The Ultimate Fighting Championship debuts on Nov. 12 with its first event at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. Arguably the biggest name in the history of mixed martial arts Royce Gracie proves how dominant his family’s patented Brazilian jiu-jitsu is when he wins three matches in a row to claim the $50,000 first-place prize in the inaugural show billed as a “no-holds-barred” eight-man tournament.
The first superfight occurs on April 7 when Gracie squares off against Ken Shamrock in Charlotte, N.C. The bout, a rematch of the pair’s UFC 1 semifinal, draws 260,000 pay-per-view buys — an MMA record that stands until the Randy Couture-Chuck Liddell match in 2006. The bout breaks the 30-minute time limit, and neither fighter can establish control in the overtime period. Without judges, the fight ends in a draw much to the displeasure of the 6,000 fans inside Independence Arena. The event also marks UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie’s last involvement with the company as he leaves because of philosophical differences.
The year brings Sen. John McCain’s infamous “human cockfighting” label to the sport he initially sought to stop months earlier at UFC 4 in Tulsa, Okla.
McCain’s campaign prompts several major cable operators to pull the UFC from their pay-per-view systems and 36 states ban shows within their borders.
In response, the UFC tries to clean up its act by creating weight divisions at the hastily strung together UFC 12 show, which is forced to relocate to Dothan, Ala., after New York bans the event the evening before it is set to go live.
On July 27, UFC 14 in Birmingham, Ala. is the first show where padded gloves become mandatory. In October at UFC 15 in Bay St. Louis, Miss., some of the sport’s harshest rules from its early days are outlawed. Strikes to the back of the head, kicks to a downed opponent, hair pulling, head-butts and groin strikes all are banned.
At UFC 28 on Nov. 17, Couture becomes the UFC’s first two-time champion in Atlantic City. More importantly the show is the first sanctioned event from the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, which approves the promotion after adopting the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.
A month later signals an equally significant change as UFC 29 in Tokyo on Dec. 16, 2000 is the last show the Semaphore Entertainment Group promotes before selling the UFC to Las Vegas casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta.
No doubt the biggest year in UFC history as the Fertittas and high school classmate Dana White create Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company, and purchase what will become the premiere MMA organization in the world for $2 million.
With the unified rules in place, the Fertittas take the show back to Atlantic City for their first event, “UFC 30: Battle of the Boardwalk” at the Trump Taj Mahal. The card features five present and future UFC champions in Tito Ortiz, Evan Tanner, Jens Pulver, Josh Barnett and Sean Sherk.
However, the event — which also features the first and only bantamweight title match in UFC history when Jens Pulver defeated Caol Uno — draws only 3,000 fans and a paid gate of $110,000, signaling Zuffa has quite the uphill battle.
The UFC adopts the unified rules weight class setup for UFC 31.
On Aug. 31, the UFC secures sanctioning by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. No doubt Lorenzo Fertitta, a former commission member before buying the UFC, has some influence on the decision.
Sept. 28 ushers in “UFC 33: Victory in Vegas,” the company’s first show in Las Vegas and its return to pay-per-view cable. The card draws 9,500 to the Mandalay Bay Events Center and features three title fights (the first and only time in UFC history), but several contests go the distance causing pay-per-view providers to cut the telecast short.
In January the UFC launches its game-changing reality television show The Ultimate Figther on Spike TV. A cast of 16 fighters, eight light heavyweights and eight middleweights live in a house in Las Vegas while pursuing the goal of earning a guaranteed contract with the UFC.
The two teams are coached by UFC legends Couture and Liddell and feature future stars Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck and Kenny Florian.
The finale for the first season takes place April 9 and is broadcast live by Spike, the UFC’s first live event that isn’t on pay-per-view. Griffin wins a back-and-forth, three-round war over Bonnar that White calls “the most important fight in UFC history,” for its impact on moving the sport into the mainstream.
The continuing success of The Ultimate Fighter is quite the boon for the UFC, especially in 2006 as the organization sells an unprecedented $222 million in pay-per-view buys — trumping both boxing and professional wrestling for the year.
The end-of-the-year blowout card, UFC 66, features the ballyhooed rematch between Liddell and Ortiz and is the first non-boxing card to top 1 million pay-per-view buys in North America with 1,050,000 purchases. The sellout crowd of 14,607 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena shells out a UFC gate record of $5,397,300 to watch Liddell again defeat Ortiz — this time via a third-round technical knockout from a flurry of punches.
While the UFC is rolling in its highest profits ever, the Fertittas make another move to ensure the company’s continued global growth when they lure Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Marc Ratner to help legalize mixed martial arts in the United States and beyond.
The UFC purchases World Extreme Cagefighting in December, and two years later turns its sister organization into the home for lighter weight classes (lightweight—155 pounds, featherweight—145 pounds, bantamweight—135 pounds, and flyweight—125 pounds) with such stars as Urijah Faber and Miguel Torres.
The moves keep rolling and business stays booming in the spring of 2007. The Fertittas take out the UFC’s chief rival when they purchase the Japan-based Pride Fighting Championship in March for less than $70 million. The power play helps UFC stage megafights between former Pride stars such as Wanderlei Silva, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira and Dan Henderson against the cream of the current UFC crop.
The mainstream media takes note as both Sports Illustrated and ESPN feature UFC on their magazine covers.
Lorenzo Fertitta steps down as Station Casinos president in June so he can devote his time to developing the UFC’s international business. The continuing shift toward global domination takes center stage on April 19 when a record 21,390 Canadian fans pack the Bell Centre in Montreal to watch hometown hero Georges St. Pierre reclaim his UFC welterweight championship from Matt Serra at UFC 83.
Big-time sponsors like Harley-Davidson and Bud Light hop on board the booming business, which Forbes magazine estimates to be worth a billion dollars, by signing exclusive contracts.
Former WWE star Brock Lesnar proves hard-core critics wrong when he beats Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight title in November.
Karate expert Lyoto Machida wins the light heavyweight belt at UFC 98 in May. Machida and Lesnar, along with a dozen or so other new-generation fighters, usher in a new MMA era, filled with multidisciplined fighters and ultra-strategic and athletically advanced competitors compared to the more one-dimensional wrestlers, strikers and submission experts of the past.
The company releases its first video game, UFC 2009 Undisputed, since 2004 in May. With more than 80 fighters and slick game-play, video game company THQ sells 1 million copies the first month.
UFC inks a deal to broadcast events in China, pushing its programming to more than 100 countries in 17 languages.
White signs former street brawler and YouTube legend Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson to a deal for season No. 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, and says the show airing in September is the most exciting one yet.
On July 11, the organization celebrates its 100th major event with a blowout show at Mandalay Bay featuring two title fights, a first-ever Fan Expo, Hall of Fame inductions and plenty of parties.