In February 2013, former Olympic Games judoka Rowdy Ronda Rousey finished off an armbar to submit Liz Carmouche, a former member of the US Marines in a world championship fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC. Rousey has become a fan favorite in recent years because of her good looks and mean talent. It was only her seventh fight, but all of them have ended in first round submissions via armbar in her favor.
The fight was the main event for the evening and it did not disappoint. Though it lasted less than a round, it was highly competitive, as Carmouche got her licks in and even nearly rear-choked Rousey. Rousey, however, was able to showcase her complete skills as she shook her opponent off her back and eventually got into a favored position. It showed that Rousey is the real deal and that she can attract a good-sized crowd, particularly the male-dominated audience that make up the followers of the UFC. It also showed that the UFC has indeed come a long way.
The Birth of the UFC
The UFC is considered to be the prime mover and top promotion company for the sport of mixed martial arts. It started out in 1993 when Art Davie (above left), Rorion Gracie (above middle) and John Milius (above right) got together and thought of organizing a tournament that would pit practitioners of different martial arts against one another. It meant kung fu experts fighting karate black belters, kickboxers slugging it out with judo experts, etc.
The initial tournaments featured eight fighters in a single-elimination, loser-goes-home competition. Each fighter was matched up with another with only the winner advancing to the next round. That meant a fighter needed three victories to be declared the tournament champion. It also meant there were seven fights each tournament.
There were no weight classes at that time. There were match-ups that featured two fighters with a 400-pound weight or nine-inch height difference. Brazilian jiujitsu expert Royce Gracie dominated these first tournaments, winning three of the first four events even though he only weighed 175 pounds.
There were practically no rules during the early years. The only moves banned were eye gouging and biting, but the referees would allow hair pulling, headbutting, groin strikes and fish hooking. Competitors had to agree on their own what not to do, as what Guy Mezger and Jason Fairn did when they promised not to pull each other’s hair even though both sported pony tails. There were also no rounds or time limits.
The violence of the UFC eventually caught the attention of authorities. Some US senators called the sport the human version of cockfighting. Eventually, 36 states enacted laws that would effectively ban the UFC.
Grappling the Problem
The UFC confronted the issue head on. It recognized the problem and started cooperating with the different state athletic commissions in order to change the rules and make it more acceptable for the mainstream audience. While it retained the elements of grappling and striking, as these are core parts of the sport, the UFC did start introducing different weight classes in order to avoid atrocious mismatches in terms of weight. Fish hooking was the first to go, followed by hair pulling, head butting, groin strikes, kicking to the head when the opponent was in the mat and strikes to the back of the head and neck area. Five-minute rounds were also introduced, with a maximum of five rounds for championship fights. Gloves were also required.
Because of the new set of codified rules, the UFC slowly but surely started to be viewed as a sport. Still, it was losing money and was on the brink of closure.
With the UFC nearing bankruptcy, Dana White (middle) , Frank Fertitta (left) and Lorenzo Fertitta (right) purchased the company for $2 million and created Zuffa, LLC, the firm that would control the UFC. It secured sanctioning from the all-important Nevada State Athletic Commission, returned to pay-per-view television and garnered more corporate sponsors.
The turning point in the UFC’s then-battle for survival was UFC 40. The fight featured the light heavyweight champion of the time, Tito Ortiz, in a grudge match against one of the UFC’s earliest stars, Ken Shamrock. Shamrock had made a name for himself in professional wrestling but was making a comeback in the UFC. The event sold more than three times the normal pay-per-view figures of the UFC, as well as attracted attention from mainstream media outlets like ESPN and USA Today.
Another huge factor for UFC’s survival was its ability to latch on to the reality show genre craze. It produced “The Ultimate Fighter,” a show were potential MMA stars would fight it out for the right to earn a six-figure contract with the UFC. The finale of season one featured Forrest Griffin Jr. and Stephan Bonnar in a toe-to-toe match. Dana White later on credited the fight for saving the UFC. New seasons have been continuously aired ever since.
Eventually, the UFC was able to stand up on its own and now even rivals boxing as the most popular fighting sport. During UFC 66, the rematch of Ortiz and Chuck Liddell sold over a million pay-per-views. For the whole year of 2006, UFC outsold both the WWE and boxing in terms of pay-per-view dollars, selling $222.7 million in all.
The UFC also started consolidating the entire sport of mixed martial arts. It bought other promotional companies like World Extreme Cagefighting and World Fighting Alliance. In the process, it was able to beef up its own pool of talents as well. It also bought Pride Fighting Championship out of Japan and Strikeforce.
Its fighters have since graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated. Several fights exceeded the one million pay-per-view mark, particularly the Brock Lesnar-Shane Carwin and Quinton Jackson-Rashad Evans fights.
Carrying the Torch
With the sports current popularity, the UFC has made sure that it has the stars to sustain it. Anderson Silva, Jon Bones Jones and Georges St. Pierre are charismatic superstars with entertaining styles. And with the advent of the likes of Rowdy Ronda Rousey, the sport is simply destined for newer heights.