UFC 100 is only the beginning for MMA

Kevin Iole

LAS VEGAS – Dana White, the cocky kid from New England who never had much money and who survived until he was nearly 30 on little more than his guile and cunning, phoned his buddy, Lorenzo Fertitta, the well-to-do son of a powerful Las Vegas casino baron, and breathlessly told him he heard the Ultimate Fighting Championship might be for sale.

In 2000, that might have been like telling him there was a '75 Eldorado he could get for $2,500 down at the salvage yard.

Had Fertitta hung up, as he probably should have, there wouldn't be a UFC 100 on Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, a card which is expected to sell upwards of 1.5 million on pay-per-view and for which a pair of front-row tickets is going for as much as $45,000 on StubHub.

There would be no UFC Fan Expo on Friday and Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center that will essentially serve as a celebration of mixed martial arts.

If Fertitta had laughed in White's ear, hung up the telephone and gone back to the business of slot machines and blackjack tables, mixed martial arts as we know it today would not exist. White's telephone call on that fateful day not only would make him rich and famous beyond all measure, it essentially saved the sport.

Fertitta and his older brother, Frank, agreed to partner with White to create a company called Zuffa and buy the struggling promotion, but what they got for their money wasn't much.

There was no mainstream media coverage, no stars, no free television, no pay-per-view outlets, no merchandising, no sponsorships and, it seemed, no interest in what they had to sell.

The first pay-per-view under Zuffa's steward came in about 85 percent less than expected. Fertitta was hoping for 150,000 sales and wound up with 25,000.

It's not exactly the kind of investment the casino executives had in mind.

But a combination of the Fertittas' wealth, business acumen and connections, White's vision, instincts and relentlessness and just plain good luck helped to forge one of the great business turnaround stories of the decade.

This is a company that cost $2 million to buy in 2001 that was estimated by Forbes to be worth $1 billion in early 2008.

Things went their way before they even realized it, in some cases. In September 2000, the New Jersey Athletic Control Board approved what became known as the unified rules, the basic set of rules that cover the sport to this day. UFC 28 was the first card fought under those rules, when the company was still owned by Bob Meyrowitz and his Semaphore Entertainment Group.

White, who had been managing boxers and MMA fighters before buying the UFC, understood the UFC had no chance to survive long-term without regulation because it was too brutal for regulators' tastes and without regulation, there would be no television.

Zuffa actively pursued regulation upon taking control of the company, though it didn't hurt that Lorenzo Fertitta had built a reputation as one of boxing's finest regulators during a distinguished stint on the Nevada Athletic Commission.

"Without regulation, people wouldn't see it as a sport," White said.

And so they actively sought regulation wherever they turned. Not long after New Jersey adopted the unified rules and sanctioned the sport, Nevada followed suit.

It was a huge day for the sport because two of the most active boxing states had given their OK and in the process lent legitimacy to MMA.

"Getting Nevada was [expletive] huge for us, because when we got Nevada, we got pay-per-view back at the same time," White said.

Pay-per-view had long been critical in boxing and, to a much lesser extent, MMA, because the revenue streams that existed in other sports, such as the NFL, NBA and MLB, either didn't exist at all or produced piddling revenues in the combat sports.

Getting the OK from New Jersey and Nevada essentially re-opened the pay-per-view door for the UFC and created a steady stream of income. Without it, none of the Fertittas' business wizardry or White's vision and determination would have meant a thing.

Pay-per-view was only one element, though. And while the revenue it generated was a lifeline, it was clear that some sort of free television would be a requirement.

That's why, already down more than $30 million since buying the UFC, Zuffa management opted to spend another $8 million in 2004 to create a reality series on Spike TV.

The Ultimate Fighter was an instant hit when it went on the air in 2005. By the sixth episode, it had pulled a 2.1 household rating and was demonstrating the strength among 18-to-34-year-old males that would eventually make it so attractive to advertisers.

White, though, is convinced the UFC would have gone under had Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar not put on one of the great slugfests in the sport's history in the live televised finale of that first season.

There wouldn't be a UFC 100 without the jaw-dropping fight between Griffin and Bonnar, won by Griffin via unanimous decision, in the tiny UNLV practice gymnasium on April 9, 2005.

There wouldn't have been Elite XC shows on CBS or Strikeforce shows on Showtime if the Griffin-Bonnar fight had never been held.

And there wouldn't have been shows in Canada, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Germany, as there have been since that fight, had it been anything less than the MMA equivalent of boxing's classic Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns bout.

"We wouldn't be talking today were it not for that fight," White said. "At one point during that fight, we got up to 10 million viewers, whether through channel surfing or people calling each other and asking, 'Are you watching this fight?' Once that fight happened, things started to turn the other way."

The UFC suddenly had leverage and the things that White wanted to do from the minute he gained control of the company suddenly seemed within reach.

Pay-per-view sales for a single fight reached 1 million for the first time in the last bout of 2006, when Chuck Liddell knocked out Tito Ortiz at UFC 61 and sales skyrocketed to 1.05 million.

In 2007, pay-per-view revenues for the year surpassed both boxing and professional wrestling. In 2008, blue chip sponsors such as Bud Light and Harley Davidson lent their support.

And in 2009, the UFC not only added blue-chip sponsors such as Burger King, but it released a spectacularly successful video game that sold three times the expected number.

The UFC is not the only MMA promotion in the world, nor is it the only successful MMA promotion. Strikeforce, which has a deal with Showtime, regularly turns a profit.

And while the sport's hard core fans decry a media – including Yahoo! Sports – that they view as far too UFC-centric, it's hard to argue with numbers.

Affliction Entertainment, the promotion that some see as the UFC's primary competition, has only put on two cards in the last year. The UFC has had at least three shows – UFCs 91, 92 and 94 – that sold around 1 million each in PPV sales in that time frame.

There are a lot of excellent basketball players in the CBA, including some who are probably better than a few of those in the NBA, but it's the NBA that commands the fan and media attention.

White didn't invent the sport and he didn't write or have anything to do with the creation of its rules, but MMA in its current form and with its present popularity wouldn't exist today without him. The future, though, will largely by shaped by Lorenzo Fertitta, who in 2008 quit a job as an executive at Station Casinos that a year earlier had paid him $113.8 million in salary. In the last 13 months, Fertitta has been working full-time for the UFC, concentrating largely on expanding the company's global reach.

White has long said that the UFC will someday exceed soccer in worldwide popularity among sports fans. And while that's a stretch, it's no stretch to say that for all the success the UFC has had, it's only 10 percent or so of the way toward where it will be in 10 or 15 years.

"This fight on Saturday is going to be available in something like 100 million homes," White said. "Since Lorenzo's been with us, look at the progress we have made. He's gotten us a TV deal in China. We're going to France. We're going everywhere. Lorenzo is opening doors and the stuff he's doing is setting the stage.

"I'm telling you, the best thing that ever happened to this company was the day Lorenzo quit his job and came to work here. We've come a long way, but we're not even close to being where we're going to be."