With the explosion in the popularity of the UFC, are you wondering when the UFC started?
The UFC started in 1993 with its first event on November 12, 1993. The purpose of the promotion was less about money and more about finding out which martial art was best and would win in what they termed an ultimate fight.
- How and When Did UFC Start? (Who Started the UFC?)
- The First UFC Fight & Event
- The Near Downfall of the UFC
- The Zuffa Era
- Exponential Growth and Another Acquisition
- Endeavor Era
- The Bottom Line
How and When Did UFC Start? (Who Started the UFC?)
The UFC started in 1993 and had 6 founders, the most influential of the 6 were Rorion Gracie and Art Davie. Rorion Gracie’s family were the pioneers of what is known today as Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The Gracie family established no holds barred fighting in 1920s Brazil, known as Vale Tudo (meaning anything goes in Portuguese), where they’d hold the “Gracie Challenge”, a competition to showcase the effectiveness of their Gracie jiu-jitsu style.
In 1989, Rorion Gracie opened his academy in California and would hold the $100,00 Gracie Challenge for anyone who could beat him. This gathered a lot of attention and he realized there was an opportunity for expansion because people loved it.
One of the people this challenge got the attention of was marketer and entrepreneur, Art Davie. He approached Rorion and filmmaker John Milius, who was attending the Gracie academy for classes, with the concept of ‘War of the Worlds’.
This would be a televised 16-man tournament full of the greatest fighters trained in different martial arts; to find out the best fighter and best martial art, much like how the Gracie family had been doing on a smaller scale since the 1920s.
The three then set up WOW promotions LLC (War of the Worlds) under the leadership of Art Davie, and secured $250,000 from 28 investors.
They then partnered with Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), a company well versed in the pay-per-view business, to help with the promotion of the first UFC event as well as invest a further $450,000 which they secured from BMG.
The venture was split 50/50 between WOW promotions and SEG, and the $700,000 was split three ways for marketing, television production, and all of the associated costs of the event itself, which included the $50,000 prize money.
The First UFC Fight & Event
In the lead-up, the event was promoted as pitting 8 different martial arts against each other to find out the best. These martial arts were: Bjj, shootfighting, boxing, karate, sumo, kickboxing, taekwondo, and savate.
It was also marketed as no holds barred (no rules) with the promise it’d be the real-life entertainment version of the popular video game, Mortal Kombat.
To find fighters, advertisements were placed in martial arts magazines with the lure of a $50,000 prize for winning the tournament. They struggled to find 16 willing participants but managed to secure an 8-man tournament.
The event didn’t have doping probes, mandatory gloves, scorecards, time limits, or rules; while biting, eye-gouging, and groin shots were only prevented by a $1,500 fine each time they were used. The only way to win was via knockout, tapout, or corner stoppages (throwing in the towel).
UFC 1 took place at the now-demolished McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado, on November 12, 1993. Denver was chosen because there wasn’t a State Athletic Commission that could prevent the event.
At the event, Rorion Gracie used his younger brother Royce Gracie to enter the tournament and show the effectiveness of Gracie jiu-jitsu. He weighed 178 lbs and was much lighter than all other competitors; it seemed impossible for him to win as he didn’t look intimidating at all.
However, Royce beat Art Jimmerson – a cruiserweight boxing champion weighing 195 lbs, Ken Shamrock – the #1 ranked shootfighter in Japan weighing 220 lbs, and lastly Gerard Gordeau, a nationally decorated karate/savate champion weighing 216 lbs.
By beating all three, Royce won the first UFC tournament to claim the $50,000 prize, further enhancing the Gracie jiu-jitsu reputation.
One of the seminal moments of the event was Gerard Gordeau knocking out the teeth of a sumo wrestler, Teila Tuli, with a soccer kick after Tuli had been sent to the canvas by a heavy uppercut.
It signified the events were the start of fighting never seen before. UFC 1 was very successful and had 86,592 pay-per-view buys, which Art Davie believed was the start of a fighting franchise and the promotion of many more events.
The Near Downfall of the UFC
Despite a great start to life for the UFC, the promotion started to receive wide backlash after UFC 1 from political authorities for the extreme violence the no holds barred ruleset was producing, causing 36 states to ban NHB fighting.
Suspecting an imminent demise, Art Davie and Rorion Gracie sold their 50% share and disbanded WOW promotions in 1995, meaning SEG now had 100% ownership of the franchise.
In 1996 the negative press continued – governor John McCain labeled the UFC as ‘human cockfighting’ and on top of this, similar promotions started to saturate the market.
In the 36 states which banned NHB fighting, the UFC couldn’t broadcast there which meant PPV buys dried up and the UFC began to bleed money.
With the UFC facing a somewhat inevitable demise, SEG realized they needed to rebrand and remove the stigma surrounding them if they were to recover. This caused the UFC to gradually implement rules, such as weight classes, judging, rounds, time limits, and a scoring system.
The Zuffa Era
One of the biggest moments in UFC history, the Zuffa era, also known as the Dana White era, began in 2001 after Dana White learned through managing fighters such as Chuck Liddell, that SEG was on the verge of bankruptcy and needed to sell the UFC.
Dana convinced his friends, the Fertitta brothers, to purchase the UFC and bring him in as promotion president, because of his knowledge in the field and experience as a manager.
In 2001, the Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC for $2 million and immediately looked toward improving the company image.
Rebranding, Struggles, and Breakthroughs
Their first order was to collaborate with the largest State Athletic Commissions in America, in order to create the Official Unified Rules of MMA in 2001.
The introduction of the unified rules is seen as when MMA turned into an official sport, as it now had a comprehensive list of illegal moves, judging, rounds, time limits, and much more – building on the rules SEG had introduced in 1996.
Through this collaboration, states around the USA gradually began to allow MMA again, as it was now regulated and fighter safety was of high priority.
Now that MMA was more accepted, Zuffa spent a lot of money improving and promoting the UFC, and getting it televised globally, but struggled to find breakthrough success with their events.
Overall, they were losing money but saw what the promotion could become at UFC 40 featuring Ken Shamrock vs Tito Ortiz. The event sold 150,000 PPVs and 13,700 tickets, packing the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. Before this PPV events were averaging 45,000 buys.
However, in 3 short years, the Fertitta brothers had invested heavily and were down $34 million. To save the UFC from another sale, Dana White came up with the idea of promoting MMA in a reality TV format.
This gave birth to The Ultimate Fighter in January 2005, which the Fertitta brothers had to front all costs for in order to get Spike TV to broadcast the show.
The Ultimate Fighter’s success exploded thanks to the unbelievable final between UFC legends, Stephan Bonnar, and Forrest Griffin, which meant all of their next PPVs received a lot more buys.
In another attempt to boost views and PPVs, the UFC recruited Brock Lesnar from WWE in 2008, causing many wrestling fans to start watching the UFC to see how Brock performed. It was an intelligent move but it also caused some fans to believe the UFC was starting to become fake like the WWE.
Zuffa then hit massive success in 2011 when they landed a huge $700 million TV deal with Fox network and would now be broadcast next to the world’s biggest sports.
Mergers and Acquisitions
The UFC was always looking for new ways to reinvest and grow the company and buying promotions was a great way to find new fighters.
This started with the purchase of WFA and WEC in 2006. The WEC continued as a separate promotion while WFA ceased all operations, with the UFC taking select fighters from both promotions.
Zuffa then purchased their biggest rival in 2007, Pride FC. The deal was worth around $65 million, and the goal was to create superfights between the best fighters from each promotion under the UFC banner, similar to the superfights they’d created since UFC 5.
After Dana White couldn’t get a TV deal for Pride in Japan, the promotion became defunct and the UFC took on their roster of fighters. Not the best piece of business in the world, but it meant a rival was gone and more eyes were now on the UFC.
The UFC then took more fighters in 2008 from another promotion, IFL, which was facing financial troubles like all MMA promotions. The deal wasn’t a purchase of the promotion but the IFL disbanded and the UFC bought fighters out of their contracts.
In 2010 the UFC merged with World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), the promotion they’d bought 4 years prior for an undisclosed fee. This brought a lot more fighters to the UFC, including Jose Aldo, Demetrious Johnson, Urijah Faber, and Dominick Cruz, who all went on to become undisputed UFC champions.
With this merger, the WEC roster was used to create the UFC bantamweight (135 lbs) and featherweight divisions (145 lbs), bringing in the WEC champions, Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo as the inaugural UFC champions of the two divisions.
They then bought Strikeforce in 2011 for an undisclosed fee, but it’s believed to have been worth $40 million. They kept the promotions separate but many of the best Strikeforce fighters joined the UFC after the purchase.
They then merged in 2013 and the remaining Strikeforce fighters were either cut or given UFC contracts. The reason for the merger was Strikeforce was having trouble with TV deals and fights were stalling because of this. Ultimately, Zuffa decided the UFC was the number one priority, and running Strikeforce was a hassle.
Overall, the UFC said they were buying these promotions with the aim to keep them running as sister companies. However, critics believe the UFC were buying up the competition, taking their best fighters and content library, with the aim to disband them and create a monopoly over the MMA market.
New UFC Divisions and the UFC 180
While Dana White said in 2011 that there would never be a women’s UFC division, the Strikeforce acquisition was the catalyst for the creation of the first women’s division in 2012, the bantamweight division (135 lbs).
This is because the UFC could see the potential of bronze medalist and Strikeforce bantamweight champion, Ronda Rousey. They brought her over to the UFC and made her the inaugural bantamweight champion, first defending her title on February 23, 2013.
It turned out to be extremely successful – broadcasting a female sport on an unprecedented level that many sports haven’t been able to do, even by 2022.
Following this, the UFC acquired the contracts of 11 female strawweights from Invicta FC in 2013 and created the women’s strawweight division (115 lbs) in 2014, introduced by The Ultimate Fighter season 20.
Three years later in 2017, the UFC added the women’s flyweight (125 lbs) and featherweight (145 lbs) divisions, bringing the total to 4 women’s divisions and 8 men’s divisions, for a total of 12. The weight classes have remained untouched since then.
Exponential Growth and Another Acquisition
After purchasing the company for $2 million in 2001 and facing $34 million in losses, the Fertitta’s were on the brink of quitting. However, with savvy business deals and the influx of talented fighters, the company went from strength to strength.
Fighters Carrying the Torch
While there were many stars who saved the UFC and kept the engine running, one of the biggest finds was an Irishman named Conor McGregor, who joined in 2013 and fed the UFC rocket fuel. His inclusion massively boosted viewers from the UK and Europe, meaning the UFC was going global.
He became the UFC superstar after becoming the first UFC double champ, by beating Jose Aldo at UFC 194, and Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205, winning both the featherweight and lightweight titles.
Fans globally tuned in to watch Conor McGregor, who attracted just as much attention for his trash talking as he did his fighting.
With the combination of both, PPV buys were higher than ever and he’s featured in all 7 of the highest UFC PPV events. The highest was UFC 229 vs Khabib, which had 2.4 million buys, and his lowest was UFC 205 vs Alvarez, with 1.3 million buys.
USADA and UFC Fight Pass
Another facet of the UFC’s growth was the creation of UFC Fight Pass on December 28, 2013.
Described as Netflix for fight fans, it has an unparalleled amount of MMA and combat sports content, including live events and access to early prelims (PPV included). UFC Fight Pass generated $59 million in revenues in 2021.
Another reason for the UFC’s dominance is in having fighter safety as one of its highest priorities, as they know the brutality of MMA and the consequences if there were to be a fatality in the UFC.
In 2012 the UFC became the first fight promotion to provide its fighters with insurance for training-related injuries, and in 2015 the UFC entered a partnership with USADA, which became their third-party anti-doping agency.
As part of the partnership, the UFC allows USADA to perform year-round testing of its fighters, both in and out of competition as a way to remove drugs from MMA. However, fighters are still being caught every year as performance-enhancing drugs will always be a part of the sport.
WME-IMG Buys the UFC
Due to the UFC’s year-on-year revenue increases, in 2016 the Fertitta brothers sold the UFC to WME-IMG and other investment firms in a $4 billion deal, roughly seven times the $600 million revenue generated in 2015. WME-IGM became the majority shareholder with 50.1%.
The Fertitta brothers stepped down and kept a 5.8% stake in the company, Dana White who previously had 9% was kept on as president and given an undisclosed stake, and the Abu Dhabi government also kept the 10% they had since 2010.
In 2017, WME-IMG renamed itself Endeavor and bought out the remaining minority shareholders, which included the Fertitta’s and the Abu Dhabi government, while Dana’s stake still remained undisclosed.
After Endeavor continued to increase their majority stake in Zuffa (UFC parent company), they continued to reinvest and grow the company moving forward.
One of the biggest UFC sponsorships was the ESPN deal in 2019. It was a 5 year deal worth $300 million a year, for a total of $1.5 billion. The deal made ESPN the exclusive rights broadcaster in the US.
Other huge deals have been the 10-year deal with Crypto.com, worth $175 million or $17.5 million a year, and the 5-year deal with DraftKings, worth $350 million.
Before the Endeavor takeover, the UFC signed a 6-year deal worth $70 million in 2015 with Reebok to become the UFC’s exclusive outfitter.
The deal was introduced to improve branding by having fighters wear specifically designed clothing for all their fighting needs, rather than random unknown outside sponsors for individual fighters.
While on the surface it seems this deal was a positive one for everyone involved, there was outrage from fighters and everyone involved in MMA, which was the start of the often talked about UFC monopoly and how the promotion underpays its fighters and takes profits for itself.
With the deal, the UFC and Reebok had effectively become the kings of the MMA apparel market, cutting out small-time sponsors and taking money out of fighters’ pockets; as it now meant they could no longer be sponsored in the octagon or during fight week with outside sponsors which paid them a lot more.
UFC Fight Island
Another piece to the puzzle of the UFC’s success journey is how they operated through the covid pandemic. The UFC only had 5 UFC events canceled between March 21st, 2020, and May 2, 2020, although at the time all events were on hold indefinitely.
While most other sports were shut down and their businesses taking massive hits, the UFC prospered and continued to bring in record revenues.
This was in large part thanks to their relationship started in 2010 with the Abu Dhabi government, which was willing to cover event costs and host the UFC on Fight Island during the pandemic.
It’s also a result of the UFC’s investment in itself, in particular, the UFC Apex in Las Vegas which allowed them to host their own events without fans and continue operating.
The Bottom Line
So, when did UFC start, and who started the UFC?
The UFC started on November 12, 1993, and at the time no one knew what would become of the promotion. Many rejected the idea of promoting the first UFC event, and politicians opposed them until the Unified Rules of MMA were introduced.
Rorion Gracie, Art Davie, and John Milius started the UFC, and while the road was bumpy, in the short 29-year UFC history the promotion has transformed into a global behemoth synonymous with MMA, with many people confusing the two.
With great ideas, great execution, great leadership, and multiple changes of ownership, the UFC have gone from a startup in 1993 to being valued between $10-15 billion by 2022.