It’s amazing when you reflect on how far things have come since Denver played host to UFC 1 way back in 1993.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship is under new ownership and that likely means even more growth and exposure for America’s premier MMA promotion.
Earlier this week it was confirmed that the UFC has been sold in a deal valued north of $4 billion. Acquirer WME-IMG, a huge events and media conglomerate, will seek to take the extreme combat league to the next level of the sports and entertainment universe.
But did you know the Ultimate Fighting Championship was actually born in Denver?
The Teeth Go Flying
For the crowd inside the old McNichols Sports Arena back in November of 1993, it would have been almost impossible to imagine all of the UFC’s current success.
During the early days of UFC, the focus was on figuring out which was the best fighting style. Wrestlers would face karate experts and boxers in the days before more complete styles of mixed-martial arts were developed.
The UFC’s first pay-per-view got off to a crazy start when Dutch fighter Gerard Gordeau literally kicked the teeth out of sumo wrestler Teila Tuli’s mouth.
At the end of eight bouts, Royce Gracie forced Gordeau into submission in the main event.
The city of Denver has played host to five nationally televised UFC pay-per-view events, but UFC 1 was certainly the most historically significant.
Taking the Next Step Forward
In a smaller venue this time, but with 3x as many people watching on live pay-per-view, UFC: No Way Out delivered for fans.
For the first and only time in UFC history, UFC 2 featured a 16-man tournament with no weight classes or time limits.
Writing in the New York Times, Richard Sandomir expressed the kind of outrage that was common at the time: “You get the sense that when you dip into promoting this sort of promise-of-blood sport, you’re traveling along a different wavelength in a bizarro world, one that is merely a high-tech version of past brutalities.”
Sandomir’s piece also took a jab at Colorado: “The pit is in Denver, situated in the only state lacking a boxing commission, making it the only place in the country able to stage such an event.”
We’ll come back to him later.
Ghost of Christmas Future
Just before Christmas in 1995, the UFC returned to Denver for an event that would — in some ways — preview the future of the league.
The UFC collected many of their best fighters for an all-star event deemed The Ultimate Ultimate, deviating from the numbering convention used up to that point.
This time there were judges and some time limits, though six of the night’s nine fights ended by submission. The main event was a battle of two heavyweights, and in the end Dan Severn defeated Oleg Taktarov by unanimous decision.
Following The Ultimate Ultimate, It would be more than a decade before the UFC would return to Colorado for another big live TV event…
We are Living in a New World
The UFC next returned to Colorado for a Fight Night event that aired on Spike TV back in 2008.
Since then, they’ve held several more high-profile events, including two massive live pay-per-view battles from the Pepsi Center in Denver — UFC 135 and UFC 150.
Combat sports are now dominating mainstream media and the UFC is leading the way. Last weekend’s UFC 200 event featured a card stacked with superstars and it generated hundreds of millions in global revenue.
Combat sports are now dominating mainstream media and the UFC is leading the way.
UFC 200 was also the first ever pay-per-view event of any kind to be streamed in 4K, a serious technological achievement. The evening’s action was spread over several networks and helped to boost Fox Sports 2 to channel’s highest ratings ever.
Beyond high profile pay-per-view events, the UFC has grown into a multi-tentacled media powerhouse that produces some of the highest rated content on cable television and boasts countless partnerships with major brands.
The Ultimate Fighter, a successful reality series built around developing new talent, is currently airing in its 23rd season and has been widely credited with helping the sport of mixed martial arts break into mainstream America’s living rooms.
The modern day UFC also operates a digital streaming service called Fight Pass, which is like the Netflix of combat sports. Fans pay $9.99 per month for access to a library of content, much of which is acquired from other fight promotions.
It’s a wildly lucrative business model.
Oh, and what about the New York Times reporter we mentioned earlier? The one who suggested MMA was part of the decline of Western Civilization.
He now covers it as alongside other sports leagues like the NBA and NFL.