The UFC as we know it today might not exist as the powerhouse it is without a pivotal reality television series entitled The Ultimate Fighter. Before we get into what saved this company, let’s take a quick look back at how it started.
The idea was spawned by Art Davie, who first approached John Milius and Rorian Gracie about a mixed martial arts style tournament. Both were interested in the idea, Milius would be creative director and design the iconic Octagon and Davie helped form the first parent company of UFC, WOW Promotions. What would become UFC 1: The Beginning was held on November 12, 1993, in Denver, Colorado. This first event featured future MMA legends Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock. It proved to be a success, with over 85,000 pay-per-view buys.
Along with the success came some growing pains for this new venture. Early UFC events had few rules, which led to very violent matches. In the mid-90s it raised the ire of Senator John McCain who denounced the sport. The UFC would see the continued success of their events despite the sanctioning issues, however, they would suffer monetarily due to this fight. In early 2001, the UFC was purchased by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta of Station Casinos and their business partner Dana White. The parent company they would form would be called Zuffa, LLC.
Despite the regular success of their events, Zuffa was still experiencing financial losses, reportedly around $34 million in losses since Zuffa bought the company. In early 2004, one of the Fertitta brothers’ casinos was featured on the Discovery Channel reality television series, American Casino. This gave them the idea to potentially use this as a vehicle to aid the UFC. Zuffa’s concept was that it would be a reality competition series featuring up and coming fighters competing for a contract with the UFC.
Along came T.V.
Reality competition television was in a boom period with programs like Cash Cab, Hell’s Kitchen, and Dancing With The Stars debuting that same year. Spike TV decided to take the chance on the program and they were off to the races. The first season of TUF premiered on January 17, 2005. 16 competitors were separated into two opposing teams coached by UFC legends Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. When the finale rolled around in April, it was watched by three million people. Winners of the first season were Forrest Griffin and Diego Sanchez. Stephan Bonner also went onto a great career while he did not win the show.
The first UFC pay-per-view following the season one finale, UFC 52, generated nearly 300,000 alone, becoming the first UFC event to reach that mark. UFC 52 nearly tripled the buy rate from UFC 51, from 105,000 to 280,000. The second season of TUF followed in the fall of 2005. The first event after the second season finale saw another surge in buys, UFC 57 brought in an estimated 400,000 buys. This growth would continue through subsequent seasons of The Ultimate Fighter. For UFC 66, which took place after season four of TUF, UFC hit the milestone of 1,000,000 buys.
Friday Night Fights
UFC would land a monumental deal with FOX in 2011, which would see the Ultimate Fighter change networks and the introduction of Friday Night fight events. They would also purchase and incorporate several other MMA companies such as Pride Fighting Championship, WEC, and Strikeforce. UFC would also incorporate a women’s division into their ranks, which also branched across to TUF. The UFC would again be sold in 2016 for a record of $4.025 billion dollars, a substantial increase from the $2,000,000 price tag paid by the Fertittas and White. The Ultimate Fighter would continue as a regular series until 2018. In its entire run, it created the following:
-Six UFC Hall of Famers
– 10 Champions
– 22 Championship Contenders
-105 regular competitors
It has also been alluded to that The Ultimate Fighter could be making a return, which could help add to the legacy of the show in UFC History. Many factors have contributed to the journey of the company, but one thing is clear: it simply wouldn’t have happened without The Ultimate Fighter. “Hands down, there’s no denying it: It f—ing saved the UFC.” – Chris Leben
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