When it comes to the ancient art of hand-to-hand combat, it’s always you against the other man — or, in the case of a street fight, the other man and his crew. Maybe you’re a trained boxer and the scales tip in your favor. Maybe he’s a bouncer with 50 pounds on you and the odds slide the other way. The fact remains that when it comes to fighting — one of the oldest and most primal acts of man — there are few rules and no time-outs. At its most basic, this is the ethos on which the UFC was built.
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Fighting styles have evolved in every culture. We associate martial arts with Asia, and wrestling with ancient Greece; the Scots, their claymores and kilts; and amateur boxing took shape in England. In the 20th century, this was settled in world wars and in drunken fistfights in World Cup host cities. But the genius of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is that it standardized a means of letting guys fight to find out which one and from where would be the best.
But all that is esoteric, and if you’re starting with the facts, it begins when an advertising exec saw a grainy video of Brazilian martial arts students beating up other students from different disciplines. Art Davie proposed a one-night tournament based on the concept, a one-on-one bracketed battle royale that would pit style against style and decide, once and for all, which martial art reigned supreme. Davie took his idea to the founder of the video’s martial art, which would generously be called a New World hybrid of a Japanese style. Thus, Rorion Gracie, eponymous founder of Gracie Jiu-jitsu, and Dirty Harry director John Milius joined to produce the event. Almost 30 investors joined together to throw the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, which was held in Denver, Colorado on November 23, 1993. It was the modest start of a new era.
The UFC’s rules and format changed substantially over time. The one constant has been its cage-like structure in which its fighters square off. The octagon, referring to its eight-sided shape, was there from UFC 1 and continues to the present, becoming so ubiquitous that the word is practically synonymous with the UFC itself.
At UFC 1, competitors were instructed to not bite, pull hair, or hit each other in the nuts. But that was about it. There was a single ref within the octagon that commenced bouts and ruled the winner due to submission (read: a kind of crying uncle) or knockout. But there were no rounds, weight classes, or time limits; in fact, this glaring weakness was only corrected after its fifth event, in which a Superfight was ruled a draw after more than a half-hour stalemate. Really, the fans lost. Over time, this was refined, and today, UFC fights are comprised of three or five five-minute rounds, depending on whether it’s a regular match, headliner, or championship bout.
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The rules themselves were also refined over time. While the UFC initially grew more laissez-faire after its first event, briefly allowing groin strikes (the guy from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery gets hit with one of the most brutal seven-counts you’ll ever see), it quickly adopted more control in an effort to receive sanctioning from governing bodies around the U.S.
The results of these refinements led to the establishment and gradual updating of The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, which eliminated most dirty pool, from head butts to fish-hooking, pile-driving, back-of-the-head striking, and just about anything else you’d see on a professional wrestling stage when the ref’s back is turned. The Association of Boxing Commissions ratified it in 2009.
Shoes were banned and padded gloves were added, weight classes were established and then expanded, a 10-point round-by-round scoring system was adopted to decide matches where a submission or knockout was not achieved, and while in the middle years of the organization fighters tended to have the musculature of superheroes, a UFC and U.S. Anti-Doping Association deal was struck in 2015 that has, if not eliminated performance-enhancing substance use, at least curtailed its excesses while catching the odd dumb fish. (There are still plenty of dumb fish, as seen on UFC’s sanctions list.)
From the first, the UFC shook up the combat sports world. But its first great moment beyond its elevator pitch came from UFC 1, when Royce Gracie, younger brother to tournament co-founder Rorion, finessed his way through the bracket to become its first champion. Gracie, while weighing around a modern middleweight’s 175 pounds, decisively submitted all comers with a new-to-the-Western-world Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, which was a wrestling philosophy that neutralized size differences by moving the fight from the stand-up to the ground. There, in a close embrace, he used chess-like movements and positionings to manipulate joints, cut off air to the lungs, and restrict blood to the brain. It was a shot heard ’round the martial arts world, and it would be a central component to mixed martial arts and the UFC itself.
Jet-packing ahead, the next significant moment was in 1997. The UFC, which had been banned around the country and made powerful enemies like the late senator John McCain, who called it “human cockfighting,” scrambled to find a location for its event, and it settled on Dothan, Alabama. While its heavyweight tournament was notable through the debut of MMA legend Vitor Belfort, the biggest touchpoint was the introduction of Joe Rogan. Rogan, pre-podcast, was in the flush of his early NewsRadio fame and still owned a full head of a hair. He handled the floor reporting, which would begin his longtime role with the organization that continues to this day.
The UFC, on the verge of bankruptcy, was sold for $2 million in 2001 to Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta on the advice of their childhood friend, business partner, and fighter agent Dana White. White was quickly announced as president, and under his tenure and the Fertittas’ ownership, the UFC rapidly transformed from spectacle to sport, with no medium more significant than cable television.
The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), a reality TV show that debuted on Spike TV in 2005, brought more fans into the sport as a kind of appetizer of what to expect in the pay-per-view major fights that took place throughout the year. In the greater context, TUF was part of the whole reality boom of the Aughts, which gave a behind-the-scenes view of such disparate cultures as Jersey Shore, Queer Eye, The Bachelor, and more. But its final fight between opposing team heads Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar is credited by White as saving the organization, which had wracked up eight-figure losses since the UFC’s purchase. Its three-round slugfest was unexpected, and it became a climax for an already riveting show. The franchise continues to this day, and the modern UFC Fight Night format owes its success to the show’s pioneering efforts.
It is said that women made their UFC debut with Olympic gold medalist judoka Ronda Rousey in 2012, but the UFC largely built its women’s competition around and for Rousey herself. (White himself claimed there wasn’t depth enough in women’s MMA as a reason to not host women’s MMA fights initially.) After her first win, which was the first women’s fight in the UFC, Rousey claimed the first women’s division title, bantamweight. Additional weight classes would be (very) slow-rolled in. Strawweight wouldn’t be established until 2014 through the women’s participation in the subsequent TUF season, and flyweight and featherweights wouldn’t be sorted out until 2017. It’s fair to say that Rousey can claim a near single-handed establishment of women in the sport and she remains its best-known women’s athlete. To this day, women’s four-division UFC structure is in its nascent stage when compared to the men’s eight divisions and long-established legacy.
And while there are many more notable fighters and events in the UFC’s 27-year history, including its shopping spree to acquire competitors (World Extreme Cagefighting, Price, and Strikeforce being the big three), this section wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the debut of a skinny Irishman in 2013. While only the second athlete from his country to compete for the promotion, Conor McGregor has become arguably its best-known and certainly highest-paid athlete. The UFC’s first “champ champ,” or the first person to simultaneously hold two division belts (lightweight and featherweight divisions), his oversized ego turned him into a celebrity, style icon, and terrible boxer. There’s much to critique of him, but there has certainly never been a fighter in the UFC like McGregor, and the organization owes nearly as much to him for raising its profile as he owes to it for giving him his start.
As previously mentioned, the UFC began as a pay-per-view event, with secondary income through home video sales as its legend grew and the internet remained in its primitive form. With its sale to the Fertittas and under White’s management, the transition to a television model only further exposed new eyes while its evolved rules made it markedly more watchable. It hit benchmark after benchmark in PPV sales while signing a lucrative deal with Fox in 2011 for expanded TV space. It inked its most recent deal with ESPN in 2018 for a reported $1.5 billion over five years, migrating all its past, present, and future fights for the next half-decade to the ESPN+ platform. And while that platform had its initial disasters, it has largely transitioned gracefully.
Beyond using the ESPN+ platform, the UFC was also contractually obligated to throw 30 fights a year. While this was doable in the best of times, it ran headfirst into direct conflict with public health recommendations in 2020 as COVID-19 encircled the globe. National, state, and local governments all had to be negotiated (California governor and French Laundry diner Gavin Newsom reportedly tattled to ESPN parent company Disney a week before UFC 249 was scheduled to occur), but the organization nevertheless held events around the world and on its Fight Island. They were broadcast but had little to no crowd attendance.
The ESPN deal, significant as it was to its history, was second to the UFC’s change of ownership in 2016. A coalition of WME-IMG, Silver Lake Partners, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and MSD Capital, along with the investment firm of Michael Dell, crafted a $4 billion deal to buy the UFC’s majority stake from the Fertittas and White while retaining the latter in his current role. Lauded as an opportunity to bring the sport to the next level, it has by and large continued growth on its present trajectory.
Thousands of men and women have, at this point, been associated with the UFC, which is an elite organization that has its pick of potential fighters. Any athlete fortunate enough to compete within the octagon is noteworthy, but some are more noteworthy than others.
No list of notable UFC fighters would be complete without mentioning Conor McGregor, a fighter who is famous for his antics both inside and outside the Octagon. Dubbed “The Notorious” — a fitting moniker, to be sure — the boisterous Irishman has arguably done as much as president Dana White to cement the UFC in the public consciousness, and even people who aren’t into MMA know his name. The former two-division champion isn’t the best fighter in the UFC, to be sure (he’s not even the best in his division), but his entertaining fighting style and showman’s personality make him the biggest pay-per-view draw in the sport. His last fight, a trilogy bout against Dustin Poirier at UFC 264, ended in a gruesome injury TKO when McGregor broke his leg at the end of the first round. He made it clear that he wanted a rematch, but that’ll obviously have to wait awhile.
Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier is currently the top-ranked lightweight on the UFC roster (sitting underneath the current champion, Charles Oliveira), which is no small feat in what might be the most top-heavy men’s division in the league. Poirier, a Louisianan of Cajun descent, has been fighting in the UFC since 2011 and briefly held the interim lightweight belt before losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov in the subsequent title unification bout. He’s now poised for a real shot at the championship. He recently passed this over in favor of a trilogy bout with Conor McGregor — no doubt for the fat paycheck that came from their much-hyped rematch. Poirier holds the unique distinction of being the only fighter to knock out McGregor, a feat he performed at UFC 257. He technically did it again at UFC 264 when McGregor ended the first round with a nasty broken leg that resulted in a medical stoppage.
Gilbert Burns is a three-time world Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion and one of the top-ranked welterweights in the UFC as well as one of the most highly regarded grapplers in MMA. A former teammate and training partner of reigning welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, Burns recently challenged for the title only to fall to Usman in the third round via TKO. He then faced renowned kickboxer Stephen Thompson at UFC 264, winning handily via unanimous decision. Burns is likely to fight top-ranked welterweight Colby Covington in the near future as well. Depending on the outcome of his next couple of matches, Burns may yet earn another shot at the gold.
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is considered to be one of the best strikers in the UFC, which is not a huge shock considering his impressive full-contact kickboxing pedigree: He boasts an undefeated kickboxing record of 37 amateur and 20 professional wins, although his MMA run hasn’t been so flawless (but impressive nonetheless — he’s won 16 fights, lost four, and drawn one). Thompson previously challenged Tyron Woodley for the welterweight championship; their 2016 bout ended in a draw, and Woodley took the 2017 rematch via majority decision. Wonderboy fought Gilbert Burns on the main card at UFC 264 and held his own quite well (even on the mat) but ultimately lost via decision.
Jones, a former light heavyweight champion and the youngest ever to hold a championship belt, is essentially undefeated (one disqualification due to an obscure rule in a fight he was winning). In fact, the only match for Jones seems to be himself, to which he has a perfect losing record. He has wracked up a hit-and-run charge and two doping suspensions in his 13-year career, spending nearly as much time on the sidelines of the sport as he had with a belt around his waist. He’s currently the league’s top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter but has not fought in more than a year after waging a Twitter war with the UFC over money.
While Nurmagomedov is former the men’s lightweight champ, after his last win, he announced his retirement and vacated his title. Will he come back? It’s possible. But even if he doesn’t, the number-one pound-for-pound men’s fighter dominated every opponent he faced through a super glue-like command of grappling that has yet to fail or even be seriously challenged. He remains the only guy to ever fully shut up and shut down Conor McGregor. And despite Nurmagomedov’s firm assertion that he is fully finished with MMA, we expect hopeful fans to continue circulating rumors about his return for years to come.
Masvidal was a YouTube street-fighting legend before signing with the UFC, and while he’s recorded five losses in the league’s welterweight division, he’s a smirking, smack-talking crowd favorite. He also holds the record for the fastest knockout in the sport when he dispatched Ben Askren in five seconds, or approximately the length of a GIF. Not a champion yet, he is nevertheless the first owner of the UFC-sanctioned Bad M— F— belt, a fun novelty award.
The Manual has written many words about New Zealander/Nigerian Adesanya, who has a creative striking style the flies in the face of the UFC’s grappling foundation. Dynamic, charismatic, and undefeated in his native middleweight division, he’s young enough to establish a dynastic rule over it — his recent light heavyweight loss to Jan Blachowicz notwithstanding. The Last Stylebender has so far successfully defended his middleweight title three times since unifying it, but as the king of a weight class where he has already beaten pretty much every viable title contender, it’s likely that he’s still hungry for another shot at becoming a two-division champion.
Zhang is the former women’s strawweight champ, but there are others on that list (including Rose Namajunas, who recently defeated Zhang to reclaim the title she once held). Rather, the Chinese fighter’s significance is a kind of full circle for Asian martial arts. Bruce Lee, a Chinese American, famously created his Jeet Kune Do style by studying and combining various martial arts, selecting the most effective bits of each, and the UFC’s whole model is based on selecting that which wins rather than that which is beautiful. It’s a perfect kind of symmetry that Zhang would rise within its structure, becoming a star of her division with themes that echo back decades.
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