Lets go back and look at the history of Mixed Martial Arts and how it all began. Art Davie proposed to John Milius and Rorion Gracie an eight-man single-elimination tournament called “War of the Worlds”. The tournament was inspired by the Gracies in Action video-series produced by the Gracie family of Brazil which featured Gracie jiu-jitsu students defeating martial-arts masters of various disciplines such as karate, kung fu, and kickboxing. The tournament would also feature martial artists from different disciplines facing each other in no-holds-barred combat to determine the best martial art and would aim to replicate the excitement of the matches Davie saw on the videos. Milius, a noted film director and screenwriter, as well as a Gracie student, agreed to act as the event’s creative director. Davie drafted the business plan and twenty-eight investors contributed the initial capital to start WOW Promotions with the intent to develop the tournament into a television franchise.
In 1993, WOW Promotions sought a television partner and approached pay-per-view producers TVKO (HBO), SET (Showtime), and Campbell McLaren at the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). Both TVKO and SET declined, but SEG – a pioneer in pay-per-view television which had produced such offbeat events as a gender versus gender tennis match between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova – became WOW’s partner in May 1993. SEG contacted video and film art director Jason Cusson to design the trademarked “Octagon”, a signature piece for the event. Cusson remained the Production Designer through UFC 27. SEG devised the name for the show as The Ultimate Fighting Championship.
WOW Promotions and SEG produced the first event, later called UFC 1, at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado on November 12, 1993. Art Davie functioned as the show’s booker and matchmaker. The show proposed to find an answer for sports fans’ questions such as: “Can a wrestler beat a boxer?” As with most martial arts at the time, fighters typically had skills in just one discipline and had little experience against opponents with different skills. The television broadcast featured kickboxers Patrick Smith and Kevin Rosier, savate fighter Gerard Gordeau, karate expert Zane Frazier, shootfighter Ken Shamrock, sumo wrestler Teila Tuli, boxer Art Jimmerson, and 175 lb (79 kg) Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Royce Gracie—younger brother of UFC co-founder Rorion, whom Rorion handpicked to represent his family in the competition. Royce Gracie’s submission skills proved the most effective in the inaugural tournament, earning him the first ever UFC tournament championship after submitting Jimmerson, Shamrock, and Gordeau in succession. The show proved extremely successful with 86,592 television subscribers on pay-per-view.
It’s disputed whether the promoters intended for the event to become a precursor to a series of future events. “That show was only supposed to be a one-off”, eventual UFC president Dana White said. “It did so well on pay-per-view they decided to do another, and another. Never in a million years did these guys think they were creating a sport.” Art Davie, in his 2014 book Is This Legal?, an account of the creation of the first UFC event, disputes the perception that the UFC was seen by WOW Promotions and SEG as a one-off, since SEG offered a five-year joint development deal to WOW. He says, “Clearly, both Campbell and Meyrowitz shared my unwavering belief that War of the Worlds[note 1] would be a continuing series of fighting tournaments—a franchise, rather than a one-night stand.” With no weight classes, fighters often faced significantly larger or taller opponents. Keith “The Giant Killer” Hackney faced Emmanuel Yarbrough at UFC 3 with a 9 in (23 cm) height and 400 pounds (180 kg) weight disadvantage. Many martial artists believed that technique could overcome these size disadvantages, and that a skilled fighter could use an opponent’s size and strength against him. With the 175 lb (79 kg) Royce Gracie winning three of the first four events, the UFC quickly proved that size does not always determine the outcome of the fight.
With increased visibility, the UFC’s pay-per-view buy numbers exploded. UFC 52, the first event after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter featuring eventual-UFC Hall of Famer Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell avenging his defeat to fellow eventual-Hall of Famer Randy Couture, drew a pay-per-view audience of 300,000, doubling its previous benchmark of 150,000 set at UFC 40. Following the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s much-hyped match between Liddell and Couture drew an estimated 410,000 pay-per-view buys at UFC 57.
For the rest of 2006, pay-per-view buy rates continued to skyrocket, with 620,000 buys for UFC 60: Hughes vs. Gracie—featuring Royce Gracie’s first UFC fight in 11 years—and 775,000 buys for UFC 61 featuring the highly anticipated rematch between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, the coaches of The Ultimate Fighter 3. The organization hit a milestone with UFC 66, pitting Ortiz in a rematch against Liddell with over 1 million buys.
The surge in popularity prompted the UFC to beef up its executive team. In March 2006, the UFC announced that it had hired Marc Ratner, former Executive Director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, as Vice President of Regulatory Affairs. Ratner, once an ally of Senator McCain’s campaign against no holds barred fighting, became a catalyst for the emergence of sanctioned mixed martial arts in the United States. Ratner continues to lobby numerous athletic commissions to help raise the UFC’s media profile in an attempt to legalize mixed martial arts in jurisdictions inside and outside the United States that have yet to sanction the sport.
In December 2006, Zuffa acquired the northern California-based promotion World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) in order to stop the International Fight League (IFL) from making a deal with Versus (now NBC Sports Network). At the time, the UFC had an exclusive deal with Spike, so the purchase of the WEC allowed Zuffa to block the IFL from Versus without violating their contract. The WEC showcased lighter weight classes in MMA, whereas the UFC featured heavier weight classes. Notable WEC fighters included Urijah Faber, Jamie Varner, Carlos Condit, Benson Henderson, Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis, Eddie Wineland, Miguel Angel Torres, Mike Thomas Brown, Leonard Garcia, Brian Bowles, Dominick Cruz, and José Aldo.
In December 2006, Zuffa also acquired their cross-town, Las Vegas rival World Fighting Alliance (WFA). In acquiring the WFA, they acquired the contracts of notable fighters including Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, and Martin Kampmann.
The sport’s popularity was also noticed by the sports betting community as BodogLife.com, an online gambling site, stated in July 2007 that in 2007 UFC would surpass boxing for the first time in terms of betting revenues. In fact, the UFC had already broken the pay-per-view industry’s all-time records for a single year of business, generating over $222,766,000 in revenue in 2006, surpassing both WWE and boxing.
The UFC continued its rapid rise from near obscurity with Roger Huerta gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated and Chuck Liddell on the front of ESPN The Magazine in May 2007.