The Daily Jay – April 17, 2024

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The UFC hits 300, but its batting average is way better than that

April 17, 2024
By Charles Jay

One day in 1993 I received a phone call from a gentleman named Art Davie. The reason I was getting the call was because I was the Special Events Consultant for Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast.

By that time, we had become known for promoting boxing shows on our property, televised nationally (USA Network, HBO, ESPN), and we were going beyond that, which I’ll expand upon in a minute.

Davie was obviously looking out for casino venues that were shelling out site fees for events, in a jurisdiction that wasn’t necessarily regulated tightly. So it’s not as if he was barking up the wrong tree.

Did we have a match made in heaven?

The first I heard of all this I was walking around the parking lot with the Special Events Director, as we were looking over the proposed layout for what our first venture outside of boxing was going to be – a motorcycle “jump-off,” if you will, between Robbie Knievel (the son of Evel) and Englishman Eddie Kidd.

We were already doing fights with Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran, along with a doubleheader with Oscar De la Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. And later that year we would do a one-night 16-man heavyweight tournament that Sports Illustrated would later call the “Attack of the Killer Tomato Cans,” but turned out to be one of our more popular events ever.

So the point I’m making is that we were pretty much game for anything.

For that reason, I’m sure that Davie was calling with a certain degree of confidence.

The UFC – what was not to like?

When he laid out the premise for something called the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, I was incredibly intrigued to say the least. In both boxing and the martial arts world, there had always been discussion about what might happen if a hands-only fighter (which is what I was most familiar with) went in with a kick-boxer or a karate black belt or, in short, anyone who was proficient at practicing a martial art.

Sure, there had been some one-off events, but they were neither satisfying nor done with a lot of hype. Well, there was a notable exception to that. Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki (a champion wrestler from Japan) had engaged in an “exhibition,” which materialized into fifteen rounds of agony for a pay-per-view audience.

The UFC proposed to take this kind of combat to a new level. They were going to carefully place competitors from almost every discipline into an octagon, where they would battle it out, with a bare minimum of rules.

It sounded like the kind of crazy event we used to call a “Wild West Show” in the boxing business. I had more of an open mind than most, so I loved the concept. There’s nothing more effective at selling an audience than arousung their curiosity. And that’s exactly what this did.

Let’s go to the videotape

The truth is, when Davie called me the UFC had already done an event, in Denver. They were about to do another and he wanted us to consider doing UFC 3. Davie said he would send me a videotape of the show (this was 1993, so no file sharing of digital recordings) and I could see it for myself.

So I guess you could say that I have a collector’s item – a tape of the first-ever UFC right out of the TV truck and timestamped.

Yeah, it was kind of a freak show. I actually knew a couple of the contestants. Kevin Rozier was a guy who used to call me all the time looking for boxing matches. But his ticket into the UFC was that he was a world-class kick-boxer.

Then there was Art Jimmerson, a light heavyweight out of St. Louis who was actually not a bad boxer, and had the added cachet (if that’s even the proper term) of having competed in mixed matches against kick-boxers in the past. He implemented the rather odd strategy of wearing a boxing glove on one hand. That helped him not one bit.

There was a sumo wrestler entered as well, and this guy didn’t have a chance as he was knocked cold in 26 seconds by Gerard Gordeau, who was a world champion of Savate (essentially a form of kick-boxing).

Then of course, there was Ken Shamrock, who went on to become one of the great standouts of the sport for many years.

But the real star of the show was Royce Gracie, who came from a prominent family in the martial arts world. His family, truth be told, was a partner in the UFC, which was created for the de facto purpose of promoting Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, the version of that martial art they taught, and for which the UFC seemed specifically tailored. In effect, they invented a great sales tool and sales funnel, which served its purpose quite nicely.

These guys were “outlaws”

Let’s be honest, though; the UFC didn’t experience much favor with the mainstream sports media and had very few fans in the regulatory community. The athletic commissions, which handled boxing and occasionally wrestling (which they saw primarily as a revenue source) did not want anything to do with it, for the most part.

As a result, the UFC, as well as the competitors that eventually sprung up, found states that had either weak regulation or none at all. Colorado did not have an athletic commission at the time. Neither did Alabama, or Wyoming, or Kansas. Those jurisdictions and others became home to mixed martial arts shows.

As far as Mississippi was concerned, our commissioner wasn’t necessarily opposed to it, as long as he could put few bucks in his pocket (yes, things were done rather informally). But I think he was a little puzzled by the concept. He didn’t get it, so we were not able to do that show (although Mississippi finally did MMA a few years later).

The problem with the UFC is that regulators and politicians were always trying to shut them down. Mainstream coverage was not available to them, and it hurt them with the pay-per-view sales they were trying to achieve. This wasn’t the age of the internet; it was difficult to operate as an “outlaw” outfit, going from place to place like a thief in the night.

The UFC gets rescued

The UFC eventually found itself in considerable trouble financially, and that is when Dana White convinced Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta that the UFC could be a good investment at the right price.

But even if, in retrospect, they got a steal, as many believe, there was certainly nothing guaranteed when the new others entered the picture. What they DID know was that they were going nowhere unless they could put together a product that could be regulated, and to do that they had to soften up the rules to make it more of an orderly competition and less of an all-out street fight.

It was a process for sure, and they had to endure a lot of “input” from members of the regulatory community, but they were way ahead of most of those guys in their thinking. They instinctively knew already what had to be done.

For one thing, Lorenzo, whose family established the Station Casinos empire, had served on the Nevada State Athletic Commission. So he had enough allies there that if he could present something that looked a little more civil, the state would look favorably upon the UFC.

So they did find a home in Las Vegas. And the Fertittas had the deep pockets to keep the operation going. But let’s not make believe it wasn’t a struggle every step of the way.

Enter the “villain” – John McCain

One major enemy of the “new” UFC was Senator John McCain of Arizona. He saw the opportunity for a soapbox, so he wanted to shut their doors and expressed that very publicly. He brought some of his colleagues on board with him, so the UFC had to do a lot of lobbying of political figures and athletic commissioners to expand its reach, one state at a time. And they cooperated all they could.

As the UFC was gaining a little momentum, Dr. Margaret Goodman, the head physician for the Nevada commission, arranged for me to have separate conversations with both Dana and Lorenzo. ESPN was just about to air a special on the organization and the controversy it was encountering in the battle for acceptance.

These guys took a lot of time to talk to me, and I came away very impressed with where they were going. They already had a nice core of fans, but naturally they wanted to expand it. They wanted to create awareness among people who followed boxing; not so much to steal fans away, but to encourage them to watch their programming as well.

Dana wanted to stress that he wasn’t promoting the UFC as a blood-and-guts festival, as some were assuming, and that he wanted to avoid some of the mistakes boxing had made in conducting its own business.

One of their major concerns was not about the quality of their own product, or being embraced by the public. It was bringing politicians around to looking at it as it was at that time, not the way it used to be, back in the “Wild West” days. If that happened they could remove some roadblocks.

There was no question in my mind that they would be successful, although of course I’d be lying if I told you I knew where they’d be now.

They had the important thing – the young audience

A couple of years later, I was asked to write a story about the rise of the UFC for the Fox Sports website. What I basically said was that these guys had succeeded in capturing something boxing wanted but didn’t have – the attention of the younger demographic, and for that reason, they were going to gather more and more strength with each passing year.

And by the time we would get around to the next generation, not only would they have the younger fans just by virtue of the very nature of their product, they would ultimately become popular enough with the fans who grew up and became interested in “combat,” that boxing might not even get a chance to grab their interest. And when that happens to boxing, the fan base shrinks and shrinks as time goes on.

I interviewed a number of people from the boxing industry for that piece, and interestingly enough, none of them expressed the slightest bit of concern about the “threat “ of MMA.

About a year and a half later, promoters from around the country were gathering for a “summit” meeting where the basic theme as “What are we going to do about the UFC”?

I got a chuckle about that. I referred to it as “Little Apalachin” (if you know, you know).

And then came UFC 300

Okay, we fast forwarded quite a bit, like they sometimes do in a movie. I don’t need to tell you the whole UFC story, because it’s been covered plenty. Suffice it to say that no one’s taking them lightly now.

And last Saturday there was the anxiously-awaited UFC 300, a milestone that was to be celebrated with much pomp and circumstance at the T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas strip.

According to Dana White, “For 300, we’re building the greatest card ever assembled.”

Well, I am not the ultimate expert, and there were good fights all the way down the card. But there was no Conor McGregor, no Jon Jones. Okay, that’s not their fault; McGregor, who hasn’t stepped into the Octagon in almost three years, is scheduled to be in UFC 303 in July. In the case of Jones, he’s got a pectoral injury and has been inactive a little over a year, and nothing concrete has been set for him to return.

That’s led the UFC to do something they probably vowed it would NOT do when it first started out with its rebirth, but has done numerous times – create an “interim” title for the sake of having a title bout. That is a maneuver that had previously been associated with some of the ersatz sanctioning bodies in boxing, and it wasn’t necessarily looked upon kindly.

In this particular instance, that champion is Tom Aspinall, who’s got a 14-3 record in MMA. There was some talk that Aspinall might be able to convince light heavyweight champion Alex Pereira, who defended his crown at UFC 300, to step in with him for UFC 301, but Dana White appeared to shut down such talk.

A star was born, or so it seemed, at UFC 300, as Kayla Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, mauled Holly Holm, who’s been a world champ in both boxing and mixed martial arts, putting the 42-year-old in a rear-naked choke for a submission in the second round. That brought Holm full circle; she had, in 2015, shocked Ronda Rousey, another Olympic gold medal judoka, with a second-round knockout (on a head kick).

As we write this, the pay-per-view figures aren’t yet in, but it is estimated that UFC 300 will have done well above one million buys, which would make it one of the organization’s most popular ever.

The prelims, according to ESPN, broke all records for viewership over their platforms, which include ESPN, ESPN Plus and ESPN Deportes.

And with UFC’s merger with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), creating TKO Holdings, with a reported valuation north of $21 billion, they have something bigger than any entity in boxing. Who knows if that’s the next world they decide to conquer.

Wouldn’t THAT be a kick in the head.

Author: channeljay
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