By Julie Scelfo
Oct. 9, 2006 issue -
When the first "ultimate fighters" kicked, punched and head-butted each other on national television 13 years ago, civilized observers responded with shock and disgust. The pay-per-view tournament matched kickboxers, judo artists and Brazilian jujitsu fighters, and saw so many broken bones and bloody injuries that John McCain dubbed it "human cockfighting" and called for its abolishment.
Now the brutal business known as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has become one of the most successful and lucrative new sporting ventures in decades, routinely eclipsing the NBA, NHL and MLB in cable ratings among the coveted 18-34 set. According to industry sources, UFC's most successful pay-per-view event this year generated more than $30 million in revenue, a sum that beats WrestleMania's $23 million haul and HBO's typical $16 million from a night of boxing. A hit UFC reality show has transformed Spike TV into one of the top-five cable networks for young men. Sportswriters have begun covering it too, acknowledging the extreme athleticism of competitors. Bernard Fernandez in the Philadelphia Daily News wrote: "I no longer can look the other way."
The transformation of an underground fighting fad to a multimillion-dollar sports industry was due to the vision of Dana White, a former amateur boxer, who saw business potential where others saw savage brutality. In partnership with casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, White acquired the UFC franchise in 2001 and set out to make mixed martial arts "the next NASCAR."
For a while, it looked as if his dream was down for the count. Fans loved the no-holds-barred combat—action that, unlike WWE wrestling, isn't staged. They loved the scrappy, mohawk-wearing warriors with nicknames like "Chainsaw." And they loved the idea of settling once and for all the ancient debate: who's the toughest—a boxer, wrestler or karate master? But the fights weren't regulated by state athletic commissions, which meant they were largely excluded from mainstream venues. Early participants fought locally, so there was no star power to attract a national audience. Also, the original owner had sold off film rights—which White needed for shows and DVDs—and the new owner didn't want to sell them back.
With input from the Nevada and New Jersey state athletic commissions, White adopted new rules and has so far persuaded 22 states to sanction mixed martial arts. He ponied up for the film rights (he won't say how much). Then he enlisted reality-TV producer Craig Piligian to develop "The Ultimate Fighter," a show in which 16 aspiring MMA athletes live and train together and fight for a six-figure UFC contract and a shot in "the octagon," where the bouts take place. One of cable TV's most testosterone-soaked shows, it's now in its fourth season. "These athletes represent the toughest of the tough," says Kevin Kay, Spike TV's general manager. "Our viewers want to be them." The show brought so many young men to Spike TV that the network has since added five more UFC programs to its lineup. Live fights are also popular: August's UFC 62 at Mandalay Bay in Vegas generated a $3.1 million live gate, more than any WWE event this year.
White, who does business in blue jeans and an acid-washed T shirt, has tapped into an appetite for controlled violence that boxing and wrestling don't satisfy. Riding through Times Square in a limo recently, he boasted about the Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock fight (free on Spike TV Oct. 10) and future pay-per-view events. "This thing is only getting bigger," he says. "We're going to be around for a long time." Kind of like bloodstains.