Marc Ratner vividly remembers driving up to the Mandalay Bay Events Center on the Las Vegas Strip. It was late September 2001, and the longtime head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission couldn't believe what was unfolding.
Thousands of people had lined up more than an hour before the doors opened for UFC 33, the first mixed martial arts event ever sanctionedin his state.
"I'd never seen anything like that for boxing," Ratner recalls.
The sport was still years away from what it's become, a multibillion dollar industry with the Ultimate Fighting Championship carrying thebanner. That first Las Vegas show was plagued by problems, including a fight card that went longer than the pay-per-view TV window. As aresult, fans watching at home never saw the conclusion of the main event.
Still, Ratner -- who later joined the UFC -- could tell that brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and a street-smart former boxing promoternamed Dana White were on to something. Less than eight years later, the UFC was poised to stage the biggest, most lucrative event in itshistory: UFC 100 on Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay.
Once branded by John McCain as "human cockfighting" and banned from television, MMA is now sanctioned in every state with an athleticcommission except New York. Tickets for Saturday night were snapped up in minutes, and some ringside seats were available on StubHubthis week for $45,000 each. The UFC's pay-per-view audience surpassed boxing and World Wrestling Entertainment for the first time in 2006,and has been on top ever since.
The organization has expanded to England and Germany, and is poised to take on France and Australia next. There is a fever for it inCanada, and a palpable sense of momentum for a company that just five years ago was more than $40 million in debt.
"All the things going on right now, whether it's UFC 100 or going to Germany for the first time, it's really the way it's been for us the lastnine years," White told The Associated Press recently. "The great thing about this sport, it transcends all cultural barriers, language barriers,because I don't care what language you speak, what color you are, what country you're from, at the end of the day we're all human beings.Fighting is in our DNA."
The UFC began in 1993 as a tournament to crown the world's best fighting style, featuring everything fromboxers to a sumo wrestler. There were no weight classes, gloves or rounds. There was no judging and virtually no rules. The only way to winwas by knocking out your opponent or making them quit, which is precisely what a scrawny jiujitsu expert named Royce Gracie did.
Dozens of states quickly enacted laws banning "no-holds-barred" fighting, abhorred by the thought of humans fighting inside an eight-sidedcage. Even though limited rules and gloves were introduced, the organization stood on the brink of bankruptcy.
That's when White brought the concept to the Fertittas, a pair of casino executives he'd known since high school. They purchased the UFCfor $2 million in 2001 and immediately went to work getting the sport sanctioned. Universal rules were put in place, allowing shows to be heldfor the first time in casinos in Nevada and New Jersey.
"When we bought this company, especially my partners, they had a lot of people working for them and they thought this was probably thedumbest business investment ever," says White, the UFC president. "We believed in it. We were passionate about the sport."
Passion only goes so far. By 2004, parent company Zuffa LLC still couldn't climb out of the red. The Fertittas nearly gave up, and White frantically tried tosecure funding to press on.
Everything changed when the trio came up with "The Ultimate Fighter," couching the sport in a reality TV format. The cable show was aninstant hit, and the sport quickly began to slice into boxing's fan base, which had long grown stagnant.
Stars like Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture were born, and an entire industry sprouted over night. Nearly ever major event is now sold out,and a sport that corporate American once refused to touch has credibility with mainstream sponsors like Harley-Davidson and Budweiser.
The new "UFC: Undisputed" video game sold a 1 million copies its first week.
"Having 'The Ultimate Fighter' was the thing that did it for us, live fighting on TV," says Liddell, who was recently inducted into the UFC'sHall of Fame. "That's what we had to do, was get a live fight on TV. It couldn't have worked out better."
Each of the Fertittas own 45 percent of Zuffa LLC, while White owns 10 percent. Before the recession hit, the company was estimated to be worth close to $1 billion.
Business advisory firm Applied Analysis recently did an economic impact study of the UFC on Las Vegas, which has been severelyaffected by the crumbling economy, and found it generated $86.2 million in nongaming revenue for six events held last year and early this year.
Such a valuable commodity inevitably leads to competition, and the brash White found himself facing rivals at every turn.
The International Fight League, which tried to market MMA as a team sport, lasted about two years. EliteXC, with backing from Showtime,put three events on CBS before stalling.
In some cases, the UFC bought out the competition. It turned World Extreme Cagefighting into a showcase for lighter weights, andpurchased the Japanese promotion Pride.
White claims that he's not interested in putting other organizations out of business, especially when they help develop young talent for hisown. But that's not the view of rival promoters who claim he's ruthlessly trying to rule the sport.
"They need to stop monopolizing, and on the other hand, how do you blame them?" says Tom Atencio, the mastermind behind the Afflictionmixed martial arts shows. "When you're the only game in town, and you rule the roost, why would you open up?" When Atencio scheduled hisfirst pay-per-view event last year, White promptly threw together a competing card the same night on cable.
"I have huge respect for them. I wouldn't be here without them," Atencio says. "I'm competition, but I never viewed myself as competitionuntil they counter-programmed our first event. I have no hard feelings, it's just business." Which begs the question: Will the sport continue togrow if the UFC is in control?
Andrew Simon of HDNet Fights, an MMA promotion and television outlet founded by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, doesn't thinkso. Simon says many top stars are already showing up on rival promotions, and the UFC needs to focus on bringing fans the best fights.
The main event at UFC 100 featured heavyweights Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir, but the man often considered the best in the world isFedor Emelianenko. He'll be fighting on Atencio's next show, Affliction: Trilogy, against Josh Barnett in August.
"Wouldn't it be great to have the winner of Lesnar versus Mir fight the winner of Emelianenko versus Barnett?" Simon asks. "Only then, can we say the sport of MMA is headed to the next phase of growth."
White bristles at such a thought. To him, the UFC remains the sport's Super Bowl and World Series wrapped into one.
"I'm not out there to squash them," White says, his voice rising. "All the guys that have come in the past see some dollar signs. You thinkthey love MMA? You think they love it? They see dollar signs, they think there's something in it for them."
In that respect, White believes it's his responsibility to safeguard a sport that he has grown and nurtured almost from the beginning, and has given him so much in return: financial security, a 7,500-square-foot home, worldwide attention.
"Is it going to become stale, are people going to become tired of it? Hell no," he says. "Is there too much football on TV? Is there too muchbaseball on TV?
"People want to see great fights, and if we put together the best fights with the best fighters in the world, this is going to continue to growand grow and grow."