The History of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in America

Mixed martial arts, or MMA, a relatively new sport, was introduced to America by The Ultimate Fighting Championship on November 12, 1993 on pay per view. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, and its original parent company SEG, has become synonymous for mixed martial arts in America as it has become the most popular MMA organization in the world. The road to that popularity met many political, social, media, and financial hurdles. The attempt to overcome those hurdles has evolved the sport and allowed it to gain much more acceptance.

Martial arts had become big business in the 1970s and 1980s. Oriental fighting styles were billed as deadly arts which would allow the practitioners to defeat assailants in unarmed combat. The truth of this was not much debated with many anecdotal tales of “black belts” winning fights. The initial Ultimate Fighting Championship was devised as a way to test these truths, to tell people what really was the best martial art. Eight contestants were chosen to compete in this event representing a wide array of martial disciplines, from boxing, karate, kung fu, sumo, wrestling, kickboxing, and Brazilian jiu jitsu. The event was to be held in an eight sided cage with a limited rule-set. Although it advertised that there were no rules, biting, eye-gouges and fish-hooking were prohibited, and the fights would last until a fighter was knocked out, tapped out, or the fighter’s corner threw in the towel. The first event proved to be a showcase for Brazilian jiu jitsu specifically and ground-fighting in general. Traditional martial artists, generally trained in stand up style fighting, were unprepared for how to fight should they be taken down to the ground, allowing Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner Royce Gracie to submit them with relative ease .

The first event, judged a success by selling almost 87,000 pay per views, created very little stir in the mainstream media. It did run afoul of traditional martial artists who had built careers on selling people training in martial arts. A huge franchise had been built around martial arts, including several magazine publications which included “Black Belt Magazine”. Here the first controversy over MMA first appeared, but it was mainly complaints by traditional martial artists that the UFC was unfairly biased against traditionally stand up fighters. The crux of their complaints were in actuality that the martial skills they were selling people had gaping holes, which meant their pocketbooks would take a hit .

With the success of their first event, SEG began marketing their second. Here, UFC marketing manager Campbell McLaren issued a press release that stated “each match will run until there is a designated winner – by means of knockout, surrender, doctor’s intervention, or death” . The “death” comment, though meant as a way to sell the seemingly brutal nature of the contest, would open a media firestorm that would plague the enterprise for many years, including TV Guide’s review saying “the UFC is disgusting, dumb, and depraved” .

Even with, or perhaps because of, the marketing blunder, UFC’s second event sold over 125,000 pay per views, a substantial increase over its first show. With its continued success, more mainstream media outlets were taking notice of the perceived negative qualities. In a review of the second UFC event, sports journalist Wally Paige in “Newsday” said the UFC was “the most disgusting, horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. It is basically taking cock-fighting and putting it in human form” .

The human cock-fighting comment helped to bring more opposition to the growing popularity of the new sport. Boxing promoters saw the UFC as an interloper on their stranglehold of the fighting market, and politicians found an easy scapegoat for attacks. Representing both of those facets was Arizona Senator John McCain. Senator McCain’s wife, Cindy McCain, owns Hensley and Company, which bottles and distributes Budweiser. She also holds well over one million dollars in Anheuser-Busch stock. Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser, is a big campaign contributor for Senator McCain, in addition to being one of the largest advertisers for boxing (Middleton 2007). McCain was also an avid boxing fan, attending numerous live fights (ESPN 2008).

SEG was continuing to put on shows, garnering high pay per view and attendance rates, as well as a lucrative home video market. Senator McCain viewed one of the tapes and immediately joined the growing campaign against the sport. McCain spoke out against the sport at political rallies, as well as taking his argument to the press. He appeared on CNBC and echoed Wally Paige’s account saying “I think it is an incredibly brutal spectacle that is on the level of a cock fight, only we are using human beings” (CNBC 1995). Senator McCain wrote letters to governors of states that were hosting UFC events urging them to ban the sport. At his urging, MMA was banned in New York, only days before a scheduled event was to take place (Walter 2003).

McCain appeared on “Larry King Live” on December 6, 1995 in an impromptu debate with one of the then owners of the UFC, Bob Meyrowitz. By this point, 36 states had banned the sport, and the media tide had definitely turned against the UFC. The promotion was required to hold events in smaller markets like Mississippi and Alabama. McCain pushed his agenda on the show further stating that the UFC “appeals to the lowest common denominator in our society” .

After gaining popular support for the banning of MMA, Senator McCain attacked the sport from a new angle. McCain was the chairman of the Senate commerce committee which had oversight on the regulation of pay per view providers. TCI was one of those providers, and was owned by Neil Henry, a friend of John McCain. TCI was one of the major outlets for the UFC events. Due to Senator McCain’s influence Neil Henry dropped the UFC from TCI’s pay per view line up, which took away 27 million potential pay per view buyers, and lowered the actual audience from what had blossomed to an average of 300,000 down to 15,000 per show (Walter 2003).

SEG reacted to the growing political and media pressure by the addition of rules and attempts to get sanctioned by state athletic commissions to give legitimacy to the sport. UFC 9 in May of 1996 faced legal pressure in the Detroit court system and initiated a rule that would allow no closed fist strikes to the head. This was the only event to have such a rule, and it was weakly enforced the night of the event .

UFC 12 in February of 1997 was the first to split the fights into weight classes. UFC 14 in June of 1997 introduced a padded glove requirement. UFC 15 in October of 1997 prohibited “headbutts, groin strikes, strikes to the back of the neck and head, kicks to a downed opponent, small joint manipulation, pressure point strikes, and hair pulling” . UFC 21 in July 1999 introduced five-minute rounds and a scoring system based on boxing’s “ten point must system” .

California, Nevada, and New Jersey were the three states SEG was most concentrated on with regards to athletic commission sanctioning. UFC 21 was observed by Nevada state athletic commission officers as a last push for sanctioning in Nevada. While the event went well, SEG feared it did not have the votes to win approval, so fearing a denial that could set a precedent, so they did not push for a vote. A similar problem occurred in California. It seemed that MMA would be sanctioned there, but the athletic commission ran into funding issues and so were unable to go forward with the implementation .

In November of 2000, the UFC finally won approval from the New Jersey Athletic Commission under what are now known as the unified rules. The rules keep all of the above mentioned rules, in addition to a ban on knees to downed opponents, and three five-minute rounds for regular fights, and five five-minute rounds for title fights. It has also created more weight classes including lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight, to prevent some of the enormous size mismatches of early UFC events. The sanctioning allowed the company to hold UFC 28 on November 17, 2000 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The event was very successful but was nearly cancelled due to lack of funds, and was not enough to compensate for the money hemorrhage that the company had been dealing with over the last 3 years (Walter 2003).

Lorenzo Fertitta was one of the Nevada athletic commission members sent to observe UFC 21. He and his brother, Frank, owned several casinos in Las Vegas, and he left his position on the athletic commission in early 2000 to return to work at one of those casinos. After UFC 28 in New Jersey, the owner of SEG, Robert Meyrowitz was looking for investors in the company to keep it afloat. Lorenzo and his brother offered to buy the company completely. Meyrowitz agreed and sold the company for two million dollars on January 9, 2001, less than 2 months after the most successful UFC in years .

In July of 2001, thanks to the contacts of Lorenzo Fertitta in the Nevada athletic commission, MMA was officially sanctioned in Nevada. Zuffa, the name of the Fertittas’ company which now owned the UFC, was set for a September event in Las Vegas. With the state sanctioning and lessened political pressure, In Demand cable agreed to host the event on pay per view. This allowed over 20 million more potential homes to be added to the pay per view market for the UFC .

From there the UFC has been on a meteoric rise in popularity. A risky ten million dollar investment in a reality show with Spike TV called “The Ultimate Fighter” brought MMA to television. Now in its ninth season, the show is continually bringing in new fans and helping to boost pay per view sales. The UFC is currently the king of pay per views, rarely being beaten by boxing, and now averaging between 800,000 and over one million pay per view buys per event (Sports Illustrated 2008).

When asked about Senator John McCain’s 1990’s attack on MMA, current UFC president Dana White spun the initial controversy: “John McCain created the UFC. All he meant was you can’t put on illegal fights; you have to be sanctioned by an athletic commission. We agreed” (Sports Illustrated 2008).

Interestingly, Senator McCain has changed his initial stance on MMA. McCain during his bid for the white house in 2008 had this to say on September 16th: “I think it is something American people like to view…now they have cleaned it up. It is not my favorite sport, but I think they are in compliance now with most of the things we would approve of” (ESPN 2008). Since the athletic commissions got on board and popularity for the sport is rising, MMA is no longer an easy target for attack.

A more cynical explanation for McCain’s reversal of opinion could be at work. In February of 2008 the UFC got a new sponsor in the form of Anheuser-Busch. Citing evidence of the increased popularity of the UFC among its target demographics, the companies signed a three year sponsorship agreement making “Bud Light” the “official beer of the UFC” (Chiappetta 2008). The close relationship McCain has with Anheuser-Busch that has been previously mentioned was very likely a contributing factor in McCain’s acceptance of MMA as a mainstream sport.

Mixed martial arts as a sport has evolved a great deal since its American inception. The sport has moved from the initial very small rule-set with no governmental oversight, to a much more expansive rule-set and sanctioning by state athletic commissions. It has weathered attacks from traditional martial artists, sports journalists, politicians, and boxing promoters all worried about some facet the new sport could bring or expose. Many of these have now accepted, if sometimes grudgingly, that the new sport will probably be around for a while, and it is better to embrace mixed martial arts than to try to demonize it.

Mixed martial arts has not been without its shady dealings. The conditions the Fertita brothers bought the UFC and the subsequent approval by the Nevada state athletic commission are highly suspect. Fertita serving as a member of the commission while SEG was initially seeking approval, could easily have been involved in SEG believing that there were not enough votes to pass the commission hearing. This set up the Fertitas being able to buy the UFC at a discounted price.

Senator John McCain appears to be a standard politician. While the changes to MMA have been major, some of today’s matches have ended up being bloodier than anything from the early days. His flip flop from ardent opponent to tacit supporter likely stems more from the popular support and certain campaign contributing sponsorships the UFC has garnered than any real change in opinion.

The future of MMA and the UFC seems to be bright. There are still hurdles ahead, as completely overcoming the “human cockfighting” stigma has been a long process. The state athletic commissions’ approval and growing popularity of the sport seem to be washing the previous attacks away.