UFC's rise from 'barbarity' to 'fastest-growing sport' didn't come easy
From perceived barbarity to 'the fastest growing sport in the world', UFC has come a long way - but it wasn't easy, as CEO Lorenzo J. Fertitta explains ahead of the fight brand's forthcoming China debut event in Macau
Growing up in Las Vegas meant Lorenzo J. Fertitta was surrounded by the fight game. The sparkling Nevada desert wonderland is steeped in its rich history and through his formative years, Fertitta not only found himself ringside for bouts but - like the whole of Vegas - he became caught up in the pure theatre, the passion and the hype whenever a big fight comes to town.
While serving on the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Fertitta got a close-up look at how all combat sporting events in the state were run, from how the contracts were negotiated and signed, to how the safety rules and regulations were met. He also saw how riven with factions the sport had become.
"Vegas is known as fight town," says Fertitta. "And I've been lucky enough to be around it all my life. But when I stepped down from the commission [at the end of 2000], I had come to the conclusion that boxing had seen its better days. There was too much fragmentation, too many different organisations pulling at it and no one had really invested in the sport. I couldn't really think of any other industry where people had invested billions of dollars in it over the past 50 years, and yet there was no brand."
But Fertitta still wanted to be involved in sport - and in combat sports in particular. A background in jiu jitsu had given him a taste of what it was like inside the ring, and his experience as a fan and as a businessman had taught him all he needed to know about things outside the ring.
Change, he says today, had to come. And when an opportunity came to take over a fledging organisation called the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Fertitta's eyes were wide open to the idea.
"I had met some of the UFC fighters and I had come to appreciate it as a sport and not, like a lot of people at the time, as some sort of barbaric activity," he says. "I learned the fighters are tremendous athletes, and there is a tremendous amount of strategy involved. We thought even though we were buying what was perhaps the most tarnished brand in America at the time, at least it was recognisable."
That purchase - in 2001, with childhood friend Dana White and with his own brother Frank - would in many ways change not only the way the sport of mixed martial arts was seen by the world, but the way the modern world sees sport itself.
The UFC has emerged from a series of poorly staged back-room bouts to lay claim - as the organisation often does - to being the "fastest growing sport in the world". And, regardless of your feelings for the sport, it's pretty hard to disagree once the facts and figures are laid out on the table.
UFC bouts now regularly break global broadcasting records - the numbers stretch to over a billion viewers - and the organisation regularly packs out major events in North America and across the globe.
"Greater China'' is about to join the show with the first UFC Macau event slated for November 10 at the Venetian Macau-Resort-Hotel, and featuring a line-up that includes a bout between erstwhile high-school teacher and one-time world champion Rich Franklin and fighter-turned-movie star Cung Le ( Bodyguards and Assassins).
The organisation has also embraced developments in broadcasting and in new media, along the way setting the template for how sports today can reach - and expand - their audience. From the reality show The Ultimate Fighter, to online gaming and smart phone apps, UFC likes to keep its fans involved and this proactive approach continues to see its popularity grow.
It makes you wonder what the crusty suits in the boxing world think, the same people who dismissed UFC and mixed martial arts as a sideshow and who still today see their own sport mired in controversy and constant claims of corruption.
As UFC chairman and CEO, Fertitta has helped guide the sport's development and says the first thing the new owners had to address was safety concerns.
"We moved to get it regulated," he says. "We put together the unified regulations of mixed martial arts and we rebranded the company. We focused on the fighters and the athleticism of the fighters, whereas the previous owners really focused on the violence. It became all about the sport and the background of the sport, which is martial arts."
Fertitta has come to Hong Kong to help lead the promotional push for UFC Macau and he looks none the worse for wear, despite his flight arriving at 7am. He appears - like the UFC itself - as though nothing has been left to chance, from the off-siders sitting around a table in the corner of the hotel suite, smartphones at the ready, to the immaculately pressed shirt.
He says it took around five years - an "uphill battle" - to get the UFC on its feet and to begin to turn heads. The key was getting on TV in the US and the "Trojan horse" was The Ultimate Fighter, which took the sport - and its personalities - into living rooms everywhere.
"Instead of just putting fights in front of people, we did it in a way where the consumer was drawn into the back story of the guys," he says. "It turned out to be a great concept - we are on to our 17th season and are now doing international versions and are working on doing something for Asia.
"We always thought that once we got on TV, things would really take off. In Hollywood, in the entertainment industry, everybody wants to be first to be second. They want someone else to take the first risk and then jump on if it is successful, so at the start we had to bankroll everything ourselves."
What that did, at the same time, was also mean the UFC owned all the rights to the sport and all its marketing and broadcasting off-shoots and Fertitta believes part of what has made the UFC such an easy "sell" has been its simplicity. Unlike, say the United States' National Football League, or even cricket, you don't really have to be weaned on the sport to get what it's all about - two fighters going at it until one gives up, is stopped, or the fight is stopped by the referee.
"Everybody understands fighting," he says. "It's part of our DNA, of who we are as human beings. So you put two guys in a ring and you can sell that anywhere. You don't need to explain it. So that's why we have gone from having no international distribution to reaching 150 countries and territories and a billion homes around the world."
The final piece of the puzzle, he says, is Asia. Hence the bout in Macau, a notable increase in the amount of Asian fighters in the UFC stable and an investment in both sourcing and training new talent.
"Asia makes a lot of sense for us because it is the birthplace of martial arts. It is already ingrained in the culture," says Fertitta. "We opened an office in Beijing two years ago and we are looking to expand in terms of reach and broadcasting. Bruce Lee said you can't really count yourself as a great martial artist unless you embrace all the disciplines and though that was pretty controversial at the time, it's seen as being pretty true today."
Fertitta returns to the building of the UFC brand, globally, as reason behind his confidence in the Macau event, even though the city has a chequered past when it comes to mixed martial arts, thanks to cancelled events and poor audience turnouts in the past.
"It's all about recognising the brand and what it brings," he says. "Take the NFL. I might not know all the players on the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but I'll watch because they have the NFL seal behind them that tells me they are among the best footballers in America. That's what the UFC brings. You might not know Rich Franklin or Cung Le but at the main event in Macau you'll know they are the best fighters in the world and that's what our brand brings."
It also brings on the action, as anyone who has caught UFC broadcasts and their high-octane blend of pure battle and pure entertainment can attest.
"At the end of the day, I'm a fight fan," Fertitta says. "And much as we all get down to the business and everything associated with it, we're fans at heart and what we want to do is present the product as fans would want to see it - as we would want to see it. That's why we think the UFC has been such a success."