What the UFC turning 20 means to co-owner and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta

Lorenzo Fertitta
Special to Yahoo Sports

Growing up, I was introduced to the fight game at a very young age by my dad. For me, like many others in Las Vegas, boxing reigned supreme and was without question, our hometown team and professional sport. The energy and excitement throughout the city during big fights were inescapable.

One of the first fights I ever attended live with my father was Leon Spinks vs. Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1978. Ali was a childhood idol of mine and I remember the emotion of seeing him lose a split decision that night. It left a lasting impression.

My passion for boxing stayed with me as I got older, and eventually led me to the role of Vice-Chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. It was an incredible experience to serve in a regulatory capacity early in my career, working closely in the sport I had come to know and love.

I had a lot of memorable moments during my time with the NSAC, none more emotionally charged than in 1997, when I sat on the five-person commission that had the fate of Mike Tyson's in-ring future in its hands. Tyson had bitten Evander Holyfield's ears in a fight weeks prior and it was up to us to levy the punishment. The meeting was intense and under the scrutiny of media outlets around the world, giving me the type of firsthand experience I could only get from being in that commission seat on that day.

Yet throughout my time both as a fan and commissioner in the sport of boxing, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. Sure, everyone knew Tyson and Holyfield, De La Hoya and Chavez. But there was no overall connectivity from fight to fight, no brand to tie the sport together like other major league sports. Much like today, you'd get really excited for the "big" boxing match and then your interest would taper off until many months later when the next big fight rolled around. There was very little in between for you to identify with and the sport of boxing suffered because of it.

After my time on the commission, I was introduced to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and then to the UFC by Dana White. We started rolling BJJ with a friend of ours in Las Vegas, John Lewis, and almost immediately, Dana, my brother, Frank, and I were hooked. Dana was also managing fighters at the time, so we got the chance to meet some of the fighters competing in the UFC and our interest in the sport grew. After starting to watch the events, we kept asking ourselves the same questions over and over: could this be bigger than it currently was? What was it about the UFC that captivated us?

Soon thereafter, and against the well-meaning advice of family and trusted advisors, including our father, my brother Frank and I purchased the UFC for $2 million in 2001. It was a huge risk that at times looked doomed. But we stuck with it, confident that those three letters - U.F.C. - would become the brand to propel mixed martial arts into the same category as the other elite sports.

I often get asked how we did it. The truth is, we believed in the inherent appeal of the sport and moreover that the appeal was universal. And when in the early days, it seemed as though we were alone in that belief, we took some big risks to prove it. The biggest bet came in 2005, when we invested more than $10 million to produce the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. We hoped that if people had a chance to see the fighters outside of the Octagon, to really get emotionally invested in the fighters and their stories, they'd follow them back into the Octagon on fight night.

That first season of TUF was an important milestone for the company. So, too, was the Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar fight that capped it off, sending ratings soaring and overnight helping to secure the UFC's future.

Looking back, there have been so many great moments. We've developed many superstars, including guys like Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. Recently, we welcomed women into the Octagon, led by a superstar in her own right, Ronda Rousey. We've also put on some of the greatest fights of all-time, such as Jones vs. Gustafsson, Melendez vs. Sanchez, and my personal favorite, Shogun vs. Henderson.

In addition, we've sold out some of the most prestigious arenas in the world, including the 55,000-seat Rogers Centre in Toronto, the O2 Arena in London, the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, and the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, along with countless other arenas both domestically and abroad. Each of those cities witnessed the power and impact of the UFC brand. That global reach continues today thanks to our television deals with partners across the world, putting the UFC in almost one billion homes worldwide.

As excited as we are to celebrate the first 20 years of UFC, we're even more eager to embark on the next 20-plus. We'll be bringing the UFC to new regions around the world, launching the UFC Network widely, producing international versions of The Ultimate Fighter and we will put on an event in the state of New York. The opportunities are endless and that's what drives us every day.

This week, Las Vegas is buzzing with anticipation for the matchup between Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks at our 20th anniversary event. UFC 167 is the big fight everyone is talking about and I couldn't be happier. It is a chance for me to reflect on the past and look to the future, a future that would have never been possible without the greatest fight fans in the world. I look forward to sharing this moment with my kids like my dad did when I was growing up.

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