With the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it seems appropriate to look back on how the company has grown into the global sporting behemoth it is today. The sport continues to rise in popularity, and its appeal is wide reaching. There is something about physical combat sports which have a unique appeal, and the UFC has tapped into this to provide a product like no other.
Of course, it has taken the company a long time to garner the interest and popularity it now enjoys. When the UFC was developed in the early 1990s it was slow to take ahold among more established combat sports, like boxing and wrestling. Many were taken aback by its violent nature. Indeed, US senator John McCain lobbied a campaign to ban the UFC, referring to it as the equivalent of “human cockfighting”.
Once the rules were redefined and the sport became more regulated, its popularity began to grow steadily. However, the company struggled financially in the pay-per-view market, and eventually branched off into reality television with the advent of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ – a show which featured up and coming MMA talent competing for a six-figure UFC contract. The programme was an instant success, and led to more television opportunities for the company, and as a result the sport began to gain a stronger footing commercially.
When Conor McGregor faces off against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 on October 6th, it will be interesting to see the buy rate, with McGregor making his return after two years away. McGregor vs Khabib odds see Khabib as the current favourite, at 4/6, but there is always room for an upset and perhaps a McGregor win will be more lucrative for the UFC.
It could be argued the success of UFC has coincided with something of a decline in the popularity of boxing and wrestling. Boxing has seen many of its stars winding down their careers, Floyd Mayweather being one example. MMA offered a more intense version of boxing’s appeal, a no-holds barred interpretation of boxing’s qualities.
Wrestling too has experienced something of a malaise, with many growing tired of the ludicrous nature of WWE. UFC offers something of a balance between the two sports, which could perhaps be considered more genuine than wrestling, and more fancy-free than boxing.
With every combat sport, personalities are everything, and the UFC owes a lot of its success to the likes of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. McGregor offered a true “rag to riches” story – a fighter who grew up in a poor and disadvantaged area of Ireland, but honed his talents to make it to the top. Indeed, much of McGregor’s success hinged on his braggadocious character, a fighter who can talk the talk and walk the walk.
McGregor’s foray into the boxing world was something of a seminal moment for the UFC; acting as a statement the company was not merely established to provide entertainment, but to bring a shift in the way we view and consume sport. Some would say that McGregor’s switch to boxing to fight Mayweather was due to the Irishman outgrowing the UFC, but perhaps a better way of looking at it is to consider how the UFC, and the sport of MMA, birthed such a versatile combat fighter. Although McGregor lost the fight, he had proved that mixed martial artists can be held in the same esteem as professional boxers.
Social media has certainly helped the growth of the company. Fighters are able to make their voices heard and rivalry is created through social media exchanges alone. Sites such as Twitter bring fans closer to their favourite fighters, making them likelier to root for them more passionately.
Ultimately, the UFC has provided sports fans with a unique product that pushes boundaries. A sport which showcases the impressive speed, power and coordination of top athletes, and gives us cause to gasp, wince and marvel. While the UFC’s rise into the company it is today has been slow and steady, the future continues to look brighter and brighter.