Ultimate Fighting Dips a Toe Into the Mainstream
The following article originally appeared in The New York Times November 11th, 2011
By Barry Bearak
In the beginning, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was like a brawl at a carnival, the mismatched combatants entering an octagonal cage to go at it until there was a “knockout, surrender, doctor’s intervention or death.” The very first match pitted a 415-pound sumo wrestler against a Dutch kickboxer who zestfully launched his foot into the bigger man’s face. The blow left two teeth embedded in the attacker’s foot, with a third flying into the crowd.
U.F.C. events were big successes, and not only because blood flowed as freely as sweat. Vigorous old arguments were being settled about who could best whom, the prizefighter or the Olympic wrestler, the Kung Fu black belt or his judo counterpart. This mingling of martial arts was an eye-opener. The sweet science of boxing suddenly seemed a wayward hypothesis. Grapplers easily took standup fighters to the ground; jiu-jitsu experts opportunely used leverage to yank on limbs at the joint as if bending apart Buffalo wings.
There were forceful critics of these spectacles, people who thought a no-holds-barred fight was a shameful about-face in the march of civilization. Eight years into its existence, the U.F.C. seemed caught in a chokehold on its revenue windpipe, with many cities and states prohibiting the fights and cable companies dropping the bouts from pay-per-view telecasts.
In 2001, Ultimate Fighting was sold for $2 million to the Fertitta brothers, Frank III and Lorenzo, megarich owners of a string of Las Vegas casinos and close friends of a phenomenal huckster named Dana White. What ensued was one of the greatest feats of financial alchemy in the history of sports, the transformation of cage fighting into a $1 billion-plus business.
But lucrative as it is, Ultimate Fighting remains confined to a narrow demographic niche, those three initials not yet familiar in most American households. On Saturday night, however, the U.F.C. will seek to make its way into the mainstream, appearing for the first time on network television. The event: a heavyweight championship fight broadcast on Fox.
“This is the fastest-growing sport in the world,” Eric Shanks, the president of Fox Sports, said hopefully of his network’s venture into the octagon. “It’s hard to find anyone under the age of 35 who doesn’t know about the U.F.C.”
The fight is between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, two names that may indeed not mean much to people unless they are men 18 to 34. That’s the sweet spot of the fan base, where mixed martial arts are bigger than any other sport in America except for the big three: football, baseball and basketball, according to research by Scarborough Sports Marketing.
Outside of that single masculine group, cage fighting — dominated by the U.F.C. brand — is only about as popular as pro bull riding or Major League Soccer. So the question is: Can Saturday night fights on Fox — this one and four next year — entice the curious into the octagon and win their loyalty?
That is certainly the hope, says Lorenzo Fertitta, the U.F.C.’s chief executive. To him, Saturday night’s bout is a loss leader, a freebie ordinarily costing each household about $50 on pay-per-view. The U.F.C. puts on about 15 events each year, and while it commonly fills arenas at an average ticket price of $245, pay-per-view revenues are the heart of its business model. Fight cards often draw 500,000 TV customers, or about a $25 million gross.
“The U.F.C. is definitely bigger now than boxing or wrestling, maybe even the two combined, though not yet as big as either during their peaks,” said Rich Luker, creator of the ESPN sports poll. “It’s clearly the flavor of the month, but that was once true of poker and then the numbers fell like a rock.”
Three years ago, Forbes Magazine referred to the U.F.C. as the “ultimate cash machine,” worth maybe $1 billion and counting. The ledger books of the parent company, Zuffa, are private but Fertitta said that while he did not know what someone might pay for the U.F.C., “I feel pretty comfortable saying we’re the most valuable sports franchise on the planet, more than Manchester United, more than the New York Yankees, more than the Dallas Cowboys.” That would put it in the $2 billion range.
Frank Fertitta III is ranked No. 355 on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans, with Lorenzo at No. 359. Each owns 40.5 percent of the U.F.C., with 9 percent belonging to White. Last year, Flash Entertainment, an arm of the government of Abu Dhabi, became a 10 percent partner, brought into the company, according to Lorenzo Fertitta, “because we’re taking this thing worldwide and they can more easily open up those doors than we can.”
There are two consecrated themes in the U.F.C.’s sacred text, and one is the claim that mixed martial arts will be the biggest sport in the world within 10 years, a notion many find unrealistic. But the U.F.C. already has staged successful events in Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Abu Dhabi — and next year it is looking to schedule events in Japan, Macao, Singapore and Sweden. “We’re on television in 150 countries,” Fertitta said.
Unlike a double-play ball or a pass-interference penalty, a fist to the face requires no further explanation for a foreign audience, and that leads to the other article of faith in the U.F.C. creed: “Fighting is in our DNA,” White said of the human species, repeating what for him is almost a ritual incantation. “We get it, and we like it. It doesn’t have to be explained to us.
“This is what I believe to be true though I can’t prove it. Before any guy ever threw a ball through a circle or hit a ball with a stick, someone hit somebody else with a punch and whoever was standing around ran over to watch it. I believe fighting was the first sport on earth, and it’ll be the last sport on earth. It works everywhere, and we’re going to take it everywhere.”
U.F.C. fights are sometimes a windmill of fists, feet, elbows and knees that can leave rivulets of red on misshapen faces. Other bouts end in submission holds, with lungs robbed of air by maneuvers called guillotine chokes. And yet just as often, a fight is slow-going, two exhausted men wrestling on the ground, each seeking strategic advantage in a knot of clamped limbs.
However much such fighting is in the marrow, Fertitta and White do not trust it to entertain an audience on its own. They may not be able to choreograph the give and take of an actual bout, but they insist on control of every aspect of its presentation: each graphic, each dart of light, each selection of psych-up music, each word and image in the promos of the fighters, each barely clad “octagon girl” who circles the cage holding a number ostensibly meant to remind the forgetful of the round.
“We came into this as fans and we think we know what fans want,” Fertitta said, adding that Fox, unlike other networks, agreed to cede all control of the production, even allowing the U.F.C. to bring in its own announcers.
“Fighting is in our DNA,” said Joe Rogan, one of the commentators. “People love conflict, especially when it doesn’t involve them and they get to be the voyeur. A big part of us is chimpanzee, 98 percent or whatever, depending on who you ask. The bottom line is we enjoy violence, especially when it’s in a controlled environment. And that’s just what the U.F.C. gives us.”
Rounding Up Viewers
The U.F.C. flourishes within the great universe of social networks. Last month, during a fight night in Houston, Dana White, 42, sat in a backstage room in the Toyota Center, paying scant attention to the undercard bouts under way in the arena, instead staring into his phone, thumbing through the incoming traffic on Twitter. For him, this was the time of a great roundup, herding people toward pay-per-view purchases. The first fights were watchable for free on Facebook, then the next ones free on Spike TV, the cable channel. But the final fights, the best ones, would only be shown to those fans who spent the $50.
“We’re talking to chat sites all over, driving people from Facebook to Spike and then to P.P.V.,” White said. “I’ve got at least 1.7 million followers on Twitter. I’m reaching out to all my people and hopefully, they’ll reach out to theirs, building the excitement.” The next hour was crucial. People were deciding whether to watch college football for free or the U.F.C. at a price.
White was ready to enlist celebrity friends. He told an assistant whom to direct Twitter messages at: “Hit the Rock, hit Justin Bieber, get their people talking, growing the numbers. Hit David Spade; hit Travis Barker; hit Snoop; hit what’s his name, Madden, the lead singer of Good Charlotte; hit Shaq; hit Bieber’s dad; hit Ryan Sheckler; hit Fergie’s husband, Josh Duhamel; hit MC Hammer.”
There was urgency to this last-minute marketing. Pay-per-view buys have been sizably down in 2011, interrupting what had been a steady annual rise. In 2010, 11 U.F.C. events drew at least 500,000 purchasers; this year, there have been but two, according to the Web site mmapayout.com. That’s troubling for an organization that forecasts global conquest within a decade.
Reasons for the decline include a fan base adept at video piracy. But more than that, some fight cards simply are less appealing than others, and this year one of the U.F.C.’s biggest draws, the heavyweight Brock Lesnar — a former pro wrestler — has been battling diverticulitis instead of opponents. The welterweight champ, Georges St-Pierre, has fought only once because of injuries. The U.F.C. galaxy needs more stars and less dark matter.
Fighters with big mouths, good looks, spiked hair, flamboyant striking skills or intriguing back stories tend to be popular, though nothing can help an athlete who loses too often in the octagon. Brian Stann, winner of a Silver Star in Iraq, a man as handsome and square-jawed as any Marine ever to walk a patrol, won his bout on Memorial Day weekend as a crowd chanted: U.S.A., U.S.A.! But he was beaten last month by a trash-talker who likes playing the heavy, back in action after failing a postfight drug test a year before.
“Once a fight starts everything is out of my hands,” White, the U.F.C.’s president, said, though his manipulations are visible most everywhere else.
Lorenzo Fertitta, 42, with a business degree from New York University, may be the better financial strategist, but White, from the school of hard knocks, is the U.F.C.’s designated face and mouth, as well known as any of his fighters, the Vince McMahon of mixed martial arts. White, who used to teach classes in boxercise — a mix of boxing and aerobics — is regularly attired in a T-shirt. A shaved head seems to magnify his pugnacity. Add a smile to his face and he could pose for the label on a bottle of Mr. Clean.
White casts himself as the sport’s shoot-from-the-hip everyman, not only the overexcited promoter — endlessly saying, “this fight’s gonna be a war like nothin’ ever seen” — but also the outraged fan, the first to badmouth a bout that “bored everyone to sleep.” He attempts to appear as a man’s man with more integrity than the next guy, ever-unafraid to call a creep a creep.
White also is the face that launched a thousand bleeps, for few in public life more avidly employ common obscenities, making versatile use of his favorites as nouns, verbs and adjectives and commands and exclamations. He seems to resist taking the Lord’s name in vain. Allusions to religion are restricted to frequent use of the word “holy,” though only as a modifier before another dirty word.
A common antigay slur is also part of his vocabulary. He used the word on his widely viewed video blog but goes into a rickety defensive crouch when confronted about it. He has worked with gay men; he invited some to his wedding, he said as if proffering exculpatory evidence. He said the slur in question was common coin as he grew up, “and it never, never was about somebody’s sexual preference.”
Mixed martial arts is as brutally authentic as pro wrestling is outlandishly fake. But they share a certain soap operatic quality. Most U.F.C. fighters have nicknames — the Young Assassin, the Spider, the Mexicutioner, Mayhem, American Psycho — and any conceivable grudge between them is welcomed as testosterone therapy for the box office.
White, too, has feuds, and they are part of the continuing U.F.C. narrative, the day-to-day heat that keeps things percolating on Web sites. Boxing promoters like Bob Arum and Gary Shaw are “crybabies” and “losers.” Reporters are belittled for dishonesty and stupidity and their credentials are withheld. Fighters who complain about take-it-or-leave-it contracts are flayed for ingratitude. These slams become theater on YouTube.
One quarrel White rarely discusses, however, is one with his mother, June White, who this year published a score-settling online biography of her son. Her language is no less flinching than his, though innuendo also gets to share in the dirty work. “I never read her book but my lawyer did and he said trust me, don’t read it,” Dana White said. He began to mount an antimom, obscenity-laced counterattack but was interrupted by a public-relations chaperon who navigated him to the sanctuary of off-the-record.
His umbrage sounded heartfelt, as it usually does. His presumed genuineness is at the core of his popularity. Back in that anteroom of the Toyota Center, a few fans were given a semiprivate audience with the U.F.C. boss.
“This is my 40th birthday, and meeting you, Dana, is such an honor,” proclaimed a pharmaceutical salesman named Scot Bomar. “Really, this surpasses even my wedding day, I’ll tell you.”
“Happy birthday, dude, but let’s not get crazy here,” White said amiably.
And soon he was back to Twitter, calling out to his assistant: “O.K., let’s get busy. Hit Mike Vick, hit Ashton Kutcher, hit J-Woww.”
Old Friends Reconnect
White and Lorenzo Fertitta were high school friends in Las Vegas. They would have graduated together if White had not been tossed out of school, expelled, as he tells it, for slamming a classroom door to irritate a nun.
Their paths diverged. White moved to Boston, where he worked as a bellhop and a bouncer and did enough boxing to conclude that even a one-way ticket to Palookaville was beyond his reach. So he taught boxercise, eventually returning to Vegas, where he and Fertitta met again at a wedding.
Nearly a decade had passed since high school. The Fertittas were expanding the gambling business — Station Casinos — they inherited from their father. Lorenzo also was on the Nevada Athletic Commission. White was again teaching boxercise, sometimes to busy executives.
“I agreed to meet him at some rusty boxing gym in Las Vegas, and I’ve spoken to him at least four times a day ever since,” Fertitta said.
They worked out, they hung out. As Fertitta recalls it, they were at a Limp Bizkit concert when White began talking to a heavily tattooed, “scary-looking” guy named John Lewis. He was a martial arts legend, an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Japanese kickboxing and judo. He fought in the U.F.C. and soon he was giving private lessons to the Fertittas and White.
Mixed martial arts, one fighting technique layered upon another, was a revelation. “It was like watching ‘The Matrix’ and being told I could take the blue pill or the red pill, the one that just blows your mind,” Fertitta said. “I have a bit of O.C.D., and I just got so into this. I wanted to know every move and countermove. It was so strategic, like playing a game of chess.”
Mixed martial arts may have started out as one art versus another but after awhile every fighter was turning himself into a cross-trained hybrid, boxers learning to wrestle, karate black belts mastering submission holds.
Fertitta’s new appreciation for the sport did not carry over to the U.F.C. itself. He attended one of its events in New Orleans. He said the arena was nearly empty, the production quality amateurish. No programs or T-shirts were on sale. He thought it might be “the worst-run business on the planet.”
The U.F.C. indeed had fallen into a financial sinkhole, but it also had cleaned itself up, far more a genuine sport than a gaudy burlesque. Weight classes were installed, rules added: no head butts; no more kicking a downed man in the head; no more “fishhooking,” ripping apart an opponent’s mouth.
In 2001, the Fertittas took a flier on it for $2 million. The biggest asset was the name itself, Lorenzo said. The boast was hard to top: Ultimate Fighting.
Reality TV Comeback
The brothers were busy running their casinos, which was an expanding empire. Day-to-day operations of the U.F.C. were entrusted to White. Better him than some Harvard M.B.A., Lorenzo Fertitta said. White had a rapport with fighters. He had street smarts. He was tireless.
The previous owners had begun the state-by-state slog to win approval from athletic commissions, but Fertitta, who had been a regulator, knew how to hasten the pace. His pitch was straightforward: mixed martial arts was an amalgam of sports already found in the Olympics: boxing, wrestling, judo, tae kwon do. Blows to the head were less common than in boxing. Referees quickly stopped fights when a man became defenseless. Bouts were mostly only three rounds, five minutes each. This was hardly barbarian behavior.
But getting the sport back on television was harder. “Cable companies and pay-per-view companies wouldn’t even meet with us,” Fertitta said. “It was nuts. I mean this is a free society. They’d put porn on the air but not us.”
The U.F.C. did not return to pay-per-view until late 2001. Fertitta said he expected 150,000 buys but ended up with a fraction of that. The U.F.C. was hemorrhaging cash, he said, maybe $30 million or more in just a few years.
Lorenzo Fertitta relishes the story of the U.F.C.’s comeback like any teller of a good fable that celebrates his own success. At one point, he said, his older brother Frank refused to sign any more checks to keep their investment alive. “True story, to meet the last payroll, I didn’t even go to my brother,” Lorenzo said. “I paid it myself.”
Instead of giving up, the Fertittas and White decided to try one more gambit, exploring the cultural zeitgeist of reality TV. They went to Spike with a self-financed program called “The Ultimate Fighter.” The premise was straightforward: a few dozen men who want to win U.F.C. contracts live in a house, train together, booze it up, pull pranks, argue. In the first episode, in 2005, one guy peed in another one’s bed. The show was an immediate hit.
“The Ultimate Fighter” is still on the air, though as part of the U.F.C.’s new arrangement with Fox — a deal estimated at $100 million a year — the show will switch over to Fox-affiliated FX. By Fertitta’s reckoning, the program developed respect for how hard the fighters trained. Certainly, the camera opened a window into their lives — their egos and ids and abs. Fans picked favorites. The show had much the appeal of “American Idol,” except at the end viewers were able to see the contestants beat each other up.
With a boost from “The Ultimate Fighter,” the U.F.C. finally moved back into the black. In late 2006, the veteran fighter Chuck Liddell, a coach on the first season of the TV show, beat Tito Ortiz, a coach on the third season. More than a million households ordered the fight on pay-per-view.
Tight Grip on the Sport
The U.F.C. usually keeps about 375 athletes under contract. These are not goons fresh from barroom beat downs. Many have been wrestling stars in college; some have been Olympians. They are terrific athletes, though at the weigh-ins, two days before a bout, some look more enervated than buff.
Fighters frequently try to drop 20 pounds in 48 hours. Before his most recent fight, the featherweight Kenny Florian, who normally weighs 168, needed to prune himself to 145. His mealtimes consisted of exactly 11 protein chips the size of quarters along with two crackers made from bran fiber, each flavored with a tablespoon of almond butter. A nutritionist sat nearby. After the weigh-in, he would re-inflate Florian, cautiously feeding him enzymes and electrolytes.
Fighters ordinarily have two or three bouts a year — and they fight them when and where White tells them to. Some resent the U.F.C.’s autocratic ways. They may praise the company for improving the sport but they also wish they had more bargaining power. “It’s take it or leave it with the U.F.C.,” said Sean Sherk, a former lightweight champion. “It’s the top dog. It buys up the competition. What can you do? It is what it is.”
Actually, dozens of promoters put on hundreds of mixed martial arts fights each week. Sometimes the “arena” is no more than a few bleachers in a warehouse. Fighters may make $100 to appear and $100 more to win.
Other big promotions have competed for the growing fan base, among them World Extreme Cagefighting, Pride Fighting Championships and Strikeforce, which briefly staged prime-time fights on CBS. The U.F.C. has acquired each of these, provoking complaints of monopolistic practices.
Lorenzo Fertitta said dismissively: “We bought up guys who were going bankrupt. There’s no barrier to entry. If you want to start your own league, put together three letters, buy an octagon and sign some fighters.”
Complaints about antitrust violations have been made to the Federal Trade Commission, which has not disclosed whether an official investigation is under way. “I don’t want to talk about the F.T.C.,” Fertitta said. “It’s inappropriate given that they are asking us questions, and I really can’t get into any details.”
The amount paid to the athletes is kept confidential but White says the U.F.C. has made “something like 40 fighters into millionaires, 20 multimillionaires, and, you know, guys making hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Certainly, there is good money at the top, and earlier this year the U.F.C. began providing health insurance. But fighters at the lower levels often earn only $6,000 a bout — double that if they win — not enough to cover the costs of diet supplements and training. The athletes sign contracts for four fights but can be dropped at any time. Jorge Lopez, 22, fought his first U.F.C. bout in September. He lost a unanimous decision. “If I don’t win next time, this could be the end of my U.F.C. career,” he said.
Fighters hew the company line. Exceptions are rare. In a postfight, in-the-ring interview, Brock Lesnar told the crowd he would be drinking Coors that night, brashly disrespecting the U.F.C.’s official brand, Bud Light. He appeared later at a news conference with the appropriate beer in hand, contritely saying White straightened him out in a “whip-the-dog session.”
Rob Maysey, a Phoenix lawyer, has been unsuccessfully trying to organize an association of fighters similar to the one for baseball players. “If you call a meeting about bargaining, the fighters won’t show up, afraid they’ll get ratted out,” he said. “These guys are fearless in the octagon but they’re a docile group outside it, afraid what Dana White is going to do to them.”
Oddly enough, the most determined enemy of the U.F.C. seems to be the Culinary Union, Local 226 in Las Vegas. Its actual beef is with Station Casinos, which is nonunion, but it has been going after the U.F.C. as a way to pressure the Fertittas. The local has set up a Web site, unfitforchildren.org, that is a repository of White’s harangues and slurs.
More significant, the Culinary Union and its labor allies have tried to influence lawmakers in New York, one of only three states that prohibit live mixed martial arts events. The ban is curious. After all, boxing is legal in the state, and mixed martial arts is commonly taught in self-defense academies.
The U.F.C. has lobbied to change New York’s law. The company and its affiliates have donated $105,000 to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s campaigns since March 2009, according to the U.F.C. But while the State Senate this year passed a legalization bill, the measure never came to a vote in the Assembly. Some legislators say the sport is simply too violent.
Five years ago, White appeared on Fox as Bill O’Reilly’s guest. The acerbic host accused the U.F.C. of selling brutality. “What are we, ancient Rome here?” O’Reilly asked. “Is there going to be lions in the ring next?”
White politely answered that mixed martial arts was safer than boxing or even high school football. These days, he also mentions cheerleading.
Dr. Margaret E. Goodman, who worked for years as a ringside physician in Nevada, said data on the sport’s safety is sparse and “only time will tell” about possible long-term brain trauma. She said most of the injuries are orthopedic. Bloody bouts are usually more gory than physically dangerous.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs is perhaps the bigger problem. “The U.F.C. wants the state athletic commissions to handle it, but even the jurisdictions that do some testing are insufficiently thorough,” Dr. Goodman said.
Interviews with two dozen fighters yielded varied views about steroids and other enhancements. Some said use of the substances was rare; others called it epidemic. The most common response was something of a shrug. “In any sport, athletes are looking for an edge,” the welterweight Martin Kampmann said. “This must be expected.”
Toned, Tattooed, Loyal
Last month, the U.F.C. held one of its fan expos. Thousands of people paid $45 to stroll through the downtown convention center in Houston, looking at exercise gear and sampling power drinks. Much of America may be obese but this crowd was fit, not in a slim, distance-running way but in the manner of the well sculptured. Biceps, often tattooed, stretched the sleeves of T-shirts.
The U.F.C. has its own clothing brand. Much of it is exercise wear. “We envision a U.F.C. lifestyle, a perspective on life,” said Bryan Johnston, the company’s chief marketing officer. “You can’t lead an N.F.L. lifestyle or a baseball lifestyle. That’s just drinking beer and hanging out with your friends. We’re more like golf, something you can build a life around.”
Some lines at the expo were enormous. People waited for a chance to enter the octagon and pose with a championship belt slung over their shoulder. Others wanted autographs from fighters. Urijah Faber, the California Kid, was a huge draw. Well tanned, with long blond hair, he looks as if he ought to be jogging toward the ocean with a surf board under his arm.
“You are so cool and laid-back, man, but you’re also a real warrior,” Sam Akaweih, 29, a physical education teacher, said to the fighter.
Gilbert Gonzalez, 27, an emergency medical technician, told Faber he had named his 2-year-old son after him. “Urijah and I have this spiritual connection,” the fan later explained. “I watch him on TV and when I yell, ‘Knee him, knee him, knee that guy!’ he hears me. He knees the guy.”
Other connections were at play. Most in the crowd knew the sport inside out, from the correct application of an arm bar to who fought whom three years back.
The Marines are a U.F.C. sponsor. Recruiters were present, challenging young men to do 20 pull-ups. One nearby booth belonged to Fight Chix, a brand of women’s apparel. Nearby was a booth for “Jesus Didn’t Tap,” a Christian-based mixed martial arts clothing line. Tap refers to a gentle rap of the fingers, used when a fighter in a submission hold chooses to surrender.
“Fighting is in the Old Testament; in fact, the Bible is real violent,” said Patrick Hutton, a partner in the company. Everyone struggles within the locked cage of life, he said, but Jesus is the only champion: “People will say, ‘Oh, the only reason Jesus didn’t tap was because his hands were nailed to the cross.’ But he could have verbally tapped and he didn’t.”
A U.F.C. fan named Celeste Jackson, 24, was listening in, considering the theological issues. “I really don’t know about fighting being in the Bible,” she said, while adding unequivocally, “But I do believe fighting is in our DNA.”