The cantankerous Republican isn't the only Washington heavyweight to appear – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also appears in the film, which debuts on FOX Sports 1 on Tuesday, Nov. 5 – but it was McCain's campaign against the sport in the late-1990s which nearly killed MMA in its infancy.
"He could have said 'Nah, I don't want to be a part of this,'" UFC president Dana White said, following a private screening of the documentary at the Soho House on the Sunset Strip. "He wasn't wrong about the early days. He was right, they needed to be sanctioned. The fact he comes out and says 'Yes, it's a sport now, I like the changes and I like what they've done,' it's a testament to him and to the sport."
McCain's appearance is just one of several unexpected scenes in a full-length feature which touches upon a wide variety of subjects relating to the company's remarkable journey from a one-off pay-per-view novelty to a network television juggernaut which changed the face of both martial arts and the combat sports industry.
"We didn't put this film together to shine a spotlight on the Fertittas and Dana White and talk about how wonderful we all are," Zuffa chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said in a telephone interview with Yahoo! Sports. "We wanted to put together a complete and faithful representation of the story of the UFC, something that will hold up another 20 years down the road."
Many of the items one would expect to find in such a film are here: The UFC's origin, and the political opposition spearheaded by McCain; the sale of the company to the Fertittas; the struggles and huge financial losses incurred by the new owners; the success of Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock; the first season of The Ultimate Fighter; and major fight cards such as UFC 100 in 2009 and UFC 129, which drew more then 55,000 fans to Toronto's Rogers Centre in 2011.
But it's the footage you're not expecting, stuff you assume didn't exist, which will jump out at the viewer. VHS footage from UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie's personal collection, such as the underground Gracie Challenge films, shot in Gracie's Torrance, Calif. garage during the 1980s, bring the sport's early days to life.
Sifting through the B-roll was the responsibility of the UFC's executive vice-president of operations and development, Craig Borsari.
"Fifty-three people pop up in the final product, there were more than 60 interviews conducted," Borsari said. "As we went through every subject, someone like Rorion would say 'I think I have a VHS tape of that' and we said 'We'll take it.' That's where most of the really cool old-school stuff came from, just going through hours and hours of tape just to get that clip that you see and instantly know it's something the fans will love."
Of course, with a colorful 20-year history and a couple hundred events until their belts, narrowing down the footage to fit a 90-minute window means solid material is going to end up on the cutting-room floor.
While some will no doubt find things to nitpick in the presentation – really, do fans expect a Zuffa-produced documentary to delve into issues like fighter pay? – there's no attempt to whitewash history. For one, former light heavyweight champion Ortiz, who might be the UFC's public enemy No. 1 these days, is prominently featured in the piece. Others who have been on the outs with the company over the years, from pioneering referee "Big" John McCarthy to several involved in the UFC's original ownership group, are likewise given plenty of face time.
"The Ken-Tito story is in there," White said. "I can't stand either one of them. The stories that needed to be told are in this thing. There's no blasting of Tito in this thing and there's no blasting of anybody. It's a true story and it's the way that it should be told. This isn't a negative story. There's no personal beefs. It's not negative towards anyone."
For his part, Borsari said there weren't any important chapters in the company's history that were left on the cutting-room floor, but his one regret was having trim to certain sections to fit the window.
"It was more compressing the product so that it was a story you could understand, comprehend and appreciate," Borsari said. "In my opinion, we didn't talk about the acquisitions enough, kind of grazed over that. We could have done more on PRIDE and WEC."
Of course, plenty of space is given to the debut season of The Ultimate Fighter, the reality TV series which is largely credited for Zuffa's turnaround. The images of fresh-faced fighters who went on to become UFC mainstays serve as a vivid reminder of just how far the sport has come.
"Without Bobby Southworth, without Josh Koscheck, without Chris Leben, Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, we could not have picked a better cast than the first season of 'The Ultimate Fighter,' " White said. "And you get to see in there, [Spike TV executives] were picking these guys with stories and all this [expletive], and I'm like, hell no. I'm looking for people who can fight, and I hope you like their [expletive] stories, because this is what we're doing."
And if that doesn't sum up the story of the UFC over the past 20 years, then nothing does.
"It's a story about the business of the UFC over the past 20 years," Fertitta said. "But it's also a story about people. Without the guys who step in there and deliver the action in the Octagon, the UFC wouldn't have become what it's become."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA
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