was the infancy of MMA and no one knew how to regulate the sport. There was no manual entitled “How to promote and Regulate No-Holds-Barred Cage Fighting.” This was truly a learn-as-you-go proposition. SEG was, to use some early aviation vernacular, flying by the seat of it’s pants (no pre-determined plan or mechanical aids like the pilots of old).
Also ignored by the UFC’s critics was the safety of MMA. There were zero fatalities all throughout the 1990’s and very few serious injuries.
But this didn’t fit the narrative of Sen. McCain. There were rumors that McCain’s ties to Anheuser-Busch (owned at the time by McCain’s father-in-law Jim Hensley) had something to do with his vehement opposition to the UFC. The theory was that Anheuser was a huge sponsor of boxing and there were only so many pay-per-view dollars available.
Therefore, the growing popularity of the UFC was perceived by McCain as a direct threat to Anheuser’s bottom line. Or so the story went. To be fair, none of this was ever proven. But in the end, it didn’t matter.
Here’s why. Unfortunately for UFC fans another nemesis arrived on the scene: one Leo J. Hindrey, who at the time was the TCI Cable CEO and a rabid opponent of MMA. Since McCain was the head of the Commerce Commission, this unholy alliance between Hindrey and McCain was a tag-team too formidable to defeat.
TCI dropped all NHB/MMA coverage, followed in rapid succession by Time-Warner and the rest of the other cable companies who followed the trend. This left MMA pay-per-views only available on Satellite carriers, which had a debilitating effect on revenues.
The future of the UFC and the sport of MMA appeared to be facing a very gloomy, grim future, assuming the sport was even able to continue in existence. Fighter pay, which had never amounted to enough for most fighters to survive, was slashed to the bone.
As a result, many fighters gave up their dreams. The talent that was permanently lost will never be truly known.
The combination of the loss of cable revenue and the continued legal assaults proved to be too much for SEG to handle. To quote Campbell McLaren, one of the SEG executives who ran the UFC in those days: “When a business is young, every deal is so crucial,” said Isaacs. “Every show is so crucial. Our fragile business kept getting knocked out, one punch after another to the gut. Then, Cablevision took us off. A month before the (Niagara Falls) New York show, the legislature was thrilled. We were going to run an economically depressed area. We did a successful event in Buffalo. We were working with the athletic commission. But we always had the legal troubles chasing us around. We never knew when they were going to come, or from what direction. They just kept coming.”
So the die was cast. SEG had fought valiantly but came up short. They had to sell or declare bankruptcy. In 2000 a pair of Station Casino Executives Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta along with their business partner Dana White made an offer, and in early 2001 the Fertitta’s were the proud owners of the UFC. The price? $2 million. Shortly after that they created Zuffa, LLC as the controlling entity.
One immediate change was this. Under the SEG banner, the UFC was in a sense forced to run away from state athletic regulators. This was due to the political reasons listed above, as well as the finances and legalities necessary to “make things legal everywhere.” The result was that the UFC was often held in small southern towns located in states with weak athletic commissions.
Zuffa had the financial and legal wherewithal to meet with state regulators and add to the ever-evolving safety rules. This eventually resulted in the UFC becoming legal in Nevada, perhaps the most influential sanctioning body in the fight world. This allowed the UFC to return to cable pay-per-view.
But there’s another side to that version.
However, perhaps the story of the sale was not so cut-and-dried. To be fair, David Isaacs, another executive of SEG who had a significant role in running the UFC prior to the sale had some fascinating comments:
“One of the things Zuffa did was present us as the bad guys, but positioned themselves as the new guys which gave them the opportunity to start with a clean slate,” said Isaacs. “Purists will argue which rules were safer and if the current rules were all that different. By being new, they were able to position it that way and we couldn’t.”
He continued: What Zuffa brought that we couldn’t was a number of things. One was money. We didn’t have the kind of money. We were considered too dangerous to raise the money, or to get big sponsor deals. They also had the connections to get regulated in Nevada. Nevada was crucial.
“The other piece of the puzzle we didn’t have was Dana. We didn’t have a Dana, who could be the guy as the face of the company selling the product. We needed a Dana. Bob wanted to do more. I couldn’t be that guy. Campbell wasn’t the guy. Bob wasn’t the guy. You needed a Vince (McMahon) or a Dana. UFC is like a fraternity. You either get it or you don’t. You’re either in it or you’re not. Dana is all the way in it. People see him and know he’s in it. We already had Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg, but we didn’t have that guy who could really drive it forward by force of his personality connecting with the fans. I think that was very, very important. If you see Dana in public, he gets mobbed. He’s got 2 million twitter followers.”
Regardless, the UFC was back and for the first time in several years it seemed to have a fighting chance to survive and expand.
The Zuffa Era gets off to a Rocky Start
At first, it appeared that the ship was righted and moving in the right direction. The event was back on cable, more and more states were legalizing MMA, the rules were standardized, and the safety record was as close to impeccable as possible.
But the pay-per-view buys were a continual letdown and the numbers weren’t adding up. White later stated that the Fertitta’s were considering pulling the plug. But then came the idea of a reality television show for aspiring fighters.
The concept was simple. The fighters would spend six weeks under the same roof. They would compete to crown “The Ultimate Fighter” and award the winner a three-year six-figure contract.
The idea was pitched and rejected by several networks, but eventually found a home on Spike TV, and in January 2005 the first episode of The Ultimate Fighter appeared. The ratings grew, especially in the coveted 18-34-year-old demographic.
To add to the good news, the final of the show was a battle-royale between Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonner in what is still considered to be the most impactful fight in UFC history. It was a toe-to-toe, thrilling, ebb-and-flow battle and pier six brawl, with both warriors putting it all on the line. Griffin was awarded the decision, but due to the fights’ importance, timing, and excitement generated Bonner was also awarded a six-figure, three-year contract.
In this case, the ancient cliché “there wasn’t a loser in this fight” was true!
Joe Rogan, the UFC Color Commentator, summed it up” “People were at home, and they were calling each other and saying ‘dude you gotta watch this…”. And White added “and the numbers (of viewers) just starts to grow, and grow, and grow.”
This fight caused an explosion of interest in MMA. It is considered the fight that saved MMA…and it was off to the races!
The Rise and Fall of the WCC and Extreme Fighting
Throughout the decade of the 1990’s the UFC was the biggest and at times the only game in town. Battlecade Extreme Fighting and the World Combat Championship (WCC) were new NHB organizations that rivaled the UFC. Both began with serious financial resources and a stable of well-rounded professional fighters. It appeared that the UFC had competition – a plus for MMA fans.
But the WCC folded after its inaugural event. That event was marred by complex rules and different divisions (strikers and grapplers) who competed against each other until the final when the undefeated striker fought the undefeated grappler. Then the funding dried up, and the WCC folded before its owners could put on the second show.
Battlecade Extreme Fighting also showed great promise. The organization was backed by Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse magazine and owner of General Media, Inc. The result was serious investment capital flowing into the fledgling fight organization, and the first event had some big names in the martial arts community associated with it.
Gene “Judo” LeBell, until that time the only man to win a sanctioned mixed fight by defeating a professional boxer with his judo skills, entered one of his students, John Lewis, into the show. Also, another LeBell student, John Perretti, was hired as both matchmaker and announcer.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of having LeBell connected to Extreme Fighting. LeBell is universally respected in the martial arts “community” then and now. He represented a long-time dream of matching style-vs-style that was finally becoming a reality.
Kickboxing legend Joe Lewis added color commentary and Laurence Tureaud, better known as “Mr. T” conducted interviews with the fighters before and after their fights and added enough “pity the fool” humor to provide what one viewer described as “good cocktail lounge entertainment.”
Also, the fights delivered. With a line-up jammed-packed with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu superstars like Ralph Gracie, Carson Garcie Jr, Mario “The Zen Machine” Sperry and Marcus “Conan” Silveira, BJJ was on display. The fights were competitive and featured a loss by Sperry against a Russian Sambo stylist Igor Zinoviev in a stunning upset.
Extreme Fighting also introduced weight divisions: Lightweight, less than 159 lbs; Middleweight, 160-199 lbs; and heavyweight, 200 + lbs. So the show was not only entertaining but had a professional, organized sport feel to it. In subsequent events, Extreme Fighting also introduced time limits per round.
But in the end, Extreme Fighting faced the same legal hurdles that plagued the UFC, and the cable ban was devastating. The final event, Extreme Fighting 4, drew a pitiful 45,000 buyers, which was woefully short of the kind of numbers needed to survive. The plug was pulled.
The emergence of Pride Fighting Championship (FC)
However, another organization was formed that would prove to have staying power…and it was based in Japan. Pride Fighting Championships held its inaugural event Oct. 11th, 1997 and attracted a huge audience. Like the American rivals the WCC and Extreme Fighting the organization had solid finances. Unlike the two previously mentioned organizations, Pride developed an immediate cash flow and thus attracted an influx of foreign fighters world-wide: Brazil, America, England, Holland, Croatia, France and Russia were all represented.
Pride events generated excitement that was almost palpable. World-class talent was going head-to-head which attracted the insatiable NHB appetites of the hard-core fans. And there was also a bit of a pro wrestling element (no weight-limits for special fights with smaller fighters fighting much larger ones, former pro wrestlers from the Japanese wrestling circuit, ex-athletes from other sports and many one-time spectacles with special rules) to attract a broader audience.
And attract a big audience it did. Due to time zones the events were shown time-delayed in America. The results were (in the days of the Internet) immediately available. But the hard-core fans showed enough self-discipline to avoid the NHB forum “spoilers” and wait until Sunday night when the event aired in the US on pay-per-view to learn the outcomes and experience the event live.
The pageantry of these events was breathtaking to put it mildly. From the fighter’s group introduction to the long ring walk, the monstrous Kodo drums, the gigantic screens, the intense rotating, colorful light show, the full-house crowds like the one that set the world record for MMA of 91,107 people at the Pride and K-1 Kickboxing co-production, Shockwave/Dynamite, and the ring announcer (a middle-aged American woman known as the “Crazy Pride Lady” who could look and sound like Medusa in several different languages), every single aspect of the event screamed “ENTERTAINMENT”.
Before or since there has never been anything quite like Pride. To be fair words alone are inadequate to describe its ceremony and atmosphere. Fortunately YouTube is loaded with Pride videos and the events can be purchased on DVD’s for those who are interested.
The fights were held in a traditional ring as opposed to a cage. Ask any fighter who has fought in both and they will usually answer that the ring requires more skill and technique. Also, the rules of Pride encouraged action: if the referee felt the fighters were stalling he would issue a “yellow card”. This meant that 10% of the fighter’s purse would vanish.
The second yellow card would mean 20% gone, and a red card could mean either 50% of the purse forfeited or a disqualification. Naturally, this produced action, action, action.
Perhaps no fighter symbolized Pride as well as Fedor Emelianenko, the long-reigning Pride heavyweight champion. Born in Rubizhne, Urkrainian USSR, Soviet Union, Fedor was widely consider to be “the baddest man on the planet” when he was the champ.
A Sambo and Judo practitioner with a devastating blend of boxing and kickboxing, Fedor had an aura of pure intimidation about him. As he made his ring walk he seemed detached, unemotional and to some almost robotic. His ring entrance music resembled an unfolding horror movie theme and usually was for his waiting foe.
He was so serene and calm but the look in his eyes was serious and intense. He was the champ for a reason and will never be forgotten.
As mentioned earlier, due to their generous compensation, Pride FC attracted the best fighters from all across the globe. These fighters were well-represented by many different fighting styles and fight camps.
But regrettably in the end it wasn’t enough to allow Pride to survive. Problems with television contracts lead to a drop in revenues. Also there were rumors of involvement of the Yakuza crime organization, with the resultant bad publicity.
Pride closed its doors for the last time on Oct. 4th, 2007, almost making it for a decade – but not quite.
The emergence and growth of smaller MMA organizations in the USA
In spite of the problems experienced by the big organizations the decade witness the growth of smaller MMA leagues.
The King of the Cage (KOTC)was founded in 1998 and experienced growth by delivering exciting pay-per-view events that were often held on Indian Reservations. The organization is still active and turning out up-and-coming fighters. Many future UFC fighters fought for the KOTC.
Gladiator Challenge, Hook & Shoot, The North American Allied Fight Series (NAAFS), The International Fight League, Elite XC, World Extreme Cagefighting, Affliction, and Strikeforce are organizations that sprung up in the late 1990’s or early-to-mid 2000’s.
Many of these leagues have come and gone. Some are still continuing. But all made significant contributions to the growing popularity of MMA and gave fighters a path to the big show of the UFC. For that reason alone they deserve acknowledgment…not to mention the hundreds of exciting fights that occurred under their banner.
Finally, the evolution of fight techniques and training continued at a blistering pace. But that will be discussed in our next installment. Stay tuned!