UFC: Bloody Good Show

Mixed martial arts gains in popularity through the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Spike's 'The Ultimate Fighter'

In 1993 Dan "Punkass" Caldwell and Charles "Mask" Lewis, founders of the mixed martial arts clothing line Tapout, saw the first Ultimate Fighting Championship on PPV.

"We thought, 'We're watching this show, (we can't be) the only ones that want to,' " Caldwell says. "There (must be) other alpha male-style guys that are going to want to watch this stuff."

The stuff in question was mixed martial arts, a full-contact sport in which fighters can use a variety of styles of combat -- from boxing to jujitsu to karate to nontraditional fighting techniques -- in an effort to knock out their opponent. It was also the inspiration for Tapout, now the exclusive clothing sponsor of the UFC, the dominant MMA organization in the U.S., which Saturday celebrates its 100th live fight at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Events Center. (Tapout's name comes from the sport itself; when a fighter is defeated he "taps out," indicating to the referee that the fight is over by hitting the floor with his hand.)

Largely unregulated in its infancy, the event once called "human cockfighting" by Sen. John McCain has made checkered appearances in modern athletic history, but wasn't codified into a legalized sport until 2001, when Zuffa, the privately held company that owns UFC and its sister organization, World Extreme Cagefighting, acquired it and instituted state athletic commission-approved rules. Its main competitor, the Japanese-founded Pride, was bought by Zuffa in 2008, leaving UFC with a virtual monopoly as a provider of MMA content.

In less than a decade, UFC has become the largest PPV content provider in the world, with distribution in more than 100 countries worldwide.

UFC president Dana White attributes UFC's growth to the sport's appeal to basic human instinct. "I can take two guys and put them in an octagon (the UFC equivalent of a boxing ring) and they can use any martial art they want and it transcends all cultural (and) language barriers," he says. "Here's the bottom line: At the end of the day, we're all human beings and fighting is in our DNA. We get it and we like it."

But the story of UFC's growth is at least as much about the organizations that have partnered with it as it is about DNA. UFC's early partnership with Spike provided UFC with an entry point to the basic cable subscribers the sport needed to break out of its niche-market appeal.

"Five years ago, when Spike wasn't even a year old, we were looking for a combat sport," says Brian Diamond, the network's senior vp sports and specials. "Mixed martial arts with UFC seemed to be the best fit for us. The question was: How do we translate this to the TV screen, because there were hardcore fans of the sport but it had to grow up beyond that."

The answer was the creation of a reality television show, "The Ultimate Fighter," pitched to Spike by UFC. "The show gave you insight into who these guys were, their personalities and characters, but more importantly it gave you insight into them as skilled (and) highly trained athletes," Diamond says. "This isn't easy to do. It's very real, and you have to be a certain kind of person to do that, both physically and mentally."

That show's introduction turned the spectacle into a sport that came to dominate ratings in a key demographic: white males, ages 18-34. According to NPower, Nielsen Media Research's national custom analysis tool, "Ultimate Fighter" has garnered 106.9 million viewers cumulatively during the past four seasons. It's currently in its 10th production season, with two more in the pipeline. In 2008, UFC's contract with Spike was extended to 2012. That contract also includes exclusive broadcast rights for the UFC's PPV matches after a 60-day blackout period.

That's not to say it has been smooth sailing all the way, especially in the crucial matter of lining up sponsors and advertisers.

"There was this predisposition of what the sport was about, and we would say to a lot of our advertisers, 'Before you say no, just come to a fight,' " Diamond says. "Ninety-nine% of the time, after they would witness a live fight, they would say, 'We're in. We get it, we get the energy of it, we can see with our open eyes who these consumers are, and they're the consumers of our products.' "

This meant Spike could add such sponsors as Burger King, Anheuser-Busch and Gillette to the ranks of MMA-related sponsors Tapout and Xyience, the official sports drink of UFC.

The exposure to key demographics that "Ultimate Fighter" delivered to MMA-related brands proved invaluable: Tapout gave $15 million to Spike to sponsor Season 1 of "Ultimate Fighter" and remains the program's official clothing provider.

"We always outfit the fighters with all our newest stuff and that's how we preview a lot of our new products," Caldwell says. "We tell people to watch 'The Ultimate Fighter' for all the new Tapout gear."

The market for such gear and other products touted on UFC is likely to grow, given that a large potential audience has barely been tapped.

"We haven't even touched the Hispanic market yet," White says. "We haven't hit the urban market yet and as far as I'm concerned we haven't scratched the surface of how big we'll be in the U.S., let alone globally."

Global expansion is definitely on the UFC's fight card. The company opened a London office two years ago and has, according to White, held fights "all over the U.K. in every major venue and in Ireland. (In June) we did our first fight in Germany, we're looking to do a fight in France." With a television presence in 100 countries, UFC also aims to bring live events to that audience, White says.

That level of growth has required UFC to add more personnel in the U.S. -- one of the few companies to do so of late. In June, Bryan Johnston, formerly vp marketing for Burton Snowboards, was brought on board as chief marketing officer.

"What they've accomplished with this sport is amazing," Johnston says. "I'm excited to be a part of taking UFC to the next level as a global and lifestyle sport."

Expansion has included a video game released this year, which has already shifted 1.7 million units; and the planned opening of a UFC Gym in Concord, Calif.

Perhaps a sign of growing pains, the UFC has inevitably attracted controversy. In 2008 the organization cut fighter Jon Fitch after he refused to sign away lifetime rights to his likeness. Fitch was vocal in his objections.

Still, the advent of the UFC's 100th fight indicates how popular the brand remains. Nearly four months before the event, tickets sold out hours after being made available. For those unable to make the main event, UFC has planned a fan expo this weekend that will feature a grappling tournament for 1,500 participants and seminars on getting into MMA, led by White and other UFC executives.

"These sorts of things are normally pretty big walk-up events, but we've already sold 7,000 tickets (to the fan expo)," White says.

And those fans are no longer just the alpha males.

"I don't think we were prepared for the fact that everyone wants to watch mixed martial arts," Tapout's Caldwell says. "It's not just tough guys, it's everybody: It's grandmothers and grandfathers and kids (too)."

That includes other athletes. NBA star Shaquille O'Neal is not only a fan, but he also has begun mixed martial arts training. "(Shaq) texts me every time we do a fight, telling me he wants to fight," White says. Is that for real? "Shaq knows his s***," he says. "He knows how to fight."



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