At the turn of the century, the sport of mixed martial arts in America was stagnant - instead of growing and prospering, UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz had seen his company take numerous steps backwards. Sometimes the steps back were more like leaps. Still banned on pay per view unless you were a pioneer of the satellite movement, the revolutionary cage fighting shows were also illegal in almost every state with a civilized athletic commission. Worse still, you couldn't even find the tapes in Blockbuster anymore. No one even wanted to put them out for home release.
New Jersey would eventually come around, but that was merely drop of positive news in a sea of negativity, a bright red flower set against the backdrop of a black and white horizon. MMA fans, fighters, reporters, and promoters had been kicked more times than we could count. In the press. By cable companies. By our own over-sized dreams and ambitions. Compared to the ambitious and fun filled shows in Japan, our stateside version of the sport seemed small and shabby. When the Fertitta brothers and Dana White bought the company in 2001, there was an audible sigh of relief from the entire community. First cautiously, then at full blast, the party started. We had been saved. Hallelujah!
That may sound a bit like hyperbole, but in many ways being an MMA fan during the dark ages of the sport was very much like being a member of a religious cult. It was you against the world. Fans had found sporting crack, realized it was pretty much the greatest athletic competition ever, and, for a billion reasons, couldn't get anyone to listen. Zuffa was going to change all of that.
You couldn't have invented a better ownership group for a struggling Ultimate Fighting Championship. These guys just got it. They partied with jiu jitsu wizard John Lewis at night, then learned to bend bones at his feet the next day. Even the company name was cool as hell, Italian for "scrap." Dana White had managed Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz and understood the sport. The Feritttas were not only billionaire casino moguls, Lorenzo Fertitta was a former Nevada State Athletic Commissioner with deep ties to the boxing community. It was a brilliant combination, and within months (months!) the Fertitta brothers did what Meyrowitz simply couldn't - they got the UFC back in front of the nation on pay per view and they got the sport legalized in Nevada, the most influential and important athletic commission in the country.
While the promotion continued to struggle in the early years, it wasn't for lack of trying. There wasn't anything they wouldn't try - promoting smaller weight classes, WWE style pyro and expensive entrances, bring back old favorites like Ken Shamrock and Tank Abbott. Everything was on the table. Matchmaker Joe Silva, an important early hire, helped them determine what was working and what wasn't. They kept what worked and discarded what didn't. It sounds simple, but countless businesses fail because they don't see or can't reconcile themselves to that simple philosophy.
A $2 million investment in 2001 has blossomed into a billion dollar monstrosity. The Fertittas, who famously have a clause that requires them to settle any business disagreements on the jiu jitsu mats, have seen the UFC surpass Station Casinos as the family's top investment. It's been an amazing run. Sometimes pundits, yes even me, get caught up, failing to see the forest for the trees. But it's important never to forget how much we appreciate what Zuffa has done. They've taken a sport that once required intricate circles of fans to send each other bootleg VHS copies of satellite broadcasts just to watch the show, and turned it into a thriving business beloved by fans all over the world. It's a remarkable achievement - and one of the 52 things I love about mixed martial arts.