Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is a U.S.-based mixed martial arts (MMA) organization, currently recognized as the largest MMA promotion in the world. The UFC is owned and operated by Zuffa, LLC, headquarted in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The UFC began as a single-event tournament to find the world’s best fighters irrespective of their style, and was based upon Brazilian vale tudo fighting. Although there were a few limited number of rules, fighting in the UFC was marketed as no holds barred, and contests were often violent and brutal. Early UFC fights were less sport than spectacle, which led to accusations of brutality and “human cock fighting” by Senator John McCain and others. Political pressures eventually led the UFC into the underground, as pay-per-view providers nixed UFC programming, nearly extinguishing the UFC’s public visibility.
As political pressure mounted, the UFC reformed itself, slowly embracing stricter rules, becoming sanctioned by state athletic commissions, and marketing itself as a legitimate sporting event. Dropping the no holds barred label and carrying the banner of mixed martial arts, the UFC has emerged from its political isolation to become more socially acceptable, regaining its position in pay-per-view television.
With a cable television deal and expansion into Canada, Europe and new markets within the United States, the UFC is currently undergoing a remarkable surge in popularity, along with greater mainstream media coverage. UFC programming can now be seen on Spike in the United States and Canada, as well as in 34 other countries worldwide.
The concept for a tournament to discover the world’s best fighting style was the brainchild of Art Davie, a southern California-based advertising executive. Davie met Rorion Gracie in 1991 while researching martial arts for a marketing client. Gracie operated a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school in Torrance, California and the Gracie family had a long history of vale-tudo matches—a precursor of mixed martial arts—in Brazil. Davie became Gracie’s student.
In 1992, inspired by the Gracies in Action video series produced by the Gracies featuring various martial arts masters being defeated using Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Davie proposed an eight-man, single-elimination tournament with a working title of War of the Worlds to Rorion Gracie and John Milius. The tournament would feature martial artists from different disciplines facing each other in no holds barred combat to see which martial art was truly the best which replicated the excitement of the matches Davie saw on those videos. Milius, a noted film director and screenwriter, as well as a Gracie student, agreed to be 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 Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). Both TVKO and SET declined, but SEG – a pioneer in pay-per-view television which had produced such off-beat events as a mixed-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. The two companies produced the first event at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado on November 12, 1993. Davie functioned as the show’s booker and matchmaker. The television broadcast featured two kickboxers, Patrick Smith and Kevin Rosier; a savate fighter, Gerard Gordeau; a karate expert, Zane Frazier; a shootfighter, Ken Shamrock; a sumo wrestler, Teila Tuli; a professional boxer, Art Jimmerson; and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Royce Gracie—Rorion’s younger brother who was hand-picked by Rorion himself to represent his family. The show was an instant success, drawing 86,592 television subscribers on pay-per-view to witness Royce Gracie take the first UFC crown. In April 1995, following UFC 5 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Davie and Gracie sold their interest in the franchise to SEG and disbanded WOW Promotions. Davie continued with SEG as the show’s booker and matchmaker, as well as the commissioner of Ultimate Fighting, until December 1997.
A core proposition for the show was to find an answer for sports fans: “Can a wrestler beat a boxer?” As was the case with most martial arts at the time, fighters were typically skilled in just one discipline (e.g., boxing, judo, or jujutsu) and had little experience against opponents with different skills. Some competitors were also rumored to have inflated their credentials to legitimize their presence. Kimo Leopoldo, for example, was touted in UFC 3 as a “third degree black belt” in taekwondo. Kimo’s fighting is best described as freestyle and he holds no such rank.
With no weight classes, fighters often faced significantly larger or taller opponents. For example, Keith “The Giant Killer” Hackney faced Emmanuel Yarborough at UFC 3 with a 9 in (22 cm) height and 400 lb (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 170 lb (77 kg/12 st) Royce Gracie winning three of the first four UFC events, the UFC quickly proved that size does not always determine outcome.
Although “There are no rules!” was the tagline, this was not strictly true; the UFC operated with limited rules. There was no biting, no eye gouging, and techniques such as hair pulling, headbutting, groin strikes and fish hooking were frowned upon, but allowed. In fact, in a UFC 4 qualifying match, two competitors Jason Fairn and Guy Mezger agreed not to pull hair as they both wore pony tails tied back for the match. Additionally, that same event saw a matchup between Keith Hackney and Joe Son in which Hackney unleashed a series of groin shots against Joe Son while on the ground. UFC was similarly characterized, especially in the early days, as an extremely violent sport, as evidenced by a disclaimer in the beginning of the UFC 5 broadcast which warned audiences of the violent nature of the event. A brief appearance of a match in the 1995 film Virtuosity likely did little to change this perception.
Controversy and reform
The big UFC became a hit on pay-per-view and home video almost immediately due to its originality, realism, and wide press coverage, although not all of it favorable. The nature of the burgeoning sport quickly drew the attention of the authorities and UFC events were banned in a number of American states. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), was sent a tape of the first UFC events and immediately found it abhorrent. McCain himself led a campaign to ban Ultimate Fighting, calling it “human cockfighting”, and sending letters to the governors of all fifty U.S. states asking them to ban the event. As a result, the UFC was dropped from the major cable pay-per-view distributor Viewer’s Choice, and individual cable carriers such as TCI Cable. Thirty-six states enacted laws that banned “no-holds-barred” fighting, including New York, which enacted the ban on the eve of UFC 12, forcing an overnight relocation of the event to Dothan, Alabama. The UFC continued to air on DirecTV PPV, though its audience was minuscule compared to the larger cable pay-per-view platforms of the era.
In response to the criticism, the UFC increased its cooperation with state athletic commissions and redesigned its rules to remove the less palatable elements of fights while retaining the core elements of striking and grappling. Weight classes were introduced at UFC 12; gloves became mandatory and kicks to a downed opponent, hair pulling, fish hooking, headbutting, and groin strikes were banned at UFC 14. UFC 15 saw more limitations on permissible striking areas: strikes to the back of the neck and head, and small joint manipulations were banned. With five-minute rounds introduced at UFC 21, the UFC gradually re-branded itself as a sport rather than a spectacle.
As the UFC continued to work with state athletic commissions, events were held in smaller U.S. markets, including Iowa, Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming and Alabama. SEG could not secure home video releases for UFC 23 through UFC 29 in a period known by some fans as the “dark days” of the UFC. With other mixed martial arts promotions working towards U.S. sanctioning, the International Fighting Championships secured the first U.S. sanctioned mixed martial arts event, which occurred in New Jersey on September 30, 2000. Just two months later, the UFC held its first sanctioned event, UFC 28, under the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board’s “Unified Rules”. McCain’s opinions have now been revised and he is quoted as saying: “The sport has grown up. The rules have been adopted to give its athletes better protections and to ensure fairer competition.”
After the long battle to get sanctioned SEG was on the brink of bankruptcy when they were approached by Station Casinos executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, and boxing promoter Dana White in 2001, with an offer to purchase the UFC. A month later, in January 2001, the Fertittas bought the UFC for $2 million and created Zuffa, LLC as the parent entity controlling the UFC. With ties to the Nevada State Athletic Commission (Lorenzo Fertitta was a former member of the NSAC), Zuffa secured sanctioning in Nevada in 2001. Shortly thereafter, at UFC 33, the UFC returned to pay-per-view cable television.
The UFC slowly, but steadily, rose in popularity after the Zuffa purchase, due partly to effective advertising, corporate sponsorship, the return to cable pay-per-view, and subsequent home video and DVD releases. With larger live gates at casino venues like the Trump Taj Mahal and the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and pay-per-view buys beginning to return to levels enjoyed by the UFC prior to the political backlash in 1997, the UFC secured its first television deal with Fox Sports Net, with The Best Damn Sports Show Period airing the first mixed martial arts match on American cable television in June 2002 with UFC 37.5. Later, FSN would air highlight shows from the UFC, showcasing one hour blocks of the UFC’s greatest bouts. At UFC 40, pay-per-view buys hit 150,000 for a card headlined by a grudge match between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. Shamrock was an original headliner from the UFC’s early days who had since defected to WWE-brand professional wrestling. It was the first time the UFC hit such a high mark since being forced “underground” in 1997. Despite the success, the UFC was still experiencing financial deficits, and by 2004, Zuffa had $34 million of losses since the purchase.
The rise of the number of spectators, fans and athletes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship can be linked to the power of the media. The international growth of the sport is often compared to the international growth of similar sports, such as boxing. In many ways MMA, and more specifically the UFC, have overtaken boxing in popularity. An example of this emergence is the increasing number of viewers the sport is getting with its television coverage. In ’2006, an MMA company broke the record of the pay per view industries all time single year revenue, surpassing WWE and Boxing’.
After being featured in a reality television series, American Casino, and seeing how well the series worked as a promotion vehicle, the Fertitta brothers decided that the UFC should have its own reality series. Their idea, The Ultimate Fighter – a reality television show not unlike Survivor, but featuring up-and-coming MMA fighters in competition, with fighters eliminated from competition via exhibition mixed martial arts matches – was pitched to several networks, each one rejecting the idea outright. Not until they approached Spike TV, with an offer to pay the $10 million production costs themselves, did they find an outlet. In January 2005, Spike TV launched the series in the timeslot following WWE Raw, and the show became an instant success. A second season of The Ultimate Fighter launched in August 2005, and two more seasons appeared in 2006. Spike TV and the UFC announced plans for additional seasons airing in 2007 and 2008.
Following the success of The Ultimate Fighter, Spike TV also picked up UFC Unleashed, an hour-long weekly show featuring select fights from previous events. Spike TV also signed on to broadcast live UFC Fight Night, a series of fight events debuting in August 2005; Countdown specials to promote upcoming UFC pay-per-view cards, and several other series and specials featuring and promoting the UFC and its fighters.
With increased visibility, UFC’s pay-per-view buy numbers exploded. UFC 52, the first event after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, drew a pay-per-view audience of 280,000, nearly double its previous benchmark of 150,000 set at UFC 40. Following the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s much-hyped rubber match between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell 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, 775,000 buys for UFC 61 which featured the second fight between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, the coaches of The Ultimate Fighter 3. UFC 66, featuring Tito Ortiz facing Chuck Liddell in their highly anticipated rematch, garnered 1,050,000 buy rates, the current PPV buy rate record for the UFC and MMA in general. The UFC broke the pay-per-view industry’s all-time records for a single year of business, generating over $222,766,000 in revenue during 2006, surpassing WWE and boxing.
The UFC’s mainstream emergence has also been noted by many popular online sportsbooks. BodogLife.com, a popular online gambling site, stated in July of 2007, that 2007 would be the first year that the UFC will surpass boxing in terms of betting revenues.
In March 2006, the UFC announced its hiring of Marc Ratner, former Executive Director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, as Vice President. Ratner, once an ally of Senator McCain’s campaign against mixed martial arts, was credited as one person responsible for the emergence of sanctioned mixed martial arts in the United States. Ratner is expected to help raise the UFC’s media profile and help legalize mixed martial arts in jurisdictions inside and outside the United States that do not sanction mixed martial arts bouts.
The UFC continues its rapid rise from near obscurity in 2005, to gracing the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine in May 2007. UFC programming is now shown in 36 countries worldwide, and the UFC plans to continue expanding internationally, running shows regularly in Canada and the United Kingdom, with an office established in the UK aimed to expand the European UFC audience.
On March 27, 2007 The UFC and PRIDE Fighting Championships announced an agreement in which the majority owners of the UFC, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, would purchase the PRIDE brand. Initial intentions were for both organizations to be separately run but aligned together and there were plans to co-promote supercards featuring champions and top contenders from both organizations. But recent comments by Dana White indicate that the Pride brand will likely be folded and many former Pride fighters are already being realigned under the UFC brand. According to MMA weekly’s website, on Dec 12th 2007 Zuffa will complete the transaction of buying WEC World Extreme Cagefighting.
In 2008, the UFC continue to expand to the mainstream by announcing two major exclusive sponsorship deals with Harley-Davidson and Anheuser-Busch, making Bud Light the official and exclusive beer sponsor of the UFC.
Following an announcement from Dana White on June 18, 2008, Lorenzo Fertitta announced his resignation from Station Casinos in order to devote his energies to the international business development of Zuffa, particularly the UFC.
With the announced closing of the International Fight League in July 31 2008, there were unconfirmed reports that Zuffa had purchased the company. Reports cited the UFC’s signing of former IFL fighters Brad Blackburn,Ben Rothwell,Rory Markham, Jim Miller and his brother Dan Miller. The report made note of the UFC’s airing of IFL footage during “UFC Countdown: Silva vs. Irvin” and “Ultimate Fight Night 14“.
The current rules for the Ultimate Fighting Championship were originally established by the New Jersey Athletic Control Board. The “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts” that New Jersey established has been adopted in other states that regulate mixed martial arts, including Nevada, Louisiana, and California. These rules are also used by many other promotions within the United States, becoming mandatory for those states that have adopted the rules, and so have become the standard de facto set of rules for professional mixed martial arts across the country.
Every round in UFC competition is five minutes in duration. Title matches have five such rounds, and non-title matches have three. There is a one minute rest period between rounds.
- See also: Mixed martial arts weight classes
The UFC currently uses five weight classes:
- Lightweight: 145 to 155 lb (67 to 70 kg)
- Welterweight: 155 to 170 lb (71 to 77 kg)
- Middleweight: 170 to 185 lb (78 to 84 kg)
- Light Heavyweight: 185 to 205 lb (85 to 93 kg)
- Heavyweight: 205 to 265 lb (94 to 120 kg)
In addition, there are four other weight classes specified in the Unified Rules which the UFC does not currently utilize: Flyweight (under 125 lb, 57 kg), Bantamweight (126 to 135 lb, 61 kg), Featherweight (136 to 145 lb, 66 kg), and Super Heavyweight ( above 265 lb, 120 kg). The Bantamweight and Featherweight classes are used in another promotion owned by Zuffa, LLC, World Extreme Cagefighting.
The UFC stages bouts in an octagonal caged enclosure, “The Octagon.” Originally, SEG trademarked The Octagon and prevented other mixed martial arts promotions from using the same type of cage, but in 2001, Zuffa gave its permission for other promotions to use octagonal cages (while reserving use of the name “Octagon”), reasoning that the young sport needed uniformity to continue to win official sanctioning.
The cage is an eight-sided structure with walls of metal chain-link fence coated with black vinyl and a diameter of 32 ft (9.75 m), allowing 30 ft (9 m) of space from point to point. The fence is 5’6″ to 5’8″ high. The cage sits atop a platform, raising it 4 ft (1.2 m) from the ground. It has foam padding around the top of the fence and between each of the eight sections. It also has two entry-exit gates opposite each other.
The mat, painted with sponsorship logos and art, is replaced for each event.
All competitors must fight in approved shorts, without shoes. Shirts, gis or long pants (including gi pants) are not allowed. Fighters must use approved light gloves, that include at least 1″ of padding around the knuckles, (110 to 170 g / 4 to 6 ounces) that allow fingers to grab. These gloves enable fighters to punch with less risk of an injured or broken hand, while retaining the ability to grab and grapple.
Originally the attire for UFC was very open if controlled at all. Many fighters still chose to wear tight-fitting shorts or boxing-type trunks, while others wore long pants or singlets. Multi-time tournament champion Royce Gracie wore a jiujitsu gi in all his early appearances in UFC.
Matches usually end via:
- Submission: a fighter clearly taps on the mat or his opponent or verbally submits.
- Knockout: a fighter falls from a legal blow and is either unconscious or unable to immediately continue.
- Technical Knockout (TKO): If a fighter cannot continue, the fight is ended as a technical knockout. Technical knockouts can be classified into three categories:
- referee stoppage: (the referee determines a fighter cannot “intelligently defend” himself; if warnings to the fighter to improve his position or defense go unanswered—generally, two warnings are given, about 5 seconds apart)
- doctor stoppage (a ringside doctor due to injury or impending injury, as when blood flows into the eyes and blinds a fighter)
- corner stoppage (a fighter’s own cornerman signals defeat for their own fighter)
- Judges’ Decision: Depending on scoring, a match may end as:
- unanimous decision (all three judges score a win for fighter A)
- majority decision (two judges score a win for fighter A, one judge scores a draw)
- split decision (two judges score a win for fighter A, one judge scores a win for fighter B)
- unanimous draw (all three judges score a draw)
- majority draw (two judges score a draw, one judge scoring a win)
- split draw (one judge scores a win for fighter A, one judge scores a win for fighter B, and one judge scores a draw)
Note: In the event of a draw, it is not necessary that the fighters’ total points be equal (see, e.g., UFC 41 Penn vs. Uno, or UFC 43 Freeman vs. White). However, in a unanimous or split draw, each fighter does score an equal number of win judgments from the three judges (0 or 1, respectively).
A fight can also end in a technical decision, disqualification, forfeit, technical draw, or no contest. The latter two outcomes have no winners.
The ten-point must system is in effect for all UFC fights; three judges score each round and the winner of each receives ten points, the loser nine points or less. If the round is even, both fighters receive ten points. In New Jersey, the fewest points a fighter can receive is 7, and in other states by custom no fighter receives less than 8.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission currently lists the following as fouls:
- Butting with the head.
- Eye gouging of any kind.
- Hair pulling.
- Fish hooking.
- Groin attacks of any kind.
- Putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration on an opponent. (see Gouging)
- Small joint manipulation.
- Striking to the spine or the back of the head. (see Rabbit punch)
- Striking downward using the point of the elbow. (see Elbow (strike))
- Throat strikes of any kind, including, without limitation, grabbing the trachea.
- Clawing, pinching or twisting the flesh.
- Grabbing the clavicle.
- Kicking the head of a grounded opponent.
- Kneeing the head of a grounded opponent.
- Stomping a grounded opponent.
- Kicking to the kidney with the heel.
- Spiking an opponent to the canvas on his head or neck. (see piledriver)
- Throwing an opponent out of the ring or fenced area.
- Holding the shorts or gloves of an opponent.
- Spitting at an opponent.
- Engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct that causes an injury to an opponent.
- Holding the ropes or the fence.
- Using abusive language in the ring or fenced area.
- Attacking an opponent on or during the break.
- Attacking an opponent who is under the care of the referee.
- Attacking an opponent after the bell (horn) has sounded the end of a round.
- Flagrantly disregarding the instructions of the referee.
- Timidity, including, without limitation, avoiding contact with an opponent, intentionally or consistently dropping the mouthpiece or faking an injury.
- Interference by the corner.
- Throwing in the towel during competition.
When a foul is charged, the referee in their discretion may deduct one or more points as a penalty. If a foul incapacitates a fighter, then the match may end in a disqualification if the foul was intentional, or a no contest if unintentional. If a foul causes a fighter to be unable to continue later in the bout, it ends with a technical decision win to the injured fighter if the injured fighter is ahead on points, otherwise it is a technical draw.
- After a verbal warning the referee can stop the fighters and stand them up if they reach a stalemate on the ground (where neither are in a dominant position or working towards one). This rule is codified in Nevada as the stand-up rule.
- If the referee pauses the match, it is resumed with the fighters in their prior positions.
- Grabbing the cage brings a verbal warning, followed by an attempt by the referee to release the grab by pulling on the grabbing hand. If that attempt fails or if the fighter continues to hold the cage, the referee may charge a foul.
- Early UFC events disregarded verbal sparring / “trash-talking” during matches. Under unified rules, antics are permitted before events to add to excitement and allow fighters to express themselves, but abusive language during combat is prohibited.