1996 was the year Sen. John McCain infamously called mixed martial arts “human cockfighting” when he sought to have the sport banned in all 50 states before it could really take off in the U.S.
UFC 1 had taken place just three years prior on Nov. 12, 1993, marking the birth of MMA, and from the start there was curiosity as to what this “ultimate fighting” was. There were no weight classes, no gloves or uniforms, and essentially no rules. It wasn’t sanctioned in every state. It wasn’t even called mixed martial arts yet.
Meanwhile, also in 1996, “Friends” wrapped up a successful second season on NBC just before the summer. The show – starring Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer – already was a smash hit as the third-most watched prime time television series (at a time when a lot of people watched regular TV) behind only No. 1 “ER” and No. 2 “Seinfeld.”
Certainly being featured on a show like “Friends” would be massive exposure for the sport and more specifically the UFC. But why would that have happened back then? What did a sitcom about six young adults living in New York City have in common with brutal fights taking place inside of the octagon?
Not a thing.
And yet, the creative team behind “Friends” drummed up an idea for an episode in which Monica (played by Cox) has a boyfriend named Pete (Jon Favreau), who dreams of becoming an ultimate fighter. They even leaned right into the UFC storyline by titling the penultimate Season 3 episode “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion,” which premiered 25 years ago this month on May 8, 1997.
Considering McCain’s crusade against MMA and his “human cockfighting” remark just a year earlier, John McCarthy couldn’t believe the opportunity for a “Friends”-UFC crossover somehow, some way presented itself when he was approached to be featured on the show.
“Honestly, I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,'” McCarthy recently told MMA Junkie. “‘They want to put us on ‘Friends’?”
Jon Favreau, Courney Cox and David Schwimmer on “Friends.”
In addition to McCarthy, famed announcer Bruce Buffer, former fighter Tank Abbott, and eventual UFC champion and Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz made appearances as themselves.
The episode begins with Monica meeting all the friends at Central Perk cafe to share the disappointment that Pete didn’t ask her to marry him like she’d hoped. Instead, what happened?
“He wanted to tell me he’s going to compete in some ultimate fighting competition thingy,” Monica says. The guys can’t believe it. The girls have never heard of it, so they ask Monica, who describes MMA as “sort of like wrestling but without the costumes.” She obviously meant pro wrestling.
Joey (LeBlanc) chimes in that “it’s not fake” and “totally brutal.” Chandler (Perry) lays out that ultimate fighting is “two guys in the ring, and the rules are … [pauses for dramatic effect] … there are no rules.” Ross (Schwimmer) adds that “anything goes except eye gouging and fish-hooking.” Hearing all of that worries Monica, so she visits Pete in training to express her concern, but Pete assures her he’ll be careful in his upcoming fight.
Monica and Ross attend Pete’s fight against Abbott, with Buffer announcing their intros and “Big” John serving as referee. When Pete and Abbott meet in the center, Abbott picks up Pete and runs him across the cage and slams him into the fence. That’s all of the fight scene. Afterward, Pete lets Monica know that, despite getting his ass kicked, he’s not done trying to become the ultimate fighting champion. And so she breaks up with him.
The fight scene lasted all of 2 minutes, but filming took two days to complete. McCarthy and Buffer recalled a fun process filming.
“They were trying to come up with different ideas of how they were going to make Jon Favreau look viable in it,” McCarthy said. “They wanted Tank to do certain things, and Tank is like, ‘I’ll pick him up and run him across the damn cage. I’ll slam him into the wall.’ Right? Jon Favreau’s going, ‘I’m 200-and-something (pounds). I don’t think you can just pick me up.’ Tank picks him up, carries him around – so it was kind of funny the whole time. We had a good time.”
Added Buffer: “It was just really cool, and all of us were just tickled pink and felt very honored to be on the show.”
Read on to hear more from Buffer and McCarthy on other aspects of filming “Friends,” what it meant for them and what it meant for the UFC.
McCarthy did it his way
John McCarthy as himself on “Friends.”
One thing McCarthy didn’t go along with was the original idea for his costume.
In the scene, “Big” John wears his original old-school, all-black referee outfit, but that wouldn’t have been so had he not spoken up.
“They wanted to put me in wardrobe and have me wear a black-and-white, like, WWE referee shirt,” McCarthy recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not wearing that. That’s not what we do.’ I had a shirt with me, brought it the next day, wore what I normally wore.”
Buffer's big break
Bruce Buffer as himself on “Friends.”
Prior to the “Friends” episode, Buffer was still trying to convince then-UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz to make him the permanent octagon announcer after he’d done UFC 8 and UFC 10. So when Meyrowitz called Buffer asking if he wanted to be on the episode, the answer was a no-brainer.
It was on the set that Buffer pushed his chips all in and used his representing the UFC on one of the biggest shows in America to his advantage.
“I said, ‘Robert, here I am co-starring as myself on the biggest comedy on TV. This is the biggest exposure you’re getting, and I’ve been after you for a year-and-a-half now to become the permanent octagon announcer to grow with the sport but also to help you build your brand. Because I’m a brand builder, and I have immediate connections that are not paying any attention to you. Everyone is scared of UFC. You need me in the octagon. Now I’m on this show, let’s make a deal.'”
Buffer called it “the best poker hand I ever played in my life.”
“It gave me the fodder, it gave me the power and the punch to go in and ask that one last time,” Buffer said. “And it would’ve been the last time I ever would’ve asked.”
Instead, the rest was history. And ever since UFC 13, Buffer never looked back.
On the depiction of MMA in 'Friends'
Ross and Monica at a UFC event in “Friends.”
Buffer: “It was represented well in a comedy. It wasn’t a documentary about the UFC. It was a comedy. So in the comedy, they’re gonna go for the comedy sizzle and all the funny points. It’s not like you can expect to get an education from ‘Friends’ on what the UFC is all about or what mixed martial arts is all about. We weren’t even calling it mixed martial arts back then. It was just ultimate fighting, and it had its image.”
McCarthy: “I thought it was funny, and that’s what it was supposed to be. … It was meant to be fun, it was meant to be funny, and he was supposed to get (beat up). I think that’s what was portrayed. Overall it was good for the UFC. It just opened more people’s eyes to, ‘Oh, what is that?'”
On the significance of 'Friends' choosing UFC over boxing
The UFC fight scene on “Friends.”
Buffer: “It’s a very monumental moment in the UFC’s history, there’s no question. They could’ve picked any other sport. They picked the UFC. They could’ve brought in (Evander) Holyfield, (Mike) Tyson, someone else from boxing. (The UFC) was such a spectacle back then, so why not go for the spectacle of him trying to be the toughest man in the toughest fighting sport there is. Not that boxing isn’t tough. I love boxing. But this was the gladiator, and (Pete’s) whole attitude was – again, the name. He wanted to become the ultimate fighting champion, not the boxing champion. ‘I want to be the ultimate fighting champion.’ It added the drama to the show, gave it that little extra edge they were looking for.”
McCarthy: “I thought, ‘Well, hell, at least this is something people watch. It’s good publicity.'”
To this day, Buffer and McCarthy still rake in royalties
Jon Favreau slammed into the cage on “Friends.”
McCarthy: “I got paid $750 a day. I got SAG rate. I got $1,500 for doing that. Because of ‘Friends’ and how big ‘Friends’ was and how it’s been released everywhere, I have made more money off that stupid episode. I get checks to this day. Sometimes they’re 32 cents; sometimes they’re $320. But I still get checks to this day for that episode.”
Buffer: “They’re either $54 or like $104 and the occasional $200, but it’s amazing when you think about the fact of (25 years) of $50-plus checks every month. It’s amazing how that thing works. … Every time I open one of those SAG residual checks, the experience comes back, so it’s all cool.”
Billy Crystal and Robin Williams make a cameo appearance on “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion,” which wasn’t in the original script and purely coincidental. It comes during the opening scene and has nothing to do with the UFC storyline, but it’s good fun.
“Courtney Cox hates my guts,” McCarthy told MMA Junkie with a laugh. Why? He didn’t exactly want to share details, even though he did, so you should ask him about it. 😉
At the time of filming in late 1996, Ortiz had yet to make his pro MMA debut. It was the first time Buffer met him. “I remember he was just this big guy, nice guy and all, jumping up and down full of energy telling me, ‘I’m gonna be champion some day, watch.’ There you go,” Buffer said.
To open the fight scene, a wide shot is used of the venue where the UFC event featuring Pete’s fight with Abbott takes place. The venue shown isn’t in New York City where the series is set. It’s the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, which at the time was home to the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and MLB’s Minnesota Twins.
At the time of the premiere, the UFC had held just 14 events, with the latest being “UFC 12: Judgement Day,” the first UFC event to feature weight classes.
“The One With The Ultimate Fighting Champion” was the last episode in which Favreau appeared as Pete.
Watch the fight scene