How Dana White Grappled UFC to Salvation

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) boss Dana White’s unique challenge, to turn around the broken entity that was UFC at the dawn of the 21st century, was set long before his acquisition of the brand in 2001.

In the 1990s, there had been political condemnation of UFC events as nothing more than a blood sport, with relatively little obvious regard for the safety of athletes. Another major issue was the inability of states with an athletic commission to sanction what amounted in legal terms to a bare knuckles event.

To the brink and beyond

While the necessary changes would be made in time, the subsequently stunted growth in attendance and buy rates, when offset against the wages of key talents, foretold eventual oblivion for UFC. Indeed, the first New Jersey-commissioned event (UFC 28) would not take place until November 2000 – exactly seven years after the staging of UFC 1.

With just one of the five main card fights going the distance, UFC 28 was a worthy watch, but its moniker (‘High Stakes’) could not have been more apt. Simply put, commercial success was an absolute must in order to warrant its Atlantic City setting.

Unfortunately, the buy rate fell short of expectations, and the event ultimately did little more than push UFC one step closer to the abyss as 2001 approached, with UFC 28 seen by critics as ‘too little, too late’. Then, in January 2001, Dana White teamed up with the Fertitta brothers, forming Zuffa LLC and buying the UFC from SEG for $2m.

Precise turning point disputed

The rest is history, and the present day sees UFC events enjoy a huge share of key metrics in relation to other sports, such as US internet traffic and worldwide spread betting figures. In the latter department, it is popular with both the experts in sports wagering, and those yet to grasp spread betting basics, alike.

Beyond the 2001 takeover, it is difficult to pinpoint thereafter where exactly the turning point for the UFC was. From a business standpoint, Lorenzo Fertitta’s ability to utilise his ties with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and thus televise a Las Vegas-based UFC 33 on cable, was hugely important.

Though a worthy contender to be identified as the very genesis of UFC’s salvation, UFC 33 was lambasted by White himself, who named it as one of the worst events in that era. Regardless, UFC 33 did at least thrust the brand’s presence to new heights. However, if any UFC event can be crowned as the true watershed between ‘then’ and ‘now’, it would be UFC 40, which aired live from the superlatively-coveted MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas.

The headline fight was between Light Heavyweight powerhouse Tito Ortiz and losing UFC 1 semi-finalist Ken Shamrock, with the clash representing a prime fighter and a returning hero coming together in a battle of body versus experience.

Intentionally or otherwise, the fight had echoes of WWE Wrestlemania X8’s flagship bout between The Rock (as the prime asset) and Hulk Hogan (as the old legend), which had dominated the airwaves some eight months previously. It was a spectacle that ensured a good buy rate, along with the integrity of UFC’s immediate future.

White’s gambles pay off

With the precious time bought by UFC 40’s success, Zuffa was able to nurture the commercial prospects of young upstarts in-situ, like Dan Hardy and Georges St Pierre.

Zuffa also continued promoting their proven heroes in events that enjoyed increasing regularity. To do this effectively, they created rivalries with WWE-style continuity involving major stars Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Ken Shamrock, Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort.

In turn, the UFC brand finally had something the audience could relate to far more easily, providing the artistic narrative model for years to come. Even so, the events themselves had to be in a state of continual evolution, and White’s success in this regard is marked by key shows in the second half of the 2000s.

As a year characterised by soaring PPV buys, 2006 proved to be a vintage year, coming off the back of a hugely successful UFC 52 headlined by Chuck Liddell’s revenge win over Randy Couture. That year saw the ‘UFC 1’ tournament winner from 1993, Royce Gracie, return to the octagon after 11 years of absence.

The Brazilian fighter was as lithe as ever, ensuring that the gamble to bring back the original face of UFC would pay off. Another gamble, enabled in no small part by the PPV buyrate boom of 2006, would be made the following year.

In March 2007, White’s since-augmented team acquired the Japanese ‘Pride Fighting Championship’. It was the biggest corporate win yet for UFC, enabling them to go fully international with the roster, and reach a truly global audience deemed untouchable just six years previously.

No looking back

Of course, there have been bumps in the road since, but the tale of how the UFC name was saved is a clear lesson in the core business values of persistence and ingenuity. So too is it an example of how humility, and the willingness to adapt key aspects of proven successes (such as Wrestlemania), can create a successful legacy.

It is well-known that White is no angel, particularly with his recent decision to hold UFC 249 (since vetoed) in spite of world events. Even so, UFC fans almost unanimously wish for his reign to be as long and prosperous as the fates allow.

As the old saying goes, “better the devil you know than the one you don’t”.

Severe MMA Staff

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.