There was a sense of excitement in the air when the UFC made a stunning announcement. They were moving their fast paced and cutting edge sport to Fox, a move many thought and hoped would take mixed martial arts into the mainstream. Once the celebration was over, after MMA's long suffering fans finally got a chance to jump for joy, we all turned on the television to watch a brand new show on the network called American Idol. The year was 2002 - everything, as the song says, has been done.
Fox and the UFC have walked hand in hand together before. The big announcement this week that the UFC had found a long term home with the Fox family is a continuation of a long standing relationship. It was Fox Sports that gave the UFC its first opportunity on free television, on June 25, 2002.
It was a relationship built quickly. Light Heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz and Bruce Buffer had appeared on the network's flagship program The Best Damn Sports Show Period in May. The show was pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in a mainstream sports program - and thought the UFC would be perfect for their "All Star Summer" series running throughout June.
UFC President Dana White jumped at the deal, but because UFC 38 had already been scheduled for July at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the promotion would have to find a group of fighters willing to do on short notice. This being the UFC, and fighters being who they are, that didn't end up being a problem. They booked the Bellagio for June 22, and had a barn burner of a show that fans called "UFC 37.5." White was estatic, sending an open letter to the fans, thanking them for their support and pleading with them to support the UFC in this critical time:
I want to thank all of you for your patience and support while we put this FOX show together. I know there are a million questions why we did this and why we did that. For me to explain the law BS and the politics of television would take forever. What is important right now is we are here!!! The sport will be on free TV for the first time!!
...But right now is a critical time for the sport. We need to show these TV people just how many fans there are. I need all of you that read this forum every day to go to FOX's website reader board and post about how happy you are that we are on free TV!! Even if you can't get the BDSSP at your home, still let them know you're pumped that the sport is getting its dues. Then, everyone needs to tune in the day of the show and tell all your buddies to watch. This is it guys, what we have all been waiting for!!!
The show was important, not just because it was the first event ever aired on free television, but also because the promotion added a key member to their broadcast team. Comedian Joe Rogan, who had actually spent time as a backstage interviewer in early UFC broadcasts, was brought in to provide commentary for the Bellagio show. Rogan's star was shining bright with his new gig with NBC's Fear Factor, but he was thrilled to land the UFC job. For the UFC, flirting with big things, it was a major coup.
"Joe Rogan is one of the best people you can meet," White said in a release. "Every time we take another step towards making this sport mainstream - whether it be TV deals, moving into new countries, or something as simple as MC'ing our weigh-ins - Joe is always happy to help and support us and whatever it takes to help the sport of MMA. You don't come across many people like that in life, especially in Hollywood. Thank you Joe Rogan."
The main event was White's friend and emerging star Chuck Liddell taking on long time star Vitor Belfort for a shot at the light heavyweight title. But the bout selected for the Fox Sports broadcast was a potential slugfest between Robbie Lawler and Steve Berger, two men who had fought on May's UFC 37 card and were still in fighting trim. Though many believe the promotion waited until after the show to choose the best fight, they had actually selected Lawler and Berger for the slot days before.
Luckily the two delivered. After a closely fought first round, Lawler swarmed Berger to open the second, landing a huge right-left combination to drop his opponent, then landing five hard punches on the ground to force the stoppage. The fight aired three days later, a glorious first for the sport.
Fox and the UFC continued their relationship, airing a series of one hour highlight shows. Unfortunately, the timing wasn't quite right; neither was the idea. Fans needed to know more about the fighters, to understand them as people and as athletes. A show was coming in 2005 called The Ultimate Fighter that would humanize the controversial sport - but that's a story for another day.