Saturday, July 11, 2009 | 7:11 a.m.
- Complete UFC 100 coverage
- Brock Lesnar: Can anyone beat this man?
- St. Pierre dominant despite injury
- UFC co-owner addresses fans at Expo
- Love story leads to UFC
- Lesnar wins, puts on WWE-style show afterward
- Win or lose — Mir a class act
- 702.tv: All-In: UFC 100
- Punchy Points: Key aspects about UFC 100
- Interactive Timeline: UFC Countdown: 1 to 100
Ultimate Fighting Championship fans can thank Adam Corrigan.
Without him they probably wouldn’t be enjoying UFC 100 tonight.
The Las Vegas-based restaurant owner and childhood friend of Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White may very well be responsible for saving modern day mixed martial arts when his wedding in 1996 rekindled a friendship between the eventual UFC co-founder and its president.
“Me and Dana talk about that all the time, of how the world can change by just one event. That’s certainly the one for us,” said Fertitta, whose one-time fledgling fight organization enjoys its grandest stage tonight with a historic 100th major show at Mandalay Bay.
“When I bumped into Dana at the wedding, he told me he was a boxing trainer. I said, ‘Wow, That’s really interesting because I’m actually on the Nevada State Athletic Commission.’
“He said he’d been training regular people for fitness. At the time I was not in very good shape and I had always wanted to try boxing but had never got around to it. I literally said let’s get a time next week so we can get together and train. And that was that.”
OK, so the unparalleled success of the UFC — which Forbes recently valued at $1 billion before the recession hit — took a bit more, blood, sweat, tears and, of course, dollars than a chance meeting and several-times-a-week workouts at United Champions gym.
But the foundation for the premiere MMA organization in the world was laid that fall day 13 years ago when Corrigan tied the knot.
In addition to their workouts, Fertitta and White began hanging out outside the gym too — just like old times for the Bishop Gorman buddies.
When White, the former boxing trainer who transplanted to Boston before moving back to Sin City, got a hot tip in 2000 that Semaphore Entertainment Group, which was running the UFC at the time, was thinking about selling — naturally he phoned his best friend, Lorenzo.
The two, along with Lorenzo’s brother, Frank Fertitta III, of Station Casinos fame, purchased the organization for $2 million in 2001.
Then the real fun began.
The UFC had already come a long ways from its “no-holds-barred” beginnings when the legendary Royce Gracie won the first eight-man tournament at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver on Nov. 12, 1993.
Despite the rule-free opener, some of the UFC’s biggest stars today still credit that first raw show and its Brazilian jiu-jitsu superstar for launching their interest in the fight game.
“I remember the first time I saw UFC I saw Royce Gracie winning the first tournament and that’s the precise moment that I became inspired to do what I do right now for a living,” said UFC welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre, who faces the toughest opponent of his stellar career tonight in a 170-pound title match against Thiago Alves.
“The fact that he was using a martial arts weapon that nobody knew at the time, which is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and he was smaller than all the guys and he was able to win. That’s what – that’s what really inspired me.”
But not everyone was excited about what seemed like a blood sport.
No one pushed the anti-UFC cause more than Sen. John McCain, who in the mid 1990s labeled it “human cockfighting,” and was successful in stopping the events being shown on pay-per-view and banned the sport in 36 states.
Gradually the UFC, co-founded by Gracie’s brother, Rorion Gracie, began to clean up its act.
At UFC 15 in the fall of 1997, the sport’s harshest rules from its early days were outlawed. Strikes to the back of the head, kicks to a downed opponent, hair pulling, head-butts and groin strikes were all banned.
“In 1997 I was on a television panel with Sen. McCain and I on one side, Larry King was the moderator on his show. Ken Shamrock and the former owner of the UFC, Mr. Bob Myrowitz, were on the other. I said if you have a sport with no rules, no holds barred, then it will never come to Nevada,” said Marc Ratner, the former Nevada State Athletic Commission’s executive director, who now serves as vice president for regulatory affairs for the UFC.
“We can’t be a part of this. Then in late 2000, early 2001 in the state of New Jersey, we had a big meet for all the stakeholders, promoters, regulators, fighters, trainers, and hammered out the unified rules of mixed martial arts. Once those rules were in place then I could embrace it and recommend the sport to the commission.”
So could other states and the thus the timing and price were right for the Fertittas to create parent brand Zuffa and go full steam into the fight game.
The UFC’s first event, “UFC 30: Battle of the Boardwalk” took place Feb. 23, 2001 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. The stacked card featured five present and future UFC champions in Tito Ortiz, Evan Tanner, Jens Pulver, Josh Barnett and Sean Sherk. However, the show drew only 3,000 fans and a paid gate of $110,000, signaling Zuffa had quite the uphill battle.
But a big win in the MMA war came on Aug. 31, when the UFC secured sanctioning from Ratner and the NSAC.
A month later the UFC ushered in its first Las Vegas event, “UFC 33: Victory in Vegas.”
The card drew 9,500 to the Mandalay Bay Events Center and featured three title fights, but several contests went the distance causing pay-per-view providers to cut the telecast short forcing UFC to go back to the drawing board.
“This thing was really a blank canvas for the first four and a half, five years,” White said. “There were so many things that I kept tweaking, changing and adjusting. Mainly in the production and the way the business was run. I would try something new, if it didn’t work or I didn’t like it, I would change it by the next show.
“If you’ve ever watched any of the old UFCs from 30 on, we had WWE-type walk-ins with pyros, videos and all this other stuff. Then we got to the point where we were like this is a real fight we don’t want to blur those lines between wrestling. It was trial and error.”
But at the same time the UFC would have benefitted from stealing some of the more successful tricks from its scripted counterpart, as the company was $44 million in the hole.
Lorenzo Fertitta recalls a conversation he had with White when he asked the president to hit the streets and see what he could sell the struggling organization for.
“It became a very emotional issue for me. It was something that I dearly loved being involved in the fight game and the UFC. But we kept having these funding requests and there was no end in sight,” Fertitta said. “Dana came back with an offer that obviously would have been a significant loss for us. I said let me just go home and sleep on it. I don’t want to make a decision based on emotions. Let me clear my head.
“I went home that night, thought about it and woke up the next morning and I just wasn’t emotionally ready to give up. I was determined that we had to figure out a way to make this work.”
They did thanks to a pair of light heavyweights and “the most significant fight in UFC history.”
The UFC already thought they had made significant progress in January with the launch of its reality television show on Spike TV, “The Ultimate Fighter.”
But the show’s finale in Las Vegas in April took things to a new level. Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar put on an epic, back-and-forth fight. And America was watching.
“These two stepped in there and started to fight and either people were channel surfing or watching it. They would pick up the phone and call their friends and go ‘Are you watching this fight on Spike TV?’” said White, of the blood bout that Griffin finally won after three rounds with a unanimous decision.
“During six minutes of that fight, the viewership actually got up to 10 million, outdrawing the Masters that day on CBS. That was it. That was what kick-started the UFC.”
“TUF” was just the shot in the arm the UFC needed. The popular reality series prompted fans into purchasing pay-per-view fights to follow the favorite fighters they’d watched on TV for weeks.
In 2006, the UFC surpassed both WWE and boxing with $222 million in pay-per-veiw buys. The end-of-the-year blowout card, UFC 66, featuring the famous rematch between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz became the first non-boxing card to top 1 million pay-per-view buys in North America with 1,050,000 purchases.
The sellout crowd of 14,607 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena shelled a UFC gate record of $5,397,300 to watch Liddell again defeat Ortiz, this time via a third-round technical knockout from a flurry of punches.
“We’ve come a long, long way since those early days. I always thought we would have a shot to get to this point, but I just thought it would take a lot longer and it wouldn’t be while I was fighting,” said Liddell, the UFC’s biggest star, who was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame during the organization’s first-ever Fan Expo weekend.
“I thought it would take a cable TV deal, where people tried us out for free.”
But neither the Fertittas, nor the outspoken White rested on their laurels.
The UFC purchased its sister organization, World Extreme Cagefighting in December of 2006 and turned the promotion into the home for lighter weight classes (155-pounds and lower).
The next year and even bigger boon came with the acquisition of the UFC’s chief rival, the Japan-based Pride Fighting Championship. Popular fighters, every bit the equals of the UFC’s own stable of stars, such as Wanderlei Silva, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira and Dan Henderson allowed the UFC to set up the kind of dream matches hardcore MMA fans had been waiting for.
Lorenzo Fertitta stepped down as Station Casinos president in 2008 to focus solely on expanding the UFC’s global growth. Since its record-breaking attendance night when 21,390 fans showed up at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada, on April 19, 2008, the UFC has held six foreign events in a little more than a year.
“I’m only one guy, there’s only so much I can do in a day,” White told a captive audience during a fan Q&A session at the Fan Expo. “Now with Lorenzo on board, his initiative is to take on the rest of the world, to get us in all these different countries.
“I always say in the next 10 years this sport is going to be the biggest thing in the world. But as fast as we’re growing now, we might be doing it in three years.”
The booming business has been good to a local economy hit hard by the recession.
Business advisory firm Applied Analysis recently did an economic impact study of the UFC on Las Vegas, and found it generated $86.2 million in nongaming revenue for six events held from Feb. 2, 2008, and Jan. 31. Only NASCAR weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March did better, raking in more than $134 million.
But to keep profits high, White and Fertitta have had to act like Pit Bulls and pinch out the competition.
The International Fight League, which tried to market MMA as a team sport, lasted two years. EliteXC, with backing from Showtime, put three events on CBS before stalling out.
Rumors are rampant that Affliction’s show in August in Anaheim, Calif., will be the popular apparel company’s last event.
"They need to stop monopolizing, and on the other hand, how do you blame them?" says Tom Atencio, Affliction promoter. "When you're the only game in town, and you rule the roost, why would you open up?"
"I have huge respect for them. I wouldn't be here without them. I'm competition, but I never viewed myself as competition until they counter-programmed our first event. I have no hard feelings, it's just business."
And business is booming tonight for the UFC.
Tickets were on sale for as much as $45,000 on StubHub this week. The event will beam over satellite to 75 countries, in 17 different languages — including recent deals in both China and Mexico. Major media outlets, which scoffed at the sport in the early days, put in hundreds of credential requests.
“This is as stacked a card you could have. There’s a tremendous amount of interest,” Ratner said. “This is a front page fight, not a sports page fight. That’s a big difference.”
And somewhere, either at one of his Las Vegas restaurants or at the part at Mandalay Bay, Corrigan will be watching with a smile on his face.
“Had Adam Corrigan not got married or had either one of us not went to that wedding, the UFC might not even be here right now,” White says with a big smile on his face.
“It’s pretty crazy when you look back at all the events that led to us being here today.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.